Reflections on my Crime and Punishment Seminar


Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day
Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day

This semester I taught a course on crime and punishment, and in part out of competition with my colleague Seth Vannatta, I set out to give a final presentation on the dimensions of the course. This is the presentation I wrote.


Our task was to explore the role of ethics in the law, and we began our semester worrying about standard ethical questions of responsibility and who to blame when things go wrong. The standard theories of punishment all revolve around these questions: whether we are utilitarians or contractarians, we are implicitly depending upon an account of what we owe to the criminal and to society. What’s more, the same assumptions underwrite our theories of what it is to deserve a grade (an A, an F), to deserve the love of our partners, or to deserve a particular job or a raise. This question of where to locate merit in our account of responsibility is particularly troubling, however, when someone is harmed, when a law is broken, or a right is infringed.

Simple questions of positive and common law or negligence, willfulness, and standards of care quickly morphed into a thorny metaphysical question: how can we be responsible for our acts if we could not have done otherwise, that is, if the mechanistic picture of the universe and our genetics and our society and our brains is true, and what I ate for breakfast or the crimes I commit before dinner are all predetermined?

Reactive Attitudes

The courts want to avoid such questions, but throughout the semester my contention was that they end up smuggling metaphysical accounts of agency into their descriptions of the non-culpability of children for trespass. Yet what we saw in Peter Stawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was an attempt to save responsibility, praise, and blame while jettisoning the supposedly-unavoidable metaphysical underpinnings. By redescribing blame and responsibility in terms of their own possibly-deterministic framework, Strawson allows us to say something like the following: “Maybe you could not have done other than what you have done, maybe your virtues and your vices are both unavoidable, but my reactions are no more avoidable. If you cannot be expected to have prevented your crimes, then I cannot be expected to prevent your punishment.”

This certainly appears to be a satisfying solution to the problem, because the law cannot requires a victim or a judge to achieve an inhuman level of restraint in the face of a dazzling failure of restraint in the perpetrator. Strawson’s “reactive attitudes” account comforts us by communicating just how unfair this asymmetry actually is. And yet… in beginning to spell out conditions for the defeasibility for responsibility, Strawson reiterates that not all actions and reactions are symmetrical. Under many circumstances, a victim truly does have more restraint than a perpetrator, and ought to exercise  it, too. (Not just to prevent cycles of reprisal, although that certainly counts in its favor; to get beyond a mere modus vivendi to what we might mean by justice.) Even more: a judge’s capacity to see beyond the dyadic relationship of injury and blame means that she can ask questions about the overarching justice and efficacy of a punishment.

Grammatical Theories

Thus we entered what we called the “grammatical” theories of agency and responsibility. We experience our own lives through the first-person lens, as “I.” Meanwhile, we can talk about the other person in two different ways: as a second-person “you” or as a third-person “them.” And underwriting these lenses or grammatical conventions is the fact that we tend to see ourselves as agents and others as passive, to an extent that is so asymmetric and inconsistent that it is hard to believe it can be warranted. For instance, we are much more likely to explain our own failings in terms of circumstances, while we tend to describe the failings of others in terms of character, intention, or predilection. “I” fail because of events and impediments beyond my control, despite my best efforts. “You” fail because you didn’t try hard enough, you just weren’t willing to work at it; “they” fail because that’s just what they’re like, “they” are failures.

So what starts as an attempt to avoid the difficult metaphysical problems gets bogged down in our cognitive heuristics and biases. In gathering the texts we read together, I tried to duck this problem by adopting the third-person perspective, moving the course from the questions of just deserts to systematic accounts of the problem. Of course, all the intutions and issues of first-person and second-person agency and responsibility are still lurking there for you to pick up, if you like, but we’re all fascinated by the political theory and history, so I followed our collective inclinations. “Don’t blame me!” I guess I’m saying. “We are collectively responsible!”

The Republican Theory of Punishment

In order to ground our discussions of justice, we tried to transition from metaphysical and psychological accounts of freedom to the political and legal theory of liberty, that thing of which coercion and the threat of interference and violence deprives us. At about this point it began to be increasingly difficult to ignore issues of race, even in the sense of putting them off until we got to Michele Alexander’s book. So when John Braithwaite and Philip Pettit offered a theory of dominion as the equality of social status and defended it explicitly with reference to the differential “costs of victimization investigation” that African-Americans face, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discriminatory intents and impacts of things like the death penalty.

Perhaps the most interesting insight that Braithwaite and Pettit offer is the conclusion that much punishment is simply an attempt to preserve hierarchy rather than to right an inequality. This is something we well-recognize in looking around at the race and class of those who get punished in the US, but philosophers too frequently ignore it. What’s more Braithwaite and Pettit offered us an explanation of what makes coercion and domination so difficult: not the harm or loss of utility, nor the shear loss of doing what you want to do, but the way that it harms our social standing, makes some “better than” and others “less than.” Many political philosophers have concluded that a democratic society cannot function if it is not populated by social equals. The only problem is that so many so-called democracies *do* seem to have serious social hierarchies, and as university students and faculty we inhabit an elitist institution that sets out to distinguish erudition from ignorance and good work from bad.

Costs and Benefits

One way to articulate the appeal of the theory of non-domination that Pettit offered is the way in which it gives us a tool to balance the costs of victimization against the costs of investigation and incarceration. But the balancing act favored just one variable, equality, and it seemed that this is not the only way to proceed. Sometimes, as in markets, equality should take a back-seat to other values, like efficiency and optimality.

In his book When Brute Force Fails, Mark Kleiman offered a different account. He suggested that given how much we spend on and lose to crime-avoidance, perhaps some large amount of criminality is simply inefficient, and we’d be better off spending even more of our scarce resources on eliminating it. What is more, he suggested, we not only need to spend more preventing crime, but we need to spend these greater resources more intelligently. (Work harder AND smarter.) Yet the real strength of his argument is not so much the cost-benefit analysis but his prescriptions: that infrequent, uncertain, and severe punishments are simply not much of a deterrent, while swift, certain, and light-but-escalating punishments could be much more effective, saving us costs to the criminal as well as the victim.

Given how much crime costs us as a society (and Kleiman includes the cost to the criminals!) there is much benefit to be had from preventing it. Yet so long as we organize our response to crime around the concept of punishment rather than prevention, we will tend to choose more severe and less effective regimes of investigation, correction, and incarceration.

Surveillance and Punishment

Despite its appeal, Kleiman’s prescriptions fall under the rubric of an increasingly surveyed disciplinary society, one that simply uses new technologies from psychology and economics to do a better job of controlling its citizenry. The justification for this increased control is that citizens desire safety and security more than they wish to be free from such disciplinary technologies, and Kleiman is undoubtedly right that that is our preference. However, we should worry.

The heart of the course was a close reading of Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, and if his history taught us anything, it is that social knowledge always has two faces: the production of justificatory knowledge and “truths” by experts who stand to gain from their expertise, and the development of practices and techniques for the regulation and management of bodies.

Much of the first half of the semester was devoted to the production of knowledge and the progress we have made in discerning the true and the just ways of investigating and punishing. But what Foucault attempts to lay bare is the way in which our contemporary treatments of prisoners’ bodies are only intensifications of historical brutalities we think of as inhumane. The intensification follows an introverting path: we have certainly lost the stomach for the spectacle of the regicide being drawn and quartered or the criminal hung on the scaffold. But incarceration and rehabilitation, the watch-words of criminal science, take up a set of tasks related to the ordering of unruly and delinquent bodies that is much more effective but no less self-serving. We now have the tools for more power, and if Foucault is right then we will generally put these instruments to use in asserting our own advantage by dominating others.

Both the concerns about social hierarchies and the recognition of the radically racialized form that incarceration and punishment take in the US suggest that “our own advantage” may include my students and I, but it is unlikely to include the majority of black people and it is unlikely to include the majority of people without college degrees. Recognizing the power that our knowledge allows us does not mean that we can necessarily bend that power to our wills; it is much more likely that it will continue to accrue advantages for us even if we try to betray it, just a rich person’s Capital continues to make money even if they purport to be egalitarian communists.

Punitive Isolation and Bare Life

Deepening our understanding of the techniques of imprisonment, we read essays (including a great one by Lisa Guenther) on the horrors of solitary confinement and the sometimes bewildering Homo Sacre by Giorgio Agamben on the forms of exclusion that seem to have a permanent place in our prison system.

If Agamben is right, then these new forms are all a part of an overarching paradigm, that of the reduction of human beings to their mere physicality and biology. This political movement towards reduction transforms flourishing into survival, and it does it in a way that has been continuously experimented with since the first colonists started to round South African natives into “concentration camps” for ease of management. When those colonial overlords returned home to Europe, they brought their techniques of domination with them, and so in that sense the Holocaust was Europe’s chickens coming home to roost, a “boomerang effect” by which European Jews reap what European capitalists sow.

Biopolitics is a form of legal sovereignty in which “modern man” is a depicted as “an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question” but it makes sense only as a development of the totalitarian interpenetration of politics and private life. The modern sovereign no longer decides between ‘letting his subjects live or making them die,’ rather he chooses to ‘make them live or let them die.’ Thus he distinguishes the form of a power that disciplines its subjects and channels their activity from one that simply responds to infractions with infrequent but grotesque punishments.

Trying to spell out exactly how these new techniques and knowledges serve the purpose of domination is something of a challenge precisely because they are still in the experimental stage, still being contested. In the absence of opposition, however, they have been allowed to remain in unquestioned use for far too long. The very nature of bare life and isolation means that the contestation that would normally be working through these techniques and forcing them to receive some form of justification has been slow to form even among those academics who are supposedly most opposed to domination and who purport to ally themselves always and everywhere with the downtrodden and silenced. Let me suggest one reason, at least, why you should think that there is still work to do.

Agamben suggests that we ought to see ourselves in solidarity with the least of us; the immigrants and refugees, those without rights. No doubt he is motivated by the idea that the rightless are marked by the fact that they rise in status when they have committed a crime, because only then are they granted procedural rights (like the right to a trial) and recognized within the legal framework. In practice, however, it may be more effective to view prisoners through the lens of the nomos of the camp.

The New Jim Crow

One concept we did not discuss in our class in much detail is race solidarity and race treason. But when we turned to Michelle Alexander’s book it became obvious just how difficult such a discussion might be. Having made a persuasive case for the differential intention and impact of the current system of mass incarceration, Alexander then asks her readers, who she assumes will be bourgeois African-Americans like my students, to engage in a radical act of political solidarity. Rather than putting our hope in a Black president, Alexander suggests that quietly celebrating civil rights victories from fifty years ago while enjoying the benefits of what she calls the “Racial Bribe” is a kind of racial treason: selling out the majority of African-Americans for the spoils of white supremacy by becoming complicit in it. In contrast, she suggests that true opposition to white supremacy will require a rejection of the racial bribe and a laser-focus on the policies currently at work in the domination of African-Americans.

We started this class asking what sort of punishment we owe to the criminal: at the conclusion, Alexander proposed that what we owe to the criminal is solidarity. I suspect that this is a difficult proposal to accept. I do not know how to make the case any stronger than she made it, so I will simply quote Baldwin, as she does:

these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off…. We cannot be free until they are free.

Yet as a white professor of African-American students, I cannot quite countenance her proposals, like when she took to the pages of the New York Times calling for a plea-bargain strike, suggesting that everyone accused of a crime act in solidarity to force the courts to a halt: “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System.”

“What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”

I tend to think this kind of collective action is unworkable, in part because it puts the responsibility to act on people who are risking very serious jail time if they proceed.

However, the key focus of this proposal is not only to increase demand for lawyers and judges beyond the point the system can handle, but also to increase the demand for jurors so that we must actually face what we have collectively done. Right now almost no criminal can afford to take advantage of his supposed constitutional right to a jury trial. We do everything in our power to coerce them not to use that right, and the results are spectacularly unjust even if every one of them is guilty. As a result, most citizens don’t have to face up to the decision-making a jury trail entails. That’s part of why mass incarceration is of so little interest to most people: out of sight, out of mind. At least a plea-bargain strike would put citizens back in the drivers’ seat. When we get tired enough of jury duty, perhaps we will vote to decriminalize some of the things that are taking us away from our work and families. But so long as we can leave the job to prosecutors, we’ll likely continue to vote for tougher laws and more “tools in the arsenal of prosecutors,” which is an arms race prosecutors have long since won.

Throughout the course we saw a very diverse set of authors arguing that something akin to an abolution of incarceration was required. I didn’t always realize that a text could be read in that way, but it was a running theme. It’s almost impossible to imagine, now; yet I think that these unimaginable things are often what most needs philosophical work. Why not imagine a world where almost 2% of our fellow citizens are in some way dominated by the criminal justice system? Why not imagine a world where we regularly isolate  prisoners, depriving wrongdoers of the social bonds that would be required to reenter society?

The Fallacy Fallacy [sic] of Mood Affiliation (Workplace Domination Part Two)

In his initial response to the the Crooked Timber bloggers, Cowen also suggests that he doesn’t like the “mood affiliation” of the CT bloggers:

I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?

Cowens’ “fallacy of mood affiliation” is an interesting and useful attempt to describe a kind of sophisticated motivated skepticism that occurs when we evaluate evidence that counters our basically optimistic or pessimistic views of the world. When he first introduced it, Cowen described mood affiliations that caused people to misrecognize particular evidence regarding innovations or environmental effects because the particular evidence fails to confirm their preferences for optimistic accounts of future growth and environmental improvements.

But to those clear examples of the optimism bias, he added two other examples that are only indirectly related:

3. People who see a political war against the interests of the poor and thus who are reluctant to present or digest analyses which blame some of the problems of the poor on…the poor themselves. (Try bringing up “predatory borrowing” in any discussion of “predatory lending” and see what happens.) There’s simply an urgent feeling that any negative or pessimistic or undeserving view of the poor needs to be countered.

4. People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.

#4 is also clearly a bias where in-group solidarity blinds us to evidence, and Cowen has written about this well in the past. It is not, however, an obvious “mood affiliation” except by analogy, and it serves a pragmatic purpose: you can only call your friends our for being biased so often before they stop being your friends.

#3, though, is neither a mood affiliation nor an optimism bias. We might call it an “unjust-world fallacy,” if we really need a name for it. However, I’d suggest we might want to avoid prejudicing discussions of what makes people poor with attributions of fallacies and congitive biases until we’ve evaluated the evidence.

Since “what makes people poor” is a hotly debated academic question, there’s a lot of evidence, and it pushes in multiple directions. (My own money is on some version of Buddy Karelis’s book, The Persistence of Poverty (pdf) though there’s plenty of room for poverty traps and marginal tax rate arguments.) People affiliate around these positions in many of the same ways that they affiliate around political parties. But there’s a serious dispute in the literature and the question really, really matters, so let’s not glibly reduce our opponents to fallacy-mongers here.

This is relevant to blogging about the workplace only because, by analogy, we’re supposed to believe that employees might be partly to blame for their domination in the same way that poor people are partly to blame for their poverty. But note, there are particular actions the poor engage in that make them poor: failing to finish high school, committing crimes, and getting pregnant out of wedlock are individual actions that primarily harm the individual who enacts them by reducing lifetime wages. In the workplace example, there just aren’t particular actions that workers engage in that justify their being searched or filmed while going to the bathroom (except maybe being unwilling to quit, fight, or unionize). Invading my privacy because somebody else has been stealing doesn’t really fit the kind of personal responsibility motif that Cowen was pushing in the original discussion of poverty. Plus, employee theft costs our economy about $15 billion, which is 0.1% of GDP, and that’s including serious embezzlement in addition to retail “shrink,” so it’s not really so big a deal as Cowen makes it out to be.

Mood affiliation concerns don’t appear to be relevant to workplace domination issues, they threaten to resolve into ad hominem and fallacy fallacy [sic] issues, so let’s drop them and look at the data and the arguments.

This is What Epistocracy Looks Like

Most academics know some version of the critique of elite rule, administrative power, and centralized regulation by experts. Hannah Arendt called bureaucracy the “rule of No Man;” Michel Foucault described the overlap of legislative power, knowledge-production, and the apparatus of discipline and control; Iris Marion Young defended simple street activism against the demand that political participation meet elaborate standards of reasonableness in the name of pluralism and in so doing laid the groundwork for current theories of agonistic democracy like Chantal Mouffe; Roberto Unger suggested that we ought to embrace democratic destabilization, experimentalism, and a radical institutional creativity belied by the supposed necessity of expert judgments; Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck have diagnosed the relationship between risk-aversion and governmental responsibility for emergency management as a modern form of legitimacy that both generates hazards and takes responsibility for managing them. Other criticisms came from conservative circles: Friedrich Hayek, Michael Oakeshott, and even Antonin Scalia.

Phillip Tetlock’s work on expertise is very illuminating here: in some fields, the avowed experts’ predictions actually are no better (and sometimes worse!) than a coin flip. That’s why David Estlund criticized the epistocratic tendency to ignore the systematic biases that underwrite invidious comparisons between evaluations of competence and incompetence in his book Democratic Authority.

And yet, some matters of expertise are unavoidable. David Estlund called these “primary bads”: war, famine, economic collapse, political collapse, epidemic, and genocide. In some cases, increased participation decreases the risk of such catastrophes: literacy and universal suffrage decrease the risk of famine, for instance. ”No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” Amartya Sen wrote in Development as Freedom, because democratic governments ”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Yet democracies still go to war and face economic crises (if not yet collapse) and the temptation is always there to imagine a system that will decrease the likelhood of such events.

The standard line is that democracies must keep experts “on tap, but not on top.” But consider a common example that Steven Maloney and I articulated in our paper “Foresight, Epistemic Reliability and the Systematic Underestimation of Risk:”

all citizens are affected by the Federal Reserve funds target rate (the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans to cover capital reserve requirements) as it ultimately determines the availability of credit and thus the balance between economic growth, inflation, and unemployment. Most experts agree that the range of viable options for this rate is limited. Further, they agree that direct or representative democratic control of the rate would encourage non-optimal outcomes, including price bubbles that could lead to economic collapse. As a result, decisions on the target rate, which affect every citizen, are nonetheless denied to the public. Some citizens thus argue that the Federal Reserve ought then to be abolished as illegitimate. [These] citizens charge that members of the Federal Reserve Board, who are drawn from the management of a few investment banks, allow systematic biases for their home institutions to color their decisions… [I]t makes (1) findings of fact (2) in an exclusive and closed manner that (3) have coercive effects on citizens because (4) democratic decision-making would lead to cataclysmic primary bads….

Now, it is amusing to point to the financial crisis of 2008 and argue that the Federal Reserve failed to prevent economic collapse. But though the crisis was and remains severe, the Federal Reserve actually played a major and undemocratic role in preventing a true collapse. David Runciman’s recent piece in the London Review of Books makes a similar point:

When democracies are in serious trouble, elections always come at the wrong time. Maynard Keynes, the posthumous guru of the current crisis, made this point in the aftermath of the First World War, and again in the early 1930s. When something really momentous is at stake, the last thing you need is democratic politicians trawling for votes. Keynes readily accepted that democracies were far better at renewing themselves than the supposedly more efficient dictatorships. He just wished they wouldn’t try to do it when they were struggling to stop the world descending into chaos.

Matthew Yglesias discussed the implications of the Federal Reserve for Progressives early last year:

No public institution can or should be truly independent of the political process. The Supreme Court is an independent branch of government, and rightly so. But its decisions are subject to hot political debate, and the nomination of judges to sit on the high court is considered an important presidential power. This, too, is as it should be. The assumption that monetary policy is too important to hold central bankers accountable through the political process should have come to an end along with the illusory great moderation.

Perhaps he is right; but perhaps politicizing the Fed will have the same de-legitimizing impact that politicizing the Court has had, which could be dangerous for an institution whose only power is its capacity to make credible counter-cyclical commitments.

Too often, we have the tendency to reduce these questions into a battle between “democrats” and “elitists.” But there are few serious radical democrats who advocate the dissolution of the administrative state, let alone the liberal rights that restrict majoritarian rule.

Objections to elite status and epistemic privilege more often reflect a kind of partianship about which experts to respect, as a proxy for in-group solidarity. It is difficult not to reduce matters of scientific expertise and superstition to in-group/out-group tribalism: after all, as much as I respect the opposition to intelligent design in public schooling, there is little reason to believe it has important implications for biology curricula, and it also has massive public support in many school districts. A pure democracy would allow the people to set their own standards.

We all fear some out-group, whether it be the white supremacists’ fear of non-white incursions, or the secularists’ fear of theological domination. Many people without a college degree resent the wage premium and social status associated with it; many people with a college degree resent the democratic power of the uneducated and the pandering they receive by politicians and media. Regardless of education, there is the sense of irreconcilable differences. Many people believe that we do not inhabit the same world, even as our disputes over how to constitute our shared world erupt over a very narrow band of possible policies.

Who among us is not an elitist or a vanguardist in some sense? We all think we’re right and that we could run things better than the status quo. Even my fellow fallibilists think we’ve got a recipe for institutional humility that would enhance outcomes!

Václav Havel: To the Castle and Back

Peter Levine’s post on Havel’s 1992 speech in Poland reminded me that I had planned to do some writing about Havel before he died. The New York Times titled his obituary “A Melding of the Artist’s Politics and the Politician’s Art,” and yet it focuses only on his writing career and offers not a single observation about his practice of “the Politician’s Art.” Given the outpouring of vitriol against Christopher Hitchens, perhaps you’ll excuse me if I spend a moment criticizing rather than praising the Czech Republic’s former president.

The line in Havel’s 1992 “Advent Speech” that has always troubled me is this one:

What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one’s own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.

There’s something poetically seductive about his call to “confront evil together and in solidarity,” to be bound only by “Truth and certain elementary values.” Yet I’ve always thought that his promise that the dissidents would overcome ideological and technological politics was an empty one.  I think that Havel’s life gives us some insight into why this promise remained unfulfilled and unfulfillable, “easy to say but difficult to do.” In short: his politics was rooted in the sense that the spiritual dimension that “transcends” politics, but this really means it runs away from politics.

Indeed, this was the subject of his later book, To the Castle and Back, where he tried to explain how he had approached politics during his presidency:

Politics—as an area of activity that demands general support—requires, more than anything else, that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment, how what follows comes out of what went before, and why everything has the kind tempo that it has. But as I’ve already suggested, politics, by its very nature, resists that kind of understanding. It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail, and everyone recognizes that at once. But for the most part that’s nor how it works. Politics is more of a strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes. It seems to me particularly important, therefore, that politicians have an elementary dramatic instinct, that is, a sense of how to make distinctions between various acts or events, how to order them, stack them up, give them a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.

Just think about what this means: “It’s true that here and there a policy may succeed or fail.” This is a romantic sense of the political world: policies are stage-dressing for the operatic play of great personages in the public sphere. Can you blame the Czech media for deeming Havel a dreamer? He never really succeeded in giving his policies “a meaningful sequence, gradation, or structure.” Certainly we need dreamers in the world, but I’m reminded of Zizek’s line:

There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.

Havel’s poetry never inspired genocide, it’s true. But his spiritual approach failed to prevent ethnic cleansing just when it was needed most: the 1992 dissolution of the political union between Czechs and Slovaks.

As I said, “transcending” politics is really a kind of “flight from politics,” and the “Velvet Divorce” is just one more piece of evidence in favor of that claim. Havel resigned rather than oversee the dissolution, so he certainly stuck to his principles, though I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as “confronting evil.” (It seems more like what Arendt called “inner emigration.”) But the seeds for the dissolution were sown before the fateful election in 1992: dissolution was fueled by heavy nationalism and anti-Semitic rhetoric against pro-federation politicians.

None of this was Havel’s fault, exactly, but this was a moment that called for a poet to “sing the nation-state” rather than a politician to try to lead it. What’s worse: it was the end of transfer payments to Slovakia that allowed the Czech Republic to enjoy a decade of unalloyed growth:

The end of the so-called penezovod (“money pipeline”) — regular transfer of subsidies to Slovakia — meant further fiscal saving amounting to 7 percent of the national budget (25 billion koruna, close to $1 billion).

As a result, while the Czech Republic traded on its highly-educated workforce and Prague tourist attractions, across the newly-minted border, Slovakia was not so lucky:

Unemployment has climbed to 15.1 percent, even though virtually no restructuring or privatization of industry has taken place under the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Inflation stands at 22 percent and is forecast to grow. The gross domestic product of Slovakia last year declined by 3.5 percent from the 1992 level.

That, I think, is the real legacy of successful dreamers: their dreams always come at someone else’s expense. “Here and there” Havel’s ineffectual policies “succeeded or failed.” But mostly, they failed. When they needed the artist, Czechoslovakia got an artless politican. When they needed the politician, they got the artist’s principles.

As a playwright, Havel certainly had a sense of the dramatic, and I think he was on to something when he insisted that bureaucracy and administrative efficiency threaten to render the political boringly inaccessible:

A basic danger facing politics in the modern world is that it will appear to be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull, daily administrative grind, enlivened occasionally by a scandal or pseudo-scandal that is forgotten as soon as it’s over; in other words, something that has no point, and thus no thinking behind it. Naturally,  it’s in the general interest to confront this danger.

But I can’t say that Havel’s failures give me much hope for a new era of dramatic “nonpolitical politics.” Havel got lots of mileage out of paradoxical rhetoric, but I don’t think he got much good policy out of it, precisely because “politics… requires that people understand it, that they grasp what the purpose of it is in any given moment.” Havel’s plays were absurdist dramas that successfully undermined the legitimacy of totalitarianism, but he never learned how to “transcend” irony and absurdity. He never developed a sincere political project that could make this absurd world a little bit more habitable.

If anything, Havel gives us a clue to the lengths we will go to dramatize political events, to identify and reify one great personage to take responsibility for the efforts of millions. I’m sorry he died, but I wish the remembrances were as mixed and honest as they have been for Hitchens: the continuation of these great conversations seems a better memorial than stick-figure heroism.

Charity as a Flight from Politics

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

Auden’s criticisms of Arendt explicily call for a flight into the invisible and eternal world, which comes at the cost of politics and especially political judgment. In The Human Condition, Arendt described this flight from the world as a response to the destruction of the world itself. Early Christians sought “to find a bond between people strong enough to replace the world” because the Roman Empire had violently undermined their pre-existing basis of public appearance and collective action. Arendt ascribes responsibility for the politicization of the “consciously and radically antipolitical character of Christianity” to Augustine, “precisely because an extraordinary tradition of Roman thought still lived on in him.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 138) It was Augustine who helped the Church to “secularize the Christian flight into seclusion,” rendering the private religious lives of the community once again public and ecclesiastical. In so doing, he helped the faithful to “constitute within the world a totally new, religiously defined public space, which, although public, was not political.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 139) In short, it is Augustine who invents the publicity without politics that had remained the ideal for a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual life. Continue reading Charity as a Flight from Politics