Hannah Arendt, Lawrence of Arabia, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

This peculiar preoration by Geoffrey Gray in The New Republic (h/t Aaron Bady) about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—

I’ve found myself asking a different question: Do we really want to find this missing plane at all? The families of the victims deserve answers, of course, but as the days go on and more nautical miles are searched for missing debris, there’s an undeniable urge for investigators to keep on looking, not find anything, and let the mystery endure.

The New York Times‘s Farhad Manjoo argues that the “terror” isn’t only that we can’t find the plane, but being off the grid itself, untethered to our friends and family. I disagree. Our “hyperconnectivity,” as he calls it, is the very reason we need this mystery right now. In a moment dominated by the radical adoption of new technology, with reports of the NSA’s massive snooping, talk of Amazon drones making deliveries like toilet paper door to your doorstep, or checking the status of a flight through a pair of Google glasses, we need to feel that there is at least something out there that the grand orchestra of satellites and supercomputers can’t find or figure out.

It’s more than a tad ironic, but apropos, that it took a missing airplane—one of man’s greatest technological innovations—to remind us that there’s still some mystery left to humanity.

—reminds me of something Hannah Arendt said about T.E. Lawrence in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

He was tempted only by the basic endlessness of the game and by secrecy as such. And secrecy again seems like a symbol of the basic mysteriousness of life.

Lawrence was seduced into becoming a secret agent in Arabia because of his strong desire to leave the world of dull respectability whose continuity had become simply meaningless, because of his disgust with the world as well as with himself.

The analogy is certainly not exact, but as Arendt points out, the white man has often sought an escape from the burdens of civilization—be they respectability in Lawrence’s case, or hyperconnectivity in Gray’s case—in the brown man’s misery.

Gray claims we always divine existential meaning in air catastrophes:

There’s a precedent for missing airplanes prompting big, existential questions—well before “Lost” became a hit TV show. After World War II, as planes became larger and faster, slews of flights were seemingly swallowed by the sea. Navy bombers, search-and-rescue missions—all types of airplanes disappeared, many in the western part of the Atlantic that became known as the Bermuda Triangle. The legend of vanished planes only heightened the national anxiety over flying, prompting airlines to sex-up stewardesses to ease passengers nerves. Perhaps it was against God’s wishes, many thought, for man to fly like birds.

The hijacker era in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in many ways, was a protest against the increasing size of the flying machines and the big companies making them. In the fall of 1971, as jumbo jets were rolling off the production lines at Boeing, the hijacker known as D.B. Cooper boarded a plane in the Pacific Northwest, ransomed the passengers for bags of cash, and parachuted out midair, never to be seen again, he became a cult hero. Cooper was, in the words of a sociologist back then, “one individual overcoming, for the time being anyway, technology, the corporation, the system.”

Gray’s two examples don’t demonstrate anything of the sort: in the first case, the fear of flying prompted more concerns about safety; in the second, a thief’s willed and brash midair escape turned him into a folk hero. Not quite the same as Gray, well, doing this:

Wherever the Malaysia Airlines plane is, it found a hiding place. And the longer it takes investigators to discover where it is and what went wrong, the longer we have to indulge in the fantasy that we too might be able to elude the computers tracking our clicks, text messages, and even our movements. Hidden from the rest of the world, if only for an imagined moment, we feel what the passengers of Flight 370 most likely don’t: safe.

I can’t help wondering if Gray would have been quite so forthcoming with his ruminations —or quite so cavalier about the families of the victims (“of course”)—had the plane in question been USA Airlines Flight 370 or England Airlines Flight 370.


  1. Vetty March 22, 2014 at 10:36 am | #

    When I came upon Gray’s article a few days after it was written, I thought to myself: at last someone is willing to raise an issue that needs to be addressed, i.e. the failure of this supposedly never-failing technology we’re now putting so much faith into and have become so complacent about. It’s like those watertight compartments on that supposedly unsinkable ocean liner. As a cautionary tale, it’s as old as Icarus.

    You seem to want to weave a war-on-terror or double-standard argument into this. It would not have made the slightest difference to me which airline it belonged to. It could have been just another private airplane, like Amelia Earhart’s. (As I remarked somewhere else, how would she, an avid publicity hound, have behaved today had she survived the landing at sea, if not uploading selfies until she was – the major change from 1937 – rescued thanks to GPS?) Also, it’s not about being cavalier to the victims of Flight 370 or their families — in all likelihood, nothing could have been done. All that remains now, like the Titanic, like all those other ships that vanished at sea, or like Earhart, is a legend.

  2. JonJ March 22, 2014 at 2:23 pm | #

    My take on this subject, which I have not been following as avidly as, apparently, everyone else has been, is that, in the first place, I don’t see anything remarkable about the fact that all of the fantastic technology we have today didn’t keep contact with the plane at all times, or that it can’t keep contact with all intercontinental flights at all times. Anyone who has even a little understanding of the technologies involved can easily understand from what has been reported in the informative journalism (as opposed to the musings of journalists who clearly don’t know beans about this stuff) why long flights over oceans can’t be tracked constantly. It’s possible that the pilots or someone else on board cut off communications from their end for some nefarious purpose, but we don’t know that. We don’t know that there was anything involved here but another mechanical failure of some sort in a plane in flight, and if we don’t find the plane, we probably will never know.

    All this worship of today’s “hyperconnected” miraculous technology is just more religious muddled thinking, as far as I’m concerned, even though it concerns modern technology, not Stone-Age gods.

    Also, as far as I’m concerned, I never experience any fear of flight in boarding a plane, although of course I realize that there are many reasons the flight I am taking might never be completed. Life is always precarious by its very nature, and I am pretty confident that those who point out that air travel, even over oceans, is statistically much safer than driving are right. I’m not particularly frightened about getting into an automobile, bus, train, or other terrestrial vehicle, either; I’m well aware than one day I will die, inevitably, and it might or might not be on a journey.

    And of course, as some commenters on the New Republic piece pointed out, it’s silly to think that we don’t want the whole story eventually found out. Not only the relatives of the passengers, but anyone connected with the aviation industry, wants to know what happened.

  3. M Junaid Noori March 23, 2014 at 1:33 am | #

    I agree with Corey. The Malaysian news outlets have been careful and restrained in its coverage of the missing plane, much more so than CNN and Fox. It reminds me a little bit like the Boston Globe’s coverage of the marathon bombings.

    If the victims were American, there would be less coverage of outlandish conspiracy theories and more sharp criticism directed at the US government over the handling of the search and extensive profiles of the (possible) victims.

  4. Erstwhile Anthropologist March 23, 2014 at 11:22 am | #

    (1) Interesting, though not surprising, that the first two commenters ignored Corey’s point on white men finding themselves in brown men’s misery. This issue of ‘race avoidance’ is directly related to the previous post on the uncharacteristic obtuseness of Jonathan Chait. It is worth thinking about the socialization processes producing (Whiteness as) race avoidance.

    (2) “The analogy is certainly not exact, but as Arendt points out, the white man has often sought an escape from the burdens of civilization—be they respectability in Lawrence’s case, or hyperconnectivity in Gray’s case—in the brown man’s misery.”

    Really interesting use of the term ‘brown’ as racial iconography. Worth pointing out the other constructions that didn’t get used instead of ‘brown man’s misery’:
    (a) black man’s misery (as the pairing usually contrasted to white; the predominant racial binary)
    (b) yellow man’s misery (given the flight is Malaysian and was heading for China)
    (c) non-White man’s misery (the most ‘inclusive’ insofar as it encompasses all those who are designated not white by the racial terms that black, brown, red, and yellow are taken to represent)

    It is also worth noting how differently the passage reads if ‘brown woman’s misery’ had been used. The gendered dimensions of misery and the ways White men have sought to flee respectability and/or boredom have often been about using non-White women’s bodies and reveling in their misery. I think this issue of ‘feminization’ is especially worth considering in the Malaysian context, given how East Asians are often understood and represented in ‘the West’. Gets to fundamental questions of respect, empathy, and lack thereof in relation to how race is socially constructed.

    (3) I agree with Corey’s analysis, too.

    • Harold March 23, 2014 at 2:50 pm | #

      I think Corey’s use of the term “brown man’s misery” may have been a generalization of the ambivalence a lot of white males have towards non-white-male humans and cultures. I took it as this and believe it may have been writing from an emotional standpoint as opposed to an academic one; but I understand how the lack of semantic description could be problematic from an academic standpoint.

    • Vetty March 23, 2014 at 3:18 pm | #

      Gray’s article is not perfect; as is too often the case these days with op-ed writers, he has a book to hawk, about D.B. Cooper, and he’s trying to segue into that, but it never quite works. The best part, which Robin cited, happens almost entirely in passing; the rest is clumsy. In particular this sentence: “Wherever the Malaysia Airlines plane is, it found a hiding place.” As I thought the most probable location of the plane was the one that is slowly emerging — the bottom of the ocean — whatever whimsy the author had used in calling that “a hiding place” appeared to me as rather tasteless, especially as he admitted the passengers probably weren’t safe. If you want to say that Gray was indulging in some Orientalist Shangri-La fantasy, I won’t come to his defence; but your making this argument about me is unfair, as from the start I suspected that the “escape” in this case was not in “the brown man’s misery” but in death.

      Furthermore, I don’t think there was anything special about its being a Malaysian jetliner; from what I have read, there was nothing particularly obsolete or antiquated about the airplane itself, whose last traces were picked up by (White) Australian radars, and it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference if it had been a (White) Australian airplane out of Perth. Pigmentation is irrelevant to this cautionary tale.

      I also find suspect the notion that escape from civilization must necessarily be a White man’s desire to share in the brown man’s misery, as though we hadn’t moved beyond the Romantic ideal of the “noble savage”. So if you’re implying that our desire to “get away from civilization” is somehow racist, how are we to fight against the techno-utopians who gloat about a vision of the world that may horrify us while being so complacently certain about their certainties?

      In your attempt to racialize this debate, you seem oblivious to the growing concerns in the very West about intrusive or disruptive technologies, whether it’s the NSA and its equivalents’ sweeping actions, Facebook’s facial recognition software, job automation, or (since I am not American, nor a native speaker of English — I’m from Quebec) American cultural hegemony, as though our resistance to these in the West would invariably deny some poor “brown man” access to those same technologies, which would ironically deny that same “brown man” the right to reject this technology. Orientalism might have been crassly racist, but at least it saw in other countries something else than just Westerners in the making (now reduced even further to just Americans). Just here in Quebec, we went, in the space of one generation (1950-70), from being told to “speak white” to being routinely accused of racism for enacting language laws or for rejecting a Canadian multiculturalism that denies our historical importance in the making of this country. Whenever I discuss this with Americans who call themselves progressive, naturally, then never understand this because they’re still caught up in their own racial obsessions that they can’t help projecting on the rest of the world.

      Unfortunately, the American paradigm seems to involve, on the one hand, a Right holding to some antiquated idea of, though it no longer dares call itself white, the West (slowly being reduced, by the way, to just the Anglosphere — see, e.g. The New Criterion, othering even parts of the traditional West in the process), to a liberal left calling out the Right for this sort of Orientalist fantasy while thinking the solution is to allow the rest of the world to share in the benefits of American progress. I’m thinking of when MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte was doing pseudo-charitable ventures like One Laptop Per Child or wanted to drop reading tablets over Africa; Evgeny Morozov rightly called that a “mission civilisatrice 2.0”.

      Who’s the imperialist here? Right or left? Can I say both? Or does that make me a racist if I ask?

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist March 23, 2014 at 10:10 pm | #

        @Vetty: sorry, but you missed my point. I didn’t call you a racist, I asked a simple and straightforward question about race avoidance as a characteristic feature of Whiteness/White racial privilege (in general). It was a simply question about how social/subject position and/as experience structures both empathy and what people do and dint notice and respond to. But the umbrage you took at thinking I called you a racist is interesting, anthropologically.

      • Anonymous March 25, 2014 at 12:35 pm | #

        Vetty, to be blunt, you cite a lot of conclusions you take for granted, and very little information from which you may have drawn those conclusions. According to you, you shouldn’t be made to accept multiculturalism because it denies the importance of you whites in making Canada. Where, exactly, has ANYBODY said you weren’t important in making Canada? You don’t say. You also accuse the left of projecting its racial obsessions on the rest of the world, but you don’t explain what you’re talking about. You also take for granted that because your cultural traditions are yours, that means they are exempt from critique and/or criticism (and if anybody criticizes your traditions, you then claim they are attempting to “Americanize” you).

        I don’t think you’re a racist, in the sense that you actively hate other races, but the problem with conservatism such as yours is not what’s there, but what ISN’T there. And what isn’t there is an acknowledgement that the perspectives of those being harmed is just as important as the perspectives of the majority (such as yourself).

        Including other races. I don’t think you’re a racist; that would require active hatred. You simply appear to think that your race’s perspective is so important that it must be preserved at any cost, even if it hurts other races. It’s not that you hate other race’s needs; it’s that you don’t consider other races’ needs to be important as yours. Your group must triumph, regardless of actual merit. Your group is exempt. Immune. Above observation from mere “outsiders”.

        That is the problem most progressives have with you, Vetty. It’s not your opinions, those are just a symptom. It’s that you approach the world with the idea that regardless of who is suffering, or being oppressed, what’s important is that your “sense of identity” never be called into question for any reason.

        For someone who loves the whites, this actually sounds similar to the perspective of a conservative from Nigeria, who similarly would like to keep hurting women accused of being “witches”, regardless of their agony and pain, because he “loves his traditions.”

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