On tyranny or terror?

On tyranny or terror?

The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous  as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.

His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.

The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.

Now I am no ingénue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.

It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.

He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.

That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.

Commuting fragment: Julia sets

Commuting fragment: Julia sets

When people speak to me about complexity, I often pause and consider the synonyms that they might have used, if they were to be precise. Complexity can register perplexity, while posing for control. It may blow mists of befuddlement, a common response to getting lost in  big data. It often stands in for obfuscation, or at least muddies the waters on the values that inform any response to the usual murky predicaments those who govern must devise. And at times it can mean messy, intricate, gloriously defiant of human explanation in mere words, or just too big for figures of speech.

The paradox of complexity, which so many who wear it like a pinned icon on their lapels do not know, is that it can be described quite precisely, with mathematical formulae and even striking fractal graphs. It emerges from repeated iterations of sometimes simple operations. The simple formula for repeated iterations give rise to the strange, complex beauty of the Mandelbrot set or the Julia set presented here. 

So when next presented with a rush to cage complexity in a 4-by-4 checkbox chart, pause and reflect on the unpredictability of simple actions, as pictured in the Julia set

Commuting fragments

My ride is half an hour

Beside me, left and right,

Private conversations

Blown to the stale wind.

Cognac on the menu tonight?

I’ve got a few hours to kill

Before the footy.

The nagging phone call

From the end of the day.

Sounds like we’re in.

But we don’t want you.

We just want to help

In any way we can.

None of these words

Are worked to rhyme

Or reason, only marked

By my arbitrary stop

The dreams of my day.

Five Bells

Five Bells

A simple post of appreciation.

What endures? What survives the oven flames?

What is left behind after death, and has no use but a sign that one was living and now is dead?

What survives our desperate last plunge into the cold blue sink?

Five bells.

Kenneth Slessor’s Five bells, brilliantly performed with sonic art on a now retired ABC Radio National poetry show.

To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success…

Only for those five bells

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

 

 

 

Impermanence

Impermanence

There are fragments of songs from my youth stirring.

Not lyrics, but angry frustrated declamations.

No madness lasts forever.

Time, the avenger.

We are time. We are the last

Life is short, after all and full of stuff.

We are searching for a way to break you, time. To break you, mind.

Some new kind of kick.

Temporary

All will be now, dreams are too fast

You are the first

We are the last

Are the last

Black letter lies

Credits to the pop group and the cramps.