A Duty to Forgive?

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Arendt’s response raises interesting questions: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity,” she wrote.

In her letter to Auden responding to the Falstaff essay, she retracted the equation of judicial pardon and forgiveness, not in the name of a private redemption to be found through conscience and Christian charity, but through the distinction between law and politics. For her to acknowledge a private possibility of forgiveness, she would have had to recant her account of forgiving as an act requiring a plurality. Yet here she does acknowledge that forgiveness does intervene in intersubjective relations like friendship or family life. Auden’s criticisms, she said, helped her to understand that the judicial pardon is different from the Christian conception of charity, which demands that the charitable forgiver efface distinctions for the sake of the individual: “I may forgive somebody who betrayed me but I am not going to condone betrayal ueberhaupt [‘above all’ or ‘as such’]… But charity indeed forgives ueberhaupt, it forgives betrayal in the person who betrayed — on the ground, to be sure, of human sinfulness and its solidarity with the sinner.”   (Letter from Arendt to Auden, dated 2/14/1960) A wife might forgive a husband’s philandering, for instance, but she cannot forgive philandering in principle, which is what Arendt claims that Christian charity demands: an in principle refusal to judge or to punish.

Most importantly, however, Arendt reiterates the necessity of the other: the philandering husband cannot forgive himself, because the one’s relation to oneself is insufficiently plural for an action to take place. Here, as in her discussion of friendship in the Lessing Prize address, Arendt suggests that family or friendship may sometimes qualify as a plurality, but insists that the philosopher’s two-in-one cannot serve.[i] In solitude or memoir, thought returns only the contradiction between promise and trespass, whereas a legal or theological confession offers itself to another to be judged. In the juridical setting, that other is the victim or the prosecutor; in the theological setting, it is the divine or a priestly intermediary. Continue reading A Duty to Forgive?


A candidate trying to decide between graduate schools recently asked me which

“types of public administration, political, or civic problems you are attempting to provide solutions to with your research?  For example, which questions are you tackling right now?”

Of course, right now I’m grading. But in a slightly more general sense of “right now,” I’d say that I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Does the bureaucratization of public policy sap its legitimacy? What can be done to preserve administrative institutions’ efficiency and egalitarianism while rendering them responsive to citizen concerns? How important are concerns about ‘psuedo-consultation’ or top down mobilizations that create the appearance of legitimacy while squelching dissent?
  2. What is the source of legitimacy, in general? Is it consensus? Fair procedures? Just policies? Citizen participation?
  3. How should we think of the relationship between global poverty and domestic politics? What role does inequality play within a polity? What role does it play in international relations? What can be done to reduce the intense suffering associated with global poverty? Are some strategies self-defeating?
  4. Which is more important: having one’s needs met, or having unhindered access to the political process? When they’re equally important, is it acceptable to forgo the meeting of some needs for the least advantaged in order to bolster political accountability to the middle class?
  5. Can participatory democracy (either activist or deliberativist varieties) adequately plan for, and respond to, risks and hazards? If constitutional essentials are regularly at risk, are we obligated to rely on experts to properly manage such risks?
  6. What problems typically face transitional democracies? What kinds of lessons can established democracies learn from these newly minted republics?
  7. What role does pluralism play in bolstering (or weakening) civic engagement?
  8. How should we think about the relationship between market-oriented solutions and institutional solutions? Can the market’s tendency to exacerbate inequality (both economic and political) be resolved adequately with the use of transfer payments and guaranteed services?
  9. I’m hoping to start working more on policing and punishment. One aspect of that interest has to do with the question of testimonial privilege and the culture of deception in police departments. The other aspect is related to the hidden costs of over-incarceration and the status of Pell Grants for prisoners.
  10. Do Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum supply a solution to conflicting accounts of political justice in their accounts of entitlement and capabilities?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it captures many of my concerns. Because of the nature of the request, these questions are primarily in public policy. There’s a related set of questions in philosophy proper having to do with things like identity and authenticity, the relationship between one and many, the metaphysics of personhood and freedom, the distinction between rights and privileges, and the difference between what evolutionary psychogists and x-phi types call ‘moral intuitions’ and the traditional use of intuition in epistemology.

This is not to mention various authorial questions in the history of philosophy, primarily related to Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, and the classic “M” civic republicans: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Madison, and Marx. What’s striking, however, is how often those questions now seem to be subsidiary to the general policy and normative questions, rather than primary as they did when I first began to pursue philosophy.

Arendt responds to Auden: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity.”

Working in the Arendt archives this week, I came across this draft of a letter of Hannah Arendt’s, responding the poet Auden’s essay on Falstaff and his criticisms of certain aspects of her account of forgiveness in The Human Condition:

Dear Wystan Auden –

I just read the Falstaff piece — had some trouble getting the old issue of Encounter –, think it is quite wonderful, have a number of points I’d like to raise, especially about Greek tragedy; but am writing now because of “forgiving.”

You invoke Christian charity, but don’t you think Christian charity is curiously absent from these passages? You convinced me that a line should be drawn between forgiveness and judicial pardon. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Christian charity has more in common with judicial pardon than with forgiving. The Law, like charity, looks upon all with an equal eye, makes no distinctions, has no regard for the person, and may pardon even if he does not repent. Judicial pardon shares with forgiving that it pardons a crime for the sake of the person who did it. (It will hardly pardon Bluebeard who is a murderer, but it may pardon a crime passionel because murder is committed by somebody who was not a murderer.) You talk about charity as though it were love, and it is true that love will forgive everything because of its utter commitment to the beloved person. But even love violates the integrity of the wrongdoer if it forgives without have been asked to. Is not forgiving without being asked really impertinent, or at least conceited — as though one said: Much as you tried, you could not wrong me; charity has made me invulnerable? The trouble with charity as with the law is that it levels out distinction. And judicial pardon, from this viewpoint, seems to be the point where the law breaks down; the man who receives it is no longer judged solely according to the law.

Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity. Continue reading Arendt responds to Auden: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity.”

Refugee Life

“We must… build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.” (Giorgio Agamben)

If the nation-state is in decline, it is principally because the nation-form, that coalition of fellow natives born of common blood and soil has given way to the denizen-foreigner: the resident-alien who through dint of illegal entry or barriers to naturalization inhabitants a land in which she is not granted the full rights of citizens. It has become popular to decry the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens for failing to differentiate between human rights in general and those guaranteed only by the state to which one belongs, and no one has done a better job of pinpointing this failure than Hannah Arendt, in her book on totalitarianism, in her essays, and in her self-identification as a refugee without a home or the possibility of return.

Yet if we are to take Agamben’s prescription to heart, we must go beyond the attempts to integrate the fluid populations of mobile workers and refugees of political turmoil into our already existing nation-states. Already, the EU begins to provide a model for a mobile citizenry, maintaining both national sovereignty and the right of transit for those lucky enough to have come from member-states rather than those pariah-states that supply Europe with cheap labor. Yet in size and in delimitation, the EU does nothing more than regionalize the state. It accomplishes no great advances in the science of regimes, it does nothing to reduce the problems of non-citizens or to replace or re-constitute politics around the figure of the refugee.

I find it interesting that the classic ‘civic republicans’ (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau) all conceive of law-giving (constitution-writing, really) as an act of either a god or a foreign wiseman. A stranger must give a place its laws because only a stranger can be trusted to do so fairly; anyone who expected to be ruled by the law would naturally write laws to benefit herself. As such, the stranger appears a divine figure; he (and it is invariably a male figure) necessarily comes from another world, because the world he is constituting is by definition not the world in which he was born. Even Moses got his nation’s laws from a non-Jew (his father-in-law) and his commandments from God. I would argue that we all appear as strangers to the world we would like to build for ourselves, and as such it is wholly consistent to give our neighbors an equal right to this self-rule.

The problem, here, goes beyond the practical question of the advantages sacrificed in order to share our democracy with strangers. In fact, we must really get rid of the notion of local self-governance if we are truly going to embrace the refugee; it is not simply a matter of naturalizing non-citizens who happen to inhabitant our space, but of remaking the juridical and political order so that fresh immigrants and unexpected guests are the equally empowered. This would be a democracy of those who have yet-to-arrive, which is my own version of Derrida’s famous “democracy a-venir,” the democracy-to-come or the future democracy.

And here I run into difficulties: what could it possibly mean to build a politics of those who are not present? I suspect it would involve a hearty embrace of the constitutional process, by which reconstitution was a regular activity rather than a hallowed moment in the dreary history books. Jefferson never thought the US Constitution would last: he figured we might have twenty years of peace before the slavery question, and the general orneriness of the states, drove us back to the bargaining table.

Yet the constitutional moment is also the most exciting indication of the human potential for political genius. It shows us the meaning of political novelty, since what the founders consituted were their own origins. They gave birth to themselves, which is what Arendt loves most about contrasting Heidegger’s being-towards-death with natality. And in so doing they supplied us a potent model, worthy of repetition rather than simply homage and obsequious self-abnegation. And in many ways, that’s exactly what’s at stake in the tradition that treats the US Constitution as a living document, capable of re-interpretation and re-parsing, available for amendation, dripping with infinite meanings, intertextuality, and all the rest of the Lit. Crit. jargon that does away with certainty and literalism.

Of course, new modes of reading won’t help us with the Swarzenegger problem, or the status of Latinos, or national language issues. But it tastes grand, doesn’t it?

White Men and Victimhood

I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with a number of people about the supposed ‘plight’ of the well-educated white male. We’ve been searching for the non-existential root causes to the alienation that many left-leaning white men experience in US culture, especially the academy. The idea is that, while we are all human and troubled by our impending deaths in some fashion, our context has made that mortality feel different to white men than, perhaps, to anyone else. I find the discussion endlessly fascinating, probably because of my milky epidermis and my penchant for pants. But in light of the claim that social justice-types somehow fail to take up the perspective of the victim, I think we begin to hit on that element shared by white men of all political stripes. It’s this: we are completely incapable of victimhood.

What I mean is this: we don’t know how to be victims. We’re not even sure what it looks like, except when we see it happen to someone else. I worked two blocks from the World Trade Center, I’ve had my car radio stolen, I’ve been punched in the face by a number of strangers, and I’ve never felt like a victim. It’s not Stockholm syndrome, exactly, although that’s the card that conservatives play. It’s not that we side with the terrorists or the criminals: pasty boys like myself are more than happy to spit in the eye of the thief, trade jabs, and cry at the atrocities committed against our friends and colleagues.

We’re not siding with the bad guys when we ask questions about causes and effects, or use our loss as an excuse to buy a really nice new stereo. It’s just that we’re imaginatively-impaired: we simply can’t imagine that the experiences we’ve undergone are truly victimizing. Poverty, brutality, disease: when they happen to other people, they’re the effect of social and economic conditions, tragic and unfair and inexcusably our fault. When they happen to us, they’re still our own fault, the combination of failed ingenuity and lack of manly action. Why didn’t I park closer to a doorman? Why did I support a government with such stupidly cruel mid-East policies? Why didn’t I punch him first?

From this recognition, there are a number of different judgments available to white men and the theorists of race and gender. Many identify this sense of agency as an enviable characteristic that, like other social goods, should be shared more equitably throughout the population. They prescribe the arrogant presumption of us pale-skinned poppas to all the non-white, non-masculine, non-affluent, non-hetero victims. A world full of people who don’t experience victimhood, they argue, is a world without victims. Those with the mentality of victimhood are thus to blame for their lack of agency, which is a particularly disturbing account of the problem of politics, and one that I often associate with Hannah Arendt, who I otherwise respect. The fault is not in our stars, this line of reasoning goes, but in our selves.

The other possibility is to take very seriously a structural notion of the constitution of subjectivity, such that action and passion, agents and victims, require each other, and support each other. On this model, in-groups require an Other in order to sustain their own solidarity, and cream-colored cocksmen need someone to dominate and victimize in order to realize their own potency. The family unit becomes a microcosm of power and passivity, and produces both strength and weakness.
As such, the world is constructed from these interlinked pairs: the heteronormative couple, the parent-child relation, bosses and their subordinates. These have macroscopic effects as well, based in larger social concatenations: the imperial hegemon and its provincial periphery, the developed and underdeveloped world, or the Global North and South.

If anything, the so-called ‘plight’ I described is simply a refusal of these relations without a coinciding sacrifice of the subject position of invulnerability. Neither stoically self-mastered, nor accepting of one’s lot in the global hierarchy, today’s bougeoius Caucasian male is caught between rejecting the racial/sexual contract and giving up the spoils of racist patriarchy completely. It’s a tough situation, if you’re moved by the tragic flaws of our Oedipal heroes (and probably you aren’t). But since it’s my blog, and “my” problem, I’ll continue to work on it.

The solution may lie in the one possibility I ignored: what happens when dudes like me come to understand our own position as something for which we are not responsible? What happens when we take ourselves as victims, as passively undergoing the imprint of social and cultural forces beyond our control? When we take it as given that we are not the agents of our destiny, but rather the product of the work and efforts of others? To understand the victimhood suffered even by the top dog in a hierarchical society, we would have to sacrifice just that invulnerability that seemed most central to the masculine identity. In its place, however, it seems as if we might gain a responsiveness, a passivity on the other side of quiescent inertia that acts not of its own will, but at the nexus of social forces and as the plurality of calls of conscience.

What that means for the impassive non-victim is that we can imagine a type of subjectivity that is neither dominating nor submissive. It would replace the mythical invulnerability with which I began with something a bit more reasonable: a vulnerability which is neither frail nor weak. No longer committing gravitational absurdities like ‘lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps,’ we would have to acknowledge those who help us up, and what sorts of duties those helping hands engaged for us. I should like to think that this newly vulnerable character would still be animated, moved and moving, a vital part of the exchange of goods and ideas. Nor is it a matter of ceding the spotlight to women and minories, but of widening the spotlight until being enlightened ceases to be special. But the key to this vulnerable virility is to fundamentally alter our views of acting and undergoing: we have to change the way it feels to be ourselves, to perform our identities and undergo out educations. It’s a phenomenological project, a matter of reforming the horizons of our worldliness.

Sadly, I’m concluding on something of an abstract note. But this third-way masculinity has always struck me as importantly inspirational, a principle waiting to be put into practice. Like most novel ideas, it is not my own: I’m actually cribbing from a half-dozen of Jacques Derrida’s essays, and especially his book Aporias. Derrida himself is hardly an originator: his most important works were always readings, deconstructions, of the work of others. But if the idea is right, that imprint undergoes alterations to fit, and its transmission is never an exact repetition. It bears his patronym, but also my own signiature. The more of us who take up this style, write these ideas in our own voice and in our hand, the better off we’ll all be.