When you have read my posts regularly, you will have noticed that I tend to discuss (and read) more history books than you would perhaps expect in a philosophy blog. Today I will try to explain some of my reasons for this.

During my studies I also read ‘other’ books of course, because philosophy as such has no subject, or ‘everything’ is its subject. Philosophy is a way of thinking about things, but these things can range from the principles of mathematics to poetry, and all other thinkable subjects. Famous are writings from philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or Gottlob Frege on mathematics, and Heidegger and Gadamer on poetry, just to illustrate my remark. Of course there is also philosophy on philosophy, on its methods of reasoning and argumentation, on its history, and on its place in the whole range of human sciences.

My ‘subjects’ outside the works of philosophers and about philosophy itself have gone through different phases. After finishing my masters, for some years I read passionately in the field of theology, history of Christianity and bible studies. The philosophers I read in that time were Arendt, Levinas, Strasser and of course Spinoza. After finishing my PhD there was a phase that I read rather widely, in environmental studies, in philosophy of science, and, in philosophical methodology (so to speak), investigating the approaches of hermeneutics (Gadamer), deconstruction (Derrida) and pragmatism (first Mead and Cooley, later James). It was the time of my postdoc research. Later I moved to African philosophers like Mudimbe, Mbiti, and E. Eze, and read a lot of cultural anthropology on the side. The last few years I discovered, next to reading more of James and Derrida, more of Scheler and Foucault. And the ‘extra’ reading is nowadays very often in history, especially in ‘alternative’ views on the history of the US (not the one of the victors) and on WWII.

Why this route anyway? Just yesterday, when I started another book in the history of philosophy, on James, to be specific, the interesting study by Francesca Bologna called William James at the Boundaries. Philosophy, Science, and the Geography of Knowledge, I was fascinated by her introduction on the strange address James gave as president of the APA in 1906. The speech was about ‘The Energies of Man’. In this speech he described the benefits of yoga and drinking alcohol to enhance the human spirit, and cited popular works and works by thinkers on the verge or outside academia. Bologna provides good reasons for discarding the idea that James was losing his mind (as some philosophers present did), by showing that it was a deliberate and recurring strategy in his work to transgress boundaries. “James struggled to reconfigure the relationships between philosophy and the sciences, as well as professional and amateur discourses. Through these efforts […] James reinterpreted the nature of philosophy and science and, by doing so, proposed a new vision for the intellectual and social order of knowledge.” (Bologna, p. 4) When reading this, I realized that for many years, without knowing what I was doing, I had been following a similar course as James, in this respect: something in me always opposed itself to the pressures to keep to one discipline, and to specialize within that discipline – to discipline my curious mind, so to speak.

So now why the history? Let’s start IMG_3706with WW II. In other posts I have made clear that the world in which I grew up pushed me to read up on it: the world of the 60s and 70s of the last century, a world that wanted to move on, that drove itself crazy over Cold War stuff, and that actually consisted of an almost audible silence about matters nobody wanted to be remembered of. Every year now new material on that time still comes out. Some things were only researchable after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and some are only researchable now that certain individuals die, leaving archives, or because their power to silence others is gone. Just recently I came across an article about a collective of secret historians who wrote on the events in the Warsaw ghetto. Those writers, who knew they probably were not going to survive the hell they had landed up in, took it upon themselves to register things as they experienced them, for posterity. I was absolutely amazed and awed by their farsighted courage and mental strenght. And I realized that all over the world, projects like that must still be happening, even now, more or less in secret, more or less under the duress of oppression.

The powers that try to rule history, attempt to obscure it at the same time, for their own actions to be more effective. And that’s where the alternative histories of the US also come in, from that same stifled Cold War time I grew up in, where we were taught to think of the US as our saviours from Hitler, who brought us all the goods of modern life, washing machines, cigarettes, chocolate bars, and scientific management. There was nothing to be worried about anymore ever, as long as we stuck to our new big brother. Even as a child I felt that both things were unhealthy: not wanting to know about WW II, and not wanting to know about who our new protector was. I realized more and more over the years that there can be no good thinking, no good philosophy, without a wish to know history as it ‘really’ happened. Not that we can ever find ‘real’ history in an absolute sense. But we can at least get rid from the worst outgrowths of propaganda, by doing the real work of serious history. And if we are no historians ourselves, we should read all the painstakingly collected facts and carefully reconstructed structures of what happened and how it was transferred. It will clear our minds.

And, last but not least, we should do the same with the so called ‘history of philosophy’, which, for the most part, is not history at all, but a construction to bring us under the impression that the Europeans, that is the Romans and the Greeks, and later the Enlightenment thinkers, imagined all things worthwhile. There are powerful powerstructures at work in that construction too. Peter Park, in his recent work Africa, Asia and the History of Philosophy. Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 has written a real historiography of how this powerstructure came to dominate the history of philosophy. Many others of course pushed in this direction by their own investigative work, among others a philosopher whom I discussed here before, Emmanuel Eze. Just the other day I watched the entire talk he delivered some years before his untimely death, which has been luckily recorded and publicized on youtube, and would recommend you, when you watch, to keep watching till the end of the second part, which makes clear why not reading outside the ‘official’ history of philosophy will not only makes the discipline remain stuck in old questions, but also deny itself many qualitative texts that it has never read or even known of which could help to rethink these questions and perhaps think up better answers than it did before.

 

 

It is more than twenty years ago that I first read Arendts Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil. Since that time I have regularly referred to the work in classes, and further pondered the consequences of her research into the role Adolf Eichmann played in the murder of millions of European Jews. What remained with me most was her view on the problematic side effects of bureIMG_3703aucracy. The positive goal of bureaucracy can be described as the equal treatment of citizens, and the efficient delivery of goods delivered by state and non-state organizations. Its negative side effect is that it offers the possibility for individuals to wash their hands from their complicity in malfunctioning and even evil procedures. Eichmann the bureaucrat, as he could be seen in the Jerusalem court after his capture in 1960, showed, according to Arendt, an incapacity to think, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, to see a human being as having a right to its own life.

When the political atmosphere in Europe became more xenophobic over the last ten years, and organizations simultaneously relied more and more on bureaucratic procedures to optimize their functioning, I read Arendt’s view on the banality of evil as offering a model to understand present times. I saw the disappearance of individual responsibility of managers and administrator, of teachers, police, scientists and doctors behind protocol as a moral danger for society.  I didn’t realize, however, that for evil to happen, it is not enough that someone with evil intent, or just a morally weak character, can hide behind procedures. Because a well-functioning bureacracy, with well-described responsibilities, and procedures for complaint, still contains obstacles to abuse, which protect the rights of individuals affected.

What the new historical research of Stangneth, which I am currently reading, shows, is that Eichmann and his complicits not just surfed on the possibilities of normal bureaucratic structures, but that, under the guise of being very well organized, Nazi rule actually internally destroyed certain essential elements of bureaucracy, especially official hierarchies of responsibility. I speak here of something different from what, in a recent post, I called ‘freedom to act’. Freedom to act essentially exists for every individual, in those pockets where bureaucratic and legal systems fail to reach. To put it simply: at all times any individual can try to go around the system, calling on an original freedom to act as a human being. What Stangneth shows to have happened in Nazi rule is something else: it is the selective taking more power than ‘the system’ allows by certain individuals, under the protection of the ‘highest power’, the ideological leader of the movement (the ‘Führer’), a highest power which promises its loyal servants to back them up by unlimited violence.

So this new study on Eichmann ‘before Jerusalem’ makes clear how Eichmann actually had much more power than he claimed to have had when he defended his actions in court. He did not have a high rank, but this was not very important in Nazi dealings. It was even beneficial, in order to carry out things that should remain hidden from the public. Being “on the Führer’s special mission”, Eichmann did not need to call on hierarchical responsibilities to get things done: ‘in a regime governed by relationships, only personal access to someone in power carried any real influence.’ (Stangneth, p. 40) Stangneth further analyzes many sources which were not available to Arendt (especially the so called Sassen interviews, held while Eichmann lived in Argentina), but also departs from a quite different anthropology. While for Arendt an evil person is one who lacks the potential to live the idea of Aristotelean practical reason, someone who goes along with a system that ignores humanity, for Stangneth an evil person is a responsible agent, who is perhaps not highly intelligent, but who shows talent in using a psychology of fear to rule others. ‘”Much more power… was attributed to me than I actually had”, Eichmann explained. And “this fear” of his presumed power meant that “everyone felt he was being watched.”‘ (Stangneth, p. 26)

Now, through this new book, we can see how ambitious, to the point of megalomania, Eichmann was. Still, Stangneth’s analysis doesn’t fall back on the simple and dangerous idea that there are just certain evil persons who are to blame for the worst crimes of history. While restoring full responsibility to the criminal, she also maintains the importance, shown by thinkers like Arendt and Foucault, of scrutinizing structures of power to explain what happened. What is new, however, in her work, is that her analysis of how those structures work is more rich, more complex – dissecting the different workings of journalism, state violence, the psychology of fear, and the effects of symbolism on human thinking  – to provide a more real and a less naive understanding of how evil in the midst of ‘modern civilization’ can be organized and carried out. Like Raul Hilberg she follows the view, not of the victim, but of the perpetrator, to understand the workings of what was done.

As to Eichmann, she makes clear that he was a great actor, putting forward a different image of himself as circumstances required. What he did was make use of people’s unreflected ideas about humanity. Thus it could happen, Stangneth writes, that ‘even someone of average intelligence (Eichmann, AR) can induce a highly intelligent person (Arendt, AR) to defeat herself with her own weapon: her desire to see her expectations fulfilled.’ (Stangneth, p. xxv) Why this book fascinates, is, therefore, because it shows how a new kind of writing history is necessary for a philosophical understanding of humanity. A writing of history that investigates the psychological, moral, and cultural epistemic frameworks that guide common understanding – to prevent following them naively, and to make sure to count with the possibility that, apart from their already inherent distortions, they may also be used to consciously mislead. Such a historiography warns philosophical anthropology to not take its own idealism as its unreflected point of departure, but to scrutinize its own hopes, dreams, judgments, i.e. all of its normative frameworks, as a potential heel of Achilles.

Citations are taken from Regina Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem. The unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. London: Penguin Random House, 2014.

IMG_3595A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to speak at the Spinoza summer week, in one of the most rural and quiet places in the Netherlands. The theme of the week was Spinoza and Jewish tradition. A subject which I didn’t know very much about, but I interpreted it more widely, to be able to present my textual interpretations of the Ethics, the Short Treatise and the Theological-Political Treatise on Spinoza’s ideas about going beyond religious traditions, and still recognizing the importance of religion for human beings.

One of the benefits of giving the lecture was being invited for the one-day Spinoza tour through North and South Holland (the two provinces by that name) to see all the places where Spinoza lived, in his short life (1632 – 1677). Today I did the tour, with four other interested people, and our guide Jossi Efrat, a passionate narrator. DueIMG_3542 to his great knowledge on the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam (we started out in the Portuguese synagoge over there) and our many questions, we lagged behind on our schedule, and had to skip the end, in the end, which would have included the two houses where he lived in The Hague and the New Church, where he was buried.

This is not a very philosophical post, I agree, but I allow myself this because it is summer, and I promised to two of my co-tour-walkers to write a post about it. It was a day with many impressions. After seeing the place at the Waterloo square, where once a house of the Spinoza family had stood, and the earlier synagogue where the ban against Baruch had been spoken, we went to the Jewish burial site at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, where I was able to say a siIMG_3565lent salute to the remains of the woman who had given birth to this great thinker: Hanna Deborah. She died when Spinoza was six, and he was raised by his father’s third wife.

We took to the road once more, and came to the newly restored lovely little house in Rijnsburg where Spinoza lived after leaving Amsterdam, possibly because it provided him more opportunity to be in contact with scientists and philosophers at Leiden university, possible also because of his contacts with the Collegiant community (freethinker protestants). I had been to the Rijnsburg house before, the first time when I was still a student, so it must have been thirty years ago. I was invited by the secretary of the Spinoza society, back then, Theo van der Werff, who helped me through my dissertation years like a living pre-internet search engine, finding books and articles and bibliographical details. And providing a lot of support toIMG_3579o. Being in the little house once more was great. Anyone looking for a beautiful seventeenth century philosophical atmosphere should go there sometime. Although most of the interior is not original but reconstructed. For booklovers there are two bookcases filled with old leatherbound books, one the reconstructed library of Spinoza.

Finally we went to Hofwijck, the little palace of the Huygens family, where Spinoza worked together with son Christiaan on his scientific experiments, conducted supposedly in the attic. Some of the original instruments can be seen there. Our guide took us through difficult-to-find paths to show us how Spinoza had walked from the house where he lived in that time, in the village of Voorburg, along the Vliet, a canal connecting several cities, to Huygens’ place. Hard to find because nowadays a railway and a highway IMG_3603are built atop the old infrastructure.

Like I said, we missed out on the The Hague traces of Spinoza, which I however had also walked in the past. They mark the most political phase in Spinoza’s life, as he was involved in the struggle for the highest power in the Netherlands of those days, which was not just about the potential power of the Orange family, but also, which interested Spinoza more, about a more secular society or one in which calvinism had more prominence. Thinking beyond religious traditions, a society where everyone could think or believe as he liked, was one of the things Spinoza was most passionate about. One of his reasons being, I think, very much pro-religion: because belief that is based on duress cannot be true belief…

Although we steeped ourselve in Dutch society and politics of three centuries ago, I am still of the same opinion as I was in my PhD years: that reading Spinoza is to be advised for anyone who wants to develop his/her reflection on religion, freedom, and harmony in society.

 

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.

 

 

I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.

 

Everyday nowadays, the news seems to bring some other shocking facts or events – innocent citizens bombed, partying people murdered, a new civil war, a secret military mission, a coup… being sad or claiming solidarity on the internet is not enough anymore. It is high time that we make more of an effort to understand more of what is going on. What is ISIS about, the state that aims to be without borders, and that claims so many attacks. What is happening in those countries that were said to live through an ‘Arabic spring’, even when they were not in Arabia, but in Africa. Spring was soon over, coalitions were formed, old rivalries that ‘the West’ not even knew about came to the fore, and chaos in most cases seemed the only lasting result. And now, the failed coup in Turkey. People are twittering for or against the putschists, both in the name of democracy – how is that possible? If the president makes an appeal for people to support the nation – what does he mean?

In my latest post I made an attempt to outline my father’s views on the nation state – which, he thought, had become obsolete, something of the past. His experience, on that not so fine day, of foreign soldiers just crossing the border and walking past your house as if they had the right to do so – made it clear that the naive trust that our country is a protected piece of the earth, safe, belonging to ‘us’, the people who have the right to live here, is just that: naive. The imagined protection by this country, which makes us call it ‘home’, depends on the strategies and secret actions of governments, secret services, international trading agreements, financial deals: all kinds of complex things out of the sight of the normal citizen. When people say: ‘we don’t want any more strangers to enter our country’,  they imagine that there is such a thing: a country which can be possessed, enjoyed as ours. It can, of course, but this enjoyment and its benefits depend on forces we may not even want to know.

And then, a government can pronounce the state of emergency and close its borders. Because there is a threat from within. There is an enemy in ‘our country’, and the state power promises to find it before it can escape, and – to use that so often misused slogan, ‘to bring it to justice’. If the borders are closed, every citizen can potentially be that enemy, this has to be found out, so what made the country safe in the imagination, the powers that represent the nation with its borders, now make it into a virtual prison. Not free to move, to get out. Or to get in.

Yesterday evening I started reading in the memoir of Raul Hilberg (1926-2007), the historian who was the first to try to understand the genocidal crimes of nazi Germany against the Jews, and others, by meticulously sifting through the German archives that were brought to the US after the war. The memoir relates of how this monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews, which essentially determined his whole life, took shape, and what happened after that. I was struck especially by the first part of the memoir, in which he described how his fascinations as a child for geography, for maps, and for trains, eventually developed into deeply philosophical insights into the construct of the nation, the state, its inner workings, the balance of powers that keeps it floating, so to speak. I want to give you some quotations, which beautifully illustrate the kind of reflection we need to understand the complex events around states, borders, and powers, of our day.

“At the age of ten I was presented with a precious book. [..] The book was an atlas. A masterpiece of cartography, it was made for the eye, with maps so finely shaded that they highlighted the distinctions between major and minor rivers, deeper and more shallow waters, higher and lower mountains. Railroad tracks were always sketched in red, and cities were shown with circles and lettering denoting their size. Soon I leaped across the topographical features to the international frontiers. Here was something new: the political world, the world of power. Needless to say, Germany’s and Austria’s territorial losses in the First World War were indicated on several maps, and understandably Palestine was absorbed in an Arab desert.” (p. 41) The way this is written, Hilberg takes his reader from the wonder of nature, to the still relatively innocent wonder about human civilization, to another level of the map: the political struggles of nations over the land, to move on from there to the level where their recent wars, and the impending ones become visible, and finally to the way these wars use the technique of remembering old borders, or of emptying the map of stateless nations.

When the Hilberg parents, with their son, a Jewish family, fled Austria in 1939, Raul experienced the problem with borders and state power once more and described it in a very illustrative manner: “On April 2, 1939, we were on a train moving slowly across the Rhine bridge linking Kehl, Germany, to Strasbourg, France. A German woman approached my mother in the corridor of the railway car and, full of curiosity, asked my mother for her reactions to the Nazi regime. […] My mother replied that she would not speak until we had reached Strasbourg. A few minutes later we were free and – to be precise about our new status – refugees.” (p. 43) The train, moving over the earth, crossing a river, a bridge, a border, and on one side you could say ‘home country’, but not speak your mind;  on the other side of that imaginary line you could, but would be forever uprooted.

When a few years later Raul returned to Germany with the US army, and saw a field where so many young German man lay dead after a battle, he asked himself why they were still sacrificing themselves for that lost state, the third Reich. “I already knew that the state, and its political order, rests on the possibility of an ultimate resort to force by a government acting against its own citizenry. The men who, with barking officers behind their backs, made their suicide run were proof of the viability of this system.” (p. 55) Further in the book he described his outlook on life as without any hope, completely despondent. A despondency that flowed from seeing and understanding the workings of the powers that could change nations into prisons, and borders from instruments for protection into instruments of fear. But that also motivated him to dedicate his entire life to making what he saw visible for others too, in words. For if we do not understand, we might not be hopeless, but then we might be completely lost in the games that the forces around us try to play with our lives, and with our minds.

 

 

 

Yesterday was father’s day. Many friends shared pictures to honour their fathers (some of them deceased) on social media. To express what I owe to my father, I will share this piece, which I wrote some time ago, but for some reason kept stored in my computer…

When my father spoke about WW II, one story always returned. The story of that morning when he discovered that our country had been occupied by Germany. Living close to the border, that morning he saw German soldiers passing  his parental home as if they had the right to do so – which made him realize that borders can suddenly become futile,  imaginary. After the soldiers passed, the milkman came into the street and put bottles with fresh milk in front of the house, like he did every day. The absurdity of life going on. Only now do I understand why that story was so meaningful for him, kind of summing up the connection between his convictions and actions.

At that date, May 1940, he had just turned nineteen and had started his studies at the university not long before. In the following years, he tried to find his own personal response to the occupation – intellectually and in practice – which led him to take part, three years later, in underground activities. This was not a subject about which he talked much, and when he did, it was in an almost excusing manner. The cell didn’t accomplish much, and its members as well as their families paid the highest price. Only after a few months they were found out, three members were executed, my father survived in hiding. His brothers were taken hostage, and were made to suffer the concentration camps; his younger brother perished in Bergen Belsen. The family of the founder of the cell was burned to death in their house as retaliation by the nazi’s – among them a girl with Down’s syndrom. The activities of the resistance group were to help people get into hiding with false papers, and to print and distribute pamphlets to call the people of their city to join in the general strike  of April and May – a protest strike by the Dutch people against the occupying forces.

After the war, my father never went to meetings of ancient resistance people, and didn’t like the kind of self-congratulatory atmosphere surrounding much speech about ‘the resistance’. I always understood something of the emotional side of his discomfort, as he had to live with the unspeakable personal consequences of his actions. Only now am I beginning to understand there was also a principled side to it. His actions were never for ‘the fatherland’ and he would not have participated in armed actions against the nazi’s. For he had, in a sharp light, seen the futile and imaginary character of the idea of a nation connected to a piece of the earth. It was, in his eyes, not worth the fight. He spoke often about how he saw that the era of the nation-state was over, although the world didn’t yet understand that. He was a visionary idealist – his actions were aimed at stimulating the suppressed democratic potential of actual human beings, not at saving the Dutch nation.

During the last conversation we had about the war, a few months after his 94th birthday, he told me that his resistance work did not just start when he got involved in the group initiated by his friend Toon Fredericks, as I thought. His first ‘illegal’ action was in 1940, when he intentionally ‘lost’ his identity papers, to help a Jewish man to flee or go into hiding. Again, during the Christmas time of 1942, he assisted in helping a Jewish woman with her child (the wife of an Austrian artist, who already was hiding with friends) to go into hiding in a home for the elderly nearby. These were untold stories until the end of his life. He would never want to be in position that people would applaud him for such actions. Not just because no applause could ever make up for the loss and the destruction of that time. But also, I suspect now, because he felt a distance to any public honoring of helping Jews, such as that by the state of Israel. No state power, to his view, should morally appropriate the actions of individuals to stand up for their fellow human beings. In this vein we spoke about the Paris attacks, last year: how French government officials appropriated the protests against terrorism of grieving individuals, interpreting them as support for the French nation.

My father could no longer believe in the nation state, after that morning in 1940. In discussions on political philosophy, in which I put forward Seyla Benhabib’s thoughts on this matter, and Hannah Arendt’s, he granted me that nation-states – peoples seeking protection by claiming a piece of the earth, drawing and defending borders – perhaps were still a necessary institution (the lesser evil) in these times. I, for one, did not share his 1940’s idealist belief that the problems of a nation-state system could be overcome by creating a world federation or something of that sort. I was always more on the Nietzschian side, stressing that one always has to reckon with human irrationality – in whatever era we might come to live.

Having had a full philosophical training myself, whereas he did only some courses in philosophy while studying law, and later chose practical jobs above academia (jobs in which he tried to stimulate the potential of individuals: young workers, those seeking later in life education, and young people with learning disabilities) – my argumentation was stronger. So he usually let me ‘win’ on the theoretical plane. It is only now, when I see his life ‘from the outside’ so to speak, as he died last October 2015, that I understand the consistency between his beliefs and his actions. He did believe in democracy, he did believe in the necessity of reason to organize human relations, he did believe in furthering human potential. He was very cautious of any combination of state power and national sentiments, to say the least. His hesitations over against armed resistance sprung from the same source: it would, in his eyes, always be incorporated by some kind of nationalist state power, and could not support a free flourishing of human life. As much as I can see how this position is very idealist, perhaps not of this world, I acknowledge respectfully his silent consistent adherence to the experience expressed in that story of soldiers and a milkman, of early 1940: that no nation state can protect you, in the end, and that, in spite of that, life just goes on.

 

 

From the time I was in primary school, my father and I were in an ongoing conversation and discussion on philosophy, religion, politics, law and ethics. My philosophical work has to a certain extent been the critical exploration of presuppositions and foundations that showed in these discussions. This article is meant to say thank you (a thank you that is never enough) to my father for the intellectual and critical inspiration I got from him sharing his thoughts with me.

“What kind of relationships they may desire to have with us? And how can we, collectively, find new ways of co-existing?” These were among the questions in the Call for Papers of a short conference I attended last week, on Animal Agency: Language, Politics and Culture. It was the most interdisciplinary conference I ever attended – with speakers from Art History, Cultural Geography, Philosophy, Linguistics, and more fields. It was organized by Eva Meijer, who, during her PhD research on Political Animal Voices is very active to organize exchange among those working in some way or other with questions around our relations with animals. I learned a lot. About the history of certain cows in Urugay, who were brought early on by the Spanish, turned wild and reached 48 million and then were killed off for industry and trade when the country became more populated. It was the research by anthropologist Maria Fernanda de Torres Alvarez, currently working in Montpellier, which taught me that. Another researcher, Mihnea Tanasescu, working in Brussels, enlightened us about the Nazi history of the rewilded Aurochs that is prominent in a Dutch rewilding project, the Oostvaardersplassen. And there was more, on animal language, on painting elephants, on animals in poetry…

I had undertaken the experiment, for my presentation, to try to not talk about animals, but to let an non-human animal have the word. But how to do that?  I chose to use the method that is common to writers of novels, when they embody a person from another sex, age, or culture. It is comparable in a sense (although the setting is different) to the method used by traditional shamans, who enter a trance state to communicate with (a.o.) the spirits of animals. The animal invited to ‘speak’ uses my knowledge and language (that is why he sounds as a philosopher), but I have tried to suppress my point of view of the world, to let his shine through. The first one to come forward was an old crocodile. Just a few quotations:

“As the spirit of crocodile, I call myself ‘grandfather’, because you think that my genetic structures were earlier than yours, and we left some of ours, through the course of species-transformations, behind in your body and mind. So if I call myself grandfather, you can 1) understand our relationship, as you understand it biologically and 2) it will bring you (I hope) to have respect for me – as you should towards your human grandfather, even if he has no teeth anymore and spends his days in a boring home for elderly people.”

(when asked why he eats us)

“I am sorry, but how can you ask that – without being aware, the moment that you speak, of what you have done to us? You have not only eaten us, and continue to do so to this day. Look it up, please, on your internet – you can even buy, for instance in the UK (imported from South Africa), crocodile burgers – 2 for 3.99 pounds. So you eat us. But more, you have made shoes and bags from our beautiful skin. You have used our body for medicine. Considering me to be your grandfather – those are rather cannibalistic acts, aren’t they? And you have done more – you have discriminated against us, called us names. You have called us primitive and cruel. You speak about our heritage as ‘crocodile brain’ – and that is not meant as an honorable adjective, as I understand it!”

(telling something about himself and about us)

“I am the master of fearlessness. I lie still, sure of myself, that I will have to die, and having accepted that as long ago as I can remember. […] I lie and wait, still, very still, to be able to come into action in a split-second – with all the forces I master in my body, to catch what was coming toward me from eternity. I have a hard time believing you are the superior race, running around and mastering nothing, not even your own forces, not even your own body, or your mind. But what can I say. I didn’t see you coming, so I coudn’t catch you and kill you before it was too late. You came to destroy our habitat and kill without remorse. But now you have somehow grown strong in your foolishness, and I don’t know what to do about it…”

I slightly reworked these passages from my paper, and they will be reworked more as I hope to publish them somewhere else in the future.

After the conference I learned even more, as several contributors were so kind to send me materials connecting to my paper presentation. Certain of those will certainly be read more intensively by me in the future – the works of Australian environmentalist philosopher Val Plumwood, who lived through an attack by a crocodile, and we are lucky to be able to read what she learned from that. Not to hate crocodiles, that’s for sure, but to view our own species differently – “as part of the food chain – eaten as well as eater.” More about that another time perhaps.