Weekend Reading

Working from home has its perks: I can enjoy poorly attended yoga classes in the middle of the day, I have time to cook complicated, delicious meals and I can hang out in PJs all day (joking. maybe). But the greatest thing about working from home is that I can indulge in some serious internet browsing, and have the leisure of reading longer pieces that I would have bookmarked for “weekend reading” (yeah right) if I had a 9-5 job. The three links below are not particularly long pieces, but the writers offer complex points of view that deserve the reader’s full attention. So, for your weekend reading, here are my suggestions:

1. Ill Fares the Land (NY Review of Books) In this excerpt from the first chapter of his new book, Tony Judt talks about the need for the political left to retreat from its “irresponsible rhetorical grandstanding of decades past,” and actually tackle the social, political and economic issues that are “corroding” our societies. Judt writes:

“If young people today are at a loss, it is not for want of targets. Any conversation with students or schoolchildren will produce a startling checklist of anxieties. Indeed, the rising generation is acutely worried about the world it is to inherit. But accompanying these fears there is a general sentiment of frustration: “we” know something is wrong and there are many things we don’t like. But what can we believe in? What should we do?”

Judt’s views don’t appear extreme or shrill. I often read blog posts and articles by American liberals on the left of the political spectrum, and sometimes I find myself uncomfortable with their tone or approach. Judt seems to strike a good balance. He writes about the need to figure out what it is that we want and require from the state; he argues that the American tendency to be fearful of government intervention is a red herring that must be overcome:

“Critics who claim that the European model is too expensive or economically inefficient have been allowed to pass unchallenged. And yet, the welfare state is as popular as ever with its beneficiaries: nowhere in Europe is there a constituency for abolishing public health services, ending free or subsidized education, or reducing public provision of transport and other essential services.”

He goes on to mention how we are so attuned to the reality of conspicuous wealth, but how we have a hard time understanding poverty. Mentioning the growing inequality gap within the United States and the UK, Judt writes: “the legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.”

I really recommend you check it out – it’s not often that a writer transcends day-to-day politics to discuss the deeper questions. It’s risky, because often these pieces are boring. But, at least in this excerpt, Judt’s engaging and dynamic style made for a pleasant, thought-provoking read.

2. What the ICC Review Conference Can’t Fix (African Arguments) In this piece, Adam Branch offers a rather scathing critique of the International Criminal Court and what he views as its shortcomings. He argues that the ICC’s “accommodation” of political power diminishes its value as an instrument of global justice. Branch mentions several examples of how the ICC is bending to politics; by only investigating (select) cases in Africa and ignoring severe breaches in international law elsewhere (particularly when perpetrated by the U.S.).

Branch writes:

“For those who argue that some justice is better than no justice, the ICC’s accommodation to power is not a bad thing but rather simply the constitutive condition for the partial but genuine justice of the ICC. In the same way, according to those espousing the evolutionary narrative, Allied victory in WWII provided the constitutive condition for the partial but genuine justice of the Nuremburg trials.”

I suppose I am one of those who “espouses the evolutionary narrative,” because I do believe that the ICC’s current accommodation of political power is part of the court’s “coming of age.” I’m currently reading a book entitled “The Sun Climbs Slow“, by Erna Paris, in which the history and the politics of the ICC are examined from an “evolutionary” perspective. I can understand that supporters of international justice feel that the ICC isn’t going far enough, that it isn’t fulfilling its mandate in its current form. As a firm believer in a strong international legal system, I agree that the ICC’s limited scope and its political wranglings take away from the institution as a whole.

However, I think that we are quick to forget that the very concept of human rights didn’t exist in international law until after World War II, and that subsequent treaties defining the laws of war, prohibiting torture and human trafficking, giving specific rights to women, children, refugees, etc — are all relatively new. It will take time for these concepts to really take hold, and it will take time for the ICC to become the instrument of global justice it purports to be.

I understand where Branch is coming from, and I share a lot of his frustrations. However, I think that we shouldn’t be further undermining the status of the ICC by criticizing it for things it cannot avoid; like having to give in to power politics. The fact that the U.S. has been actively undermining the ICC and its mandate is also an issue which Branch doesn’t address, but that most ICC supporters know is a serious hurdle and restricts the Court’s ability.

Another issue which Branch raises is the “monopolization of the language of global justice in Africa”. He makes valid, interesting points on the subject, noting that the ICC’s restrictive understanding and definition of justice/injustice contributes to the impoverishment “the radical and emancipatory language of global justice.” Here again, I think that we must take an evolutionary perspective – the court has only existed for less than a decade, has been dealing with serious political hurdles, and has been endowed with a very unpopular chief prosecutor.

Branch’s article is nonetheless a great read. The fact that these criticisms come from someone who clearly believes in the need for strong institutions of global justice makes the piece very compelling.

3. Of Men and Monsters (New Statesman) Another book excerpt, this time from Terry Eagleton’s upcoming book, “On Evil”. @MsAmaka recommended this piece, asking if some people were really born evil. I thought “Of Men and Monsters” was interesting because it gives the reader the opportunity to question our own beliefs about good and evil. Eagleton offers some theories and ideas, but does not home in on one point of view, allowing us to use his piece as a starting point for reflection.

Drawing from the example of the murder of a toddler by two ten-year-olds who were subsequently described as “evil” by a police officer involved in the case, Eagleton explores the complex notion of “evil” in the modern world. He argues that by detaching evil from human nature, and making it into something incomprehensible that human beings have no agency over, we are actually letting evil-doers “off the hook.” If evil is a condition that afflicts, as opposed to a fundamental part of our nature, then people who do terrible things are not responsible for their actions. He writes:

“The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus. Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them.”

On the other hand, though, if evil is an intrinsic part of human nature, Eagleton argues that we can wrap our minds around the concept:

“Maybe [evil-doers] are somehow opting for what they already are, like Sartre’s waiter playing at being a waiter. Maybe they are simply coming out of the moral closet, rather than assuming an entirely new identity.”

Eagleton also tackles the notion that evil suggests a lack of socialization, and that evil people are not bound by the morality that the rest of us are – “Better a monster than a machine.” He continues, though, explaining that being responsible and being influenced by the world around us is not a property of being or doing good.

He argues that human beings are a product of the social influences they are exposed to, but that this doesn’t mean we are irresponsible for our behavior: “To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to relate to such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. “Monster” in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others.”

Many people have reflected on the atrocities of the 20th century, and attempted to make sense of “evil” that characterized the unspeakable acts committed during violent conflict. Much has been written about how regular people perpetrated horror under “evil” regimes: the Nazis, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. What is most salient for me, though, are the efforts at understanding what happened during the Rwandan genocide, when neighbors and co-workers became indiscriminate killers. What “triggered” (if anything) the capacity of thousands of otherwise normal people to kill on such a large scale?

These are really difficult questions, and I don’t believe that Eagleton (or anyone else, for that matter) can really, truly, get to the bottom of it. Personally, I think that human nature is made up of both good and evil forces, and that part of being human is to contend with these two contradictory forces. I don’t believe that we are either intrinsically “good” or “evil;” both of these forces exist within each person, and as autonomous agents, we are able to control and nurture these instincts.

The German Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, wrote about the “banality of evil.” Referring to the Holocaust, Arendt defends the idea that atrocities are committed by regular people, not psychopathic evil-doers. Perhaps what’s most disturbing in thinking about evil is that we all know we have the capacity to consciously take part in malevolent actions…

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