Thursday, April 27, 2006

Richard Bernstein, Emmanuel Levinas and Radical Evil.

Richard Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11 (Cambridge: Polity, 2005).
Richard Bernstein, Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation (Cambridge: Polity, 2002).
Richard Bernstein, Philosophical Profiles (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986).
Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible (San Francisco: ignatius, 1963).
Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (New York & London: Verso, 2007).
Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London & New York: Verso, 2001).

I am grateful for the listing of my book and promotions at and

Richard Bernstein teaches philosophy at The New School University, which is one of the best places in the United States to study Continental thought, since there is a long tradition at that institution of providing refuge to intellectuals fleeing political oppression. (The hope to escape totalitarianism explains why many of us moved to New York, from New Jersey.)

The university was home to many German thinkers who escaped the Nazi horror, for similar reasons, notably Theodor Adorno and the great Hannah Arendt. It is home today to outstanding theorists, such as Agnes Heller and Andrew Arato, as well as Professor Bernstein and Simon Critchley, whose filmed conversation with Alain Badiou is highly recommended. I wish to thank Professor Bernstein for all he has taught me in his fine books.

I have read several of Professor Bernstein's books, especially his writings on evil. (His essay on Hegel and his review of Richard Rorty's work should be required reading for American philosophy students.) I wish to examine a controversy concerning the dialogue on evil in contemporary American politics by way of his writings. Professor Bernstein's latest work addresses this topic.

Many people object to the use by President Bush of the rhetoric of moral exhortation, contending that his deployment of terms like "evil" is a way of avoiding discussion by demonizing the opposition. President Bush has said: "You are either with us or against us." These pronouncements are annoying to many -- especially intellectuals in Manhattan -- who relish talk of compromise and reserving judgment, often saying that "questions of value are subjective." All of which may be true. However, when a guy gets into your place and puts a gun to your head, a little chat about Proust may not be wise. I think this is the point that some of our friends in the heartland, who support President Bush's "War on Terror," wish to emphasize.

In the aftermath of 9/11, discussions of the concept of evil have taken on a new urgency. A theorist who writes books emphasizing the importance of the concept of evil is not likely to deny its significance. Bernstein does not do that. Here is what he does say:

The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination. In the so-called "war on terror," nuance and subtlety are (mis) taken as signs of wavering, weakness and indecision. But if we think that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination, then this talk about absolute evil is anti-political. As Hannah Arendt noted, "The absolute ... spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm."

What Bernstein opposes is fundamentalism. He admits that: "There are also many appeals to absolutes that are perfectly legitimate." He is sympathetic to religious traditions of reflection on this topic, as in his discussions of the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Hans Jonas. A highlight of Bernstein's book on "Radical Evil" is his analyses of those two thinkers' works and discussion of Hannah Arendt's writings. Arendt was a close friend and colleague of Bernstein's at the New School, where tuition has gone through the roof lately.

I especially enjoyed Bernstein's discussion of pragmatism in light of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, and the effort to come to terms with tragedy in the pragmatist tradition. I think pragmatism fails on that score. Bernstein would do well to take another look at Unamuno. Here's a tip: read the final speech by Cyrano de Bergerac in Edmund de Rostand's play, and you will understand something important about the Latin world, which has become a part of America.

When it comes to tragedy, we Latins are among the world's experts (see Andy Garcia's "The Lost City"). America's Jewish and African-American heritage may be a much better place to look for the struggle with tragedy than philosophical pragmatism. My suggestion is that you put Bernstein's work together with Cornel West's writings, especially The American Evasion of Philosophy. West's chapters dealing with C.S. Peirce and Emerson should be compared with the chapters dealing with the works of Michel Foucault and Roberto Unger in Evasion. In the "mainstream" American tradition, we also find tragedy: Abraham Lincoln is a political King Lear, meditating and taking upon himself war's agony as well as "the mystery of things."

Bernstein is not a nihilist. To object to absolutes in politics is not to deny the reality of "objectivity" in our ethical and political judgments, nor does it involve any claims about "perfection." In my experience, these terms are confused by Internet advocates of ethical relativism and nihilism. For Bernstein (me too), there is indeed such a thing as "radical evil" and truth:

Radical evil is making human beings superflous as human beings. This happens as soon as all unpredictability -- which, in human beings, is equivalent to spontaneity -- is eliminated. [Take away all freedom and you take away humanity.] We can understand more fully what [Arendt] means by turning to the description she gives of total domination. She presents a three-stage model of the "logic" of total domination. It is in the concentration and death camps that we find the "laboratories" of totalitarian regimes. And it is in the camps that we find the most radical experiments for changing the character of human beings.

Torture is an example of radical evil. Pope John Paul II condemned torture as an "intrinsic evil." All attempts to modify or control people by way of psychological torments (behaviorist techniques) would fit this definition of radical evil. This is true whether they take place in New Jersey or Abu Ghraib, or in any of the concentration camps of totalitarian States. (See "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

Sloppiness concerning the use of the word "evil," together with the tendency to slip into the facile use of the term may apply as much to those who demonize the United States and the actions of this Administration as to Mr. Bush's so-called "polarizing" pronouncements.

Bernstein's complaint about arrogance rings a bell with me, but the people whose arrogance and insulting condescension I have experienced, have most often been affluent or upper middle class, so-called "liberal" elites, whose condescending advice is the best way I know to induce vomitting. The lowlifes I've known have usually called themselves "Democrats" -- whatever that means to them -- therapists and lawyers, allegedly, acting "for the good of others." These are the people who say: "We know best how you should live."

If radical evil consists of "making human beings superflous as human beings," then I am confident that the terrorist actions on 9/11 fit the definition. Terrorists do exactly that: they make their victims no longer individuals, but objects or means to the dramatization of terrorists' political causes. The final indignity imposed upon a victim of terrorist evil or torture (I have no problem using the word) is the refusal to see his or her individuality, uniqueness and full humanity, as a result of the pretense that "nothing has been done" to the person. No one is expendable to make an abstract point. ("What is it like to be tortured?")

The persons who were destroyed by terrorists on 9/11 were not abstractions. They were individuals, friends and neighbors, family members, reaching out to those they loved in their final moments. Yet they were not "seen" as such by their murderers, who had lost all capacity for judgment in their blinding hatred or indifference to others. They could no longer see themselves, let alone others. Bernstein provides us with a useful and important philosopher's plea for care and respect in the use of the concept of evil, whether our discussions are grounded in religious writings or secular philosophical texts:

[We face a battle] between those who find rigid moral absolutes appealing, those who think that nuance and subtlety mask indecisiveness, [I include many trendy nihilists and absolute ethical skeptics in this category!] those who embelish their absolute ideological prejudices with the language of religious piety, and those who approach life with a more open fallibilistic mentality -- one that eschews the quest for absolute certainty. [Notice that lack of certainty about what is the case is not a statement about what exists, but nihilists rarely accept such humility.] Such a mentality is not only compatible with a religious orientation; it is essential to keeping a religious tradition alive and relevant to new situations and contingencies.

By way of illustration, I will turn to Bernstein's discussion of the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas counsels great humility and respect in approaching the enormity of evil, from within his own Jewish religious tradition. Levinas also draws on the Western philosophical project that seeks to struggle, through shared reasoning, with such issues. Bernstein writes:

The thesis I want to advance and defend is that the primary thrust of Levinas's thought is to be understood as his response to the horror of evil that errupted in the twentieth century. Levinas's entire philosophical project can best be understood as an ethical response to evil -- and to the problem of evil that we must confront at the "end of theodicy."

Nihilism and power-worship, as represented by the atrocity of National Socialism, forces us to come to terms with the reality of colossal evil without the consolations of theodicy, without the possibility of an account that makes everything O.K., that is, a theory that (in Hollywood fashion) provides us with a "happy ending." Radical evil is without the possibility of a happy ending, according to Levinas, but not without the hope for justice and meaning. Senator Barack Obama's speeches should be quoted at this point.

Levinas provides us with an ethical reflection on evil for grownups in the aftermath of the nightmares of twentieth century history. (See my story "Pieta.") He reminds us of our concern for that Other, that is always with us already. It may be useful to bring John MacMurray into dialogue with Levinas on this matter. (For example, see The Self as Agent, pp. 106-126.) Levinas begins by noting:

We are much more uneasy and ambivalent about the responsibility of the so-called bystanders, by those who allow such actions to take place, and who justify their complicity by excusing themselves from any direct responsiblity. [See "There comes a time when silence is betrayal."] Despite the voluminous literature about the Nazi era, and the many explanations offered, this still remains one of the most troublesome unresolved questions. How are we to account for the fact that so many people, who were for the most part decent, law-abiding citizens, could be unmoved when their neighbors and even friends were suffering, disappearing, being deported, brutalized, and murdered? [See "An open letter to my torturers in New Jersey, Terry Tuchin and Diana Lisa Riccioli" and "Is New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz unethical or only incompetent?"]

For Levinas, the only human response is ethical:

This is precisely the ethical response that recognizes that the otherness of the other can never be totally comprehended, that I am infinitely responsible for and to the other person, whose suffering is ethically more important than my own suffering. ("The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

When challenged by a group of students who asked Levinas if he had ever seen that "infinite responsibility" for the other, Professor Levinas responded: "Yes, just now, in this room."

We begin to come to terms with evil by directing our efforts at grasping the humanity and pain of others, by seeing them, those persons as persons whose agony is our responsibility and concern, so that we yield ourselves to it in an effort to heal moral wounds. "Die in order to live," Hegel says. Norman Mailer, The Castle in the Forest (New York: Random House, 2007).

This aspect of Jewish thought on the nature of mercy and redemption in response to evil, is central to what has been called the "Jewish Jesus" or the Hebrew component in Christianity (see my quote from Hegel), which I celebrate for ethical reasons apart from any supernatural claims. (See, again, my story "The Soldier and the Ballerina.")

In discussing love as "God's grace," the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes:

The first thing the cross does is to [negate] the world's word, by a Wholly-Other Word, a word that the world does not want to hear at any price. For the world wants to live and rise again before it dies, [a happy ending] while the love of Christ wants to die in order to rise again in the form of God [love] on the other side of death, [transcending evil,] indeed, in death.

We must fear the loss of humanity that makes indifference to the suffering of others an epidemic today, as evidenced by the notorious Kitty Genovese murder and many like it since that horrible incident. This need for "love as sanity" is what Thomas Merton suggests in his writings dealing with our status as "guilty bystanders."

We are alienated from one another, bored, indifferent, half asleep, as we trudge to the office in the morning. An incident such as the 9/11 tragedy can awaken those of us who survive, even in altered form, to the presence of others whose pains we share, to the reality of love and evil as polar opposites both within us as well as in the eyes of those we "see," really see, around us in the world. The "cross," yes, the cross is a most helpful symbol and daily reminder of all the suffering in which we share, since the very word "cross" derives from cruciare, torture. ("Is this atheism's moment?")

To the extent that the misuse of the discourse of evil deadens our sensibilities to the reality and malignancy of great wickedness, it is harmful to this moral awakening. So is the denial of the reality of evil or ethics in all of our lives. The best counsel is humility and careful thought, giving ourselves permission to feel the pain of others as well as our own, and a willingness to see the full horror in the world and reflect on it -- without illusions about total understanding -- while always celebrating the love that makes so much pain bearable. To ask to be seen is only possible when one is willing to expose scars and deformations, wounds, burns and amputations. (See "America's Holocaust.")

It is possible that even great evil can be borne, but only if its victims are SEEN in their pain and outrage as well as brokenness. To pretend that nothing has happened -- that, say, the Holocaust is a myth -- is to erase the humanity and existence of victims of evil entirely, making their moral survival and any redemption impossible. Victims have an annoying tendency not to go away, however, but to insist on confronting the evil that has blighted their lives. Like the student standing before a tank in Tienamin square, I will not be moved in any confrontation with evil.

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