Thirteen Observations by Lemony Snicket

This moved me enough to break my blog hiatus. Mr Snicket has artfully articulated what I could not:

Thirteen Observations made by Lemony Snicket while watching Occupy Wall Street from a Discreet Distance

1. If you work hard, and become successful, it does not necessarily mean you are successful because you worked hard, just as if you are tall with long hair it doesn’t mean you would be a midget if you were bald.

2. “Fortune” is a word for having a lot of money and for having a lot of luck, but that does not mean the word has two definitions.

3. Money is like a child—rarely unaccompanied. When it disappears, look to those who were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while you were at the grocery store. You might also look for someone who has a lot of extra children sitting around, with long, suspicious explanations for how they got there.

4. People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.

5. There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.

6. Nobody wants to fall into a safety net, because it means the structure in which they’ve been living is in a state of collapse and they have no choice but to tumble downwards. However, it beats the alternative.

7. Someone feeling wronged is like someone feeling thirsty. Don’t tell them they aren’t. Sit with them and have a drink.

8. Don’t ask yourself if something is fair. Ask someone else—a stranger in the street, for example.

9. People gathering in the streets feeling wronged tend to be loud, as it is difficult to make oneself heard on the other side of an impressive edifice.

10. It is not always the job of people shouting outside impressive buildings to solve problems. It is often the job of the people inside, who have paper, pens, desks, and an impressive view.

11. Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

12. If you have a large crowd shouting outside your building, there might not be room for a safety net if you’re the one tumbling down when it collapses.

13. 99 percent is a very large percentage. For instance, easily 99 percent of people want a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and the occasional slice of cake for dessert. Surely an arrangement can be made with that niggling 1 percent who disagree.


To Vote or Not to Vote (Part Two)

In Part One of this series, I sketched the outlines of the argument against Christians voting. The goal was to give a defense of principled non-participation, and should not be confused as advocating apathy and/or laziness. Likewise, in this post I won’t address silly, specious arguments for voting, such as ones from civic duty or obligation.

To kick things off, I want to quote Ran Prieur:

A common argument against voting is that it trains you to think that working within the system is the best or only way to make a better world. My answer is: could you set the bar for yourself any lower? That’s like not watching any commercials because then you won’t be able to stop yourself from buying the product. If you don’t think you can vote while keeping a healthy mental distance, now would be an excellent time to learn. Your vote is not a precious flower to be given only to the one you love; it is a cold tactical decision, and collectively, it does make a difference.

Prieur hits on two things I want to highlight. The first is this idea of “healthy mental distance” and “cold tactical decision.” All throughout this essay I am going to continue assuming that politics is corrupt(ing), that power plays are unChristian, that our electoral process is beyond embarrassing. So everything henceforth operates under the assumption that if (big if) we vote, we vote with terrible fear & trembling. We’d be voting with acute self-awareness, reflexivity, humility, and perhaps even with a prayer of forgiveness.

The second idea in Prieur’s paragraph is this idea of purity, in which non-contamination becomes an idol for the leftist Christian (Note: Prieur is not one, just FYI). This is the same problem the fundamentalists have: if I don’t hang out with thieves & prostitutes & rock ‘n rollers, I won’t be tainted by their sin. The principled non-voter is saying something similar: if I don’t participate in xyz, I won’t be complicit in the system. Now I have, over the years, shifted to more institutional notions of sin & depravity, so I certainly think there’s something to “opting out” as much as possible. The confusion is in thinking it is a) wholly possible, and b) a sort of salvation in its own right. Right now, as I write this, wars are being fought in my name and, worse, in the name of my God. Hear this: not voting does not change this fact. My complicity in that violence is not entirely contingent on whether or not I punched a ballot. Furthermore — and I here I love Prieur’s line about the “precious flower” — the fact that those we vote for are fallen is not itself a reason to abstain. There has to be something more here (and in aggregate, perhaps the arguments in Part One do add up convincingly). In my “anti” arguments I appealed to “symbolic weight” as a reason for abstention. Yet I think it could certainly be argued that I attributed much too much weight to that symbol. Is it really the case that I am now “defiled” for casting a vote, yet reliance on the state in hundreds of other ways is less defiling? On one hand, because I want us to live more attentive, more attuned lives I think we ought to weight more decisions more heavily, avoiding the flippant, thoughtless consumer culture around us. Yet we have to avoid over-burdening things — avoid “false equivalency” — where anything less than total, absolute (I’d argue, impossible) purity is seen as the only option.


To Vote or Not to Vote (Part One)

“I think Jesus would have a really hard time voting in America today.” — Anonymous [still voted anyway]

Though elections were a week ago, I still want to discuss something I’ve thought about on-and-off for the last 25-30 months. In a way, discussing whether Christians should vote seems pretty anachronistic in this day and age. 50 or 60 years ago, suggesting Christians stay out of politics would probably not have been a very controversial position. Today, post- Christian Coalition and Moral Majority, this seems a little less popular. I still haven’t made my mind up on this issue either: like the anonymous friend quoted above, I have in the past been loathe to vote and yet done it anyway (Obama, Nov. ’08). This time around I’m not going to tell you whether I did or didn’t, and let you figure it out from reading my pro/con arguments below.

Certain presuppositions: I’m starting from the viewpoint of Christian anarchism, or “Christarchy” if you’re Greg Boyd, and I’m not willing to defend this at the moment. What this means, in this particular context, is roughly this: given that Christianity is about non-power, about solidarity with the marginalized, about opposing the principalities of this world; given that the state is impositional, hierarchical, primarily concerned with consolidating power, and is itself one of the chief principalities of this world; therefore, there can be no relation between Christian & state than that, fundamentally, of conflict. So the “standard” anarchist position, whether confrontational (e.g. Ellul) or quietist (e.g. Eller), almost always recommends not voting. Let’s consider this first.

The most generalized argument against voting is that doing so gives credence to a corrupt, ridiculous game that we play out every few years. Elections — and the ever-lengthening electoral process — are both fetishized & ritualized in ways I want no part in; this I wouldn’t dispute even if I did ultimately vote. I am unsure how any Christian can justify the lying, slandering, gossiping, backstabbing, and greedyass money-grubbing that are part and parcel of all elections. Opting out of this mudpit is simply conceding defeat, plain and simple (see: Russ Feingold). The thing is, virtually everyone admits to all this. The baffling thing is that believers see all this and still decide to participate (a similar paradox attends capitalism itself). It’s not just the process; the outcome, regardless, offers even bleaker options. It is absolutely guaranteed that whatever politicos gain/hold power, violence will be a key, if unspoken, plank in the party platform. It’s true that our present options in America are especially bleak, but our sordid past provides all sorts of examples of warmongers & imperialists from every party and affiliation.

Secondly, non-participation holds enormous symbolic weight. This, in two key ways: politically and theologically. In the former, abstention is a public, visible gesture of the church’s separation from the worldly powers — a distinct people set apart. It’s part of the rejection of nationalism and patriotism (“In Christ there is neither…”); we are not a) citizens of this world, let alone b) of this particular country. As aliens in this land, not voting is a key reminder that this world is not our home — don’t get too attached: to its possession, to its games of power, to its leaders, to its ways of relating to each other. Our approach (and this is just a teaser for another whole essay) ought to be that of missionaries: global missions as paradigm for modes of anarchist being. The error is in thinking that because some government has granted us the legal ability to vote that we then should exercise that option (is/ought fallacy). I mentioned the theological symbolism too. The idea, and I take this to be Eller’s chief reason for not voting, is that it’s akin to a spiritual discipline in which we remind ourselves, as a body, that what the world does is really of no concern to us. Ignore them. “Render unto Caesar” is not simply about taxes: render emotionally and intellectually what is Caesar’s. Stop pretending that true religion is in any way whatsoever dependant on who’s in the White House. It simply does not affect our mission: do good, love mercy, walk humbly with our God; care for the widows, outcasts, poor, downtrodden, the least among us. Your focus is all wrong if you think a 35% tax rate will hinder your chances to live out your faith more than a 25% tax rate will.

[Part Two forthcoming]

The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, “The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality.” The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I’ve done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate” pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe “too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people.” For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively — pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words — where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see “The Tea Party’s Toxic Take on History” (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians” (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, “Victims have long memories… But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting.” I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the “politics of forgetting,” which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold’s Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles — even “one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!” Hochschild’s details Belgium’s King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this “forgotten holocaust,” save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold’s mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. “The horror! The horror!” Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold’s Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I’ve excerpted Hochschild’s passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it’s highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It’s also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold’s Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about “prophets and rebels” in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold’s Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard — and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.


When the passage of H.R.3590 kicked up a shitstorm two weeks ago, I thought of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story entitled “The Improbable Impostor Tom Castro.” This 1911 piece tells of Arthur Orton, a ne’er-do-well operating under the alias of “Tom Castro.” When he meets fellow conman Ebenezer Bogle, the two men hatch a plan to scam Lady Tichborne, a grieving mother who is unable to accept the fact of her son’s death at sea. Hoping to squeeze some buckeroos from this rich old biddy, Bogle decides that Orton/Castro should travel to England to impersonate the late Roger Charles Tichborne even though Castro looks nothing like young Mr. Tichborne at all.

Tichborne had been a slim, genteel young man with a reserved and somewhat self-absorbed air. He had sharp features, straight black hair, tawny skin, sparkling eyes, and an irritatingly precise way of speaking. Orton was an irrepressible rustic, a “yokel,” with a vast belly, features of infinite vagueness, fair and freckled skin, wavy light-brown hair, sleepy eyes, and no, or irrelevant, conversation.

…The plan had an irrational genius to it… Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the beloved Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to find; he knew as that any similarities he might achieve would only underscore certain inevitable differences. He therefore gave up the notion of likeness altogether. He sensed that the vast ineptitude of his pretense would be a convincing proof that this was no fraud, for no fraud would ever have so flagrantly flaunted features that might so easily convinced (emphasis mine).

So here’s the Tom Castro Strategy: when an approximation of truth would too easily reveal yourself as fraudulent, shoot for the moon and become as absurdly outlandish as possible.


On the Supposed Birth of the Altermodern

Adbusters — the de facto magazine of choice for leftist fundamentalists — has an interesting article by Micah White on the (too oft-heralded) death of postmodernism and the birth of “altermodernism.” I think he gets things half-right, and we’ll start with his conception of postmodernism:

“…[A]n essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.

The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in inverse. The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation.”

So far I’m fine with this, and he rightly pulls out the political & ethical bent of deconstruction instead of just characterizing it as literary navel-gazing. But I think things fall apart when he starts to spell out how/why postmodernism & deconstruction failed us:

“…[B]y the time the project of deconstructing distinctions was widespread in academia and had filtered down to society at large, oppression lay not in the maintenance of dualism but in the opposite: increasing hybridization. That is the irony of contemporary philosophy: what we take to be a tool of resistance, the application of cutting-edge theory to our contemporary moment, turns out to be a hammer of our oppression. And by rejecting binary thought outright, we were not challenging the status quo … we were helping it along.”


The Paradox of Capitalist Realism

“…The politics of Western powers, and of the American government in particular, are utterly destitute of ingenuity…”

So says Alain Badiou, in an interview I stumbled upon since my last post. As an interesting complement to that discussion, I read through Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and he coincidentally discussed some of the very same issues. He led me to Badiou with this extended quote that explains the chief paradox in question here:

We live in a contradiction: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian– where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.

The result, Fisher says, is “on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” As I argued previously, this paradox evidences an abject lack of imagination — Fisher discusses how free market capitalism has penetrated our very unconscious — and a profoundly conservative spirit, a total fear of change. So Americans end up having these really absurd public discussions (spectacles, really) in which, for example, it is widely acknowledged that the US healthcare system is deeply broken (inefficient and expensive) and yet absolutely no desire to do anything about it. Even if universal single-payer healthcare had demonstrably failed in every other nation, you would think the so-called patriots on the Right would have enough confidence in “American ingenuity” to believe that we could get it right.

Fisher more eloquently re-states that old “dare to dream” cliche:

…Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable [i.e. neo-conservative free-market capitalism] to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed impossible seem attainable. It is worth recalling that what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’…

In the same interview quoted initially, Alain Badiou has a beautiful little paragraph that sums up some of my feelings on this:

My philosophy desires affirmation. I want to fight for; I want to know what I have for the Good and to put it to work. I refuse to be content with the “least evil.” It is very fashionable right now to be modest, not to think big. Grandeur is considered a metaphysical evil. Me, I am for grandeur, I am for heroism. I am for the affirmation of the thought and the deed.

Italics mine in both quotes; Badiou quote taken from this excellent Cabinet interview.


An Idiotarian Without Imagination

Little Green Footballs named Glenn Beck their Idiotarian-of-the-Year for 2009, which is a fitting, if obvious, selection. It made me wonder about the Idiotarian-of-the-Decade. My nemesis, G. Walker Bush, is perhaps a too-easy candidate. I’ve ultimately decided that such a ignominious award should go to Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama is best known for “The End of History,” a 1989 paper based on a lecture that eventually became a full-length book. 20 years after the fact, I’m calling Fukuyama out because the 2000’s saw the clearest implementation of policy based on Fukuyama’s theories, and, simultaneously, the total refutation of these same moronic theories.

Big events in 1989 inspired small ideas in Fukuyama’s head. As you recall, these were the times when the Berlin Wall fell, when the USSR broke up, when the Cold War ostensibly ended. For Fukuyama, these events represented the total triumph of liberal democracy and free market capitalism. Politically speaking, mankind was now at the end of our ideological evolution having successfully reached our “final form of government.” Like all good Modernists, Fukuyama craved a “homogenous state” characterized by “easy access to VCRs and stereos.” It’s very revealing that he considers consumerism to be a hallmark of an advanced society, and not, for example, easy access to healthcare or employment.

Fukuyama is not as well-known in the mainstream as, say, Milton Friedman (or Thomas Friedman for that matter), but he had a profound influence on neo-conservative ideology. If we are literally living at the end of history, if everything from here on out are merely trifling footnotes, what do we make of those who are resisting this history? How do we handle the “various provinces of human civilization” who need to be “brought up to the level of its most advanced outposts?” You wouldn’t be far off if you guessed perpetual war to secure perpetual peace in order that free economies might ineluctably spread to every corner of the globe. In Fukuyama’s old-fashioned metanarrative, those with the wrong ideology are literally backward-looking people, old-fashioned savages stuck in another age. You can justify all sorts of brutal behavior in the name of Progress. Hence the reason, in part, that nuking the shit out of the Japanese was legitimate: for Fukuyama, the nukes literally bombed ideology (not simply, or even primarily, people) so as to permanently erase fascist ideology from their culture. (more…)

Decade Recap

Has this been, like, the worst decade ever or what? Time Magazine seems to think so. They don’t hold back: “Call it the Decade from Hell, or the Reckoning, or the Decade of Broken Dreams, or the Lost Decade. Call it whatever you want — just give thanks that it is nearly over.” I’m surprised this got published, but I can’t say I disagree (some hyperbole notwithstanding). My decade started with promise, then took a sharp downturn real fast. Maybe this New Year’s Eve I’ll rub the belly of a white rabbit to ward off the curse of the fukú.

I like that 2009’s end-of-year lists are all turning into end-of-decade lists. Here’s Telegraph’s list of the top 100 films, and here’s The Times Online’s version; I’ve seen 64% and 68%, respectively, of the films on there. Both lists are pretty shite though, with the possible exception of The Times putting Cache/Hidden at #1. (I may be re-considering The White Ribbon too. We’ll see.) Oh, and Telegraph putting an unreleased film on their list, not to mention Fahrenheit 9/11 at the very top, is pretty LOL.

This has really nothing to do with this past decade, but Zizek’s got a new essay on called “Denial: The Liberal Utopia” that’s worth reading; at least the first section is, I zoned out a bit on the Confucius stuff. His discussion of 1988’s They Live and “critico-ideological glasses” is really top-notch, imo.

Lastly, I have to at least mention this Afghanistan travesty, which I’m hoping will somehow pull the public away from the Tiger Woods drama. I liked Bob Herbert’s NYT essay on this, mostly because he quoted Eisenhower:

“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower,  “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

I suspect the impotent Left will wave & holler for a while before giving up and not even protesting when their congressmen quietly vote to fund this escalation. I was hoping the Right would oppose this out of knee-jerk hatred of everything Obama does/says/thinks/is, but it looks like their love affair with cluster-bombs and nifty predator drones will win out; militarism ekes out racism FTW. Well, FTL for Afghans, who will see their “Decade From Hell” stretched a little further.

Lessons in Sensationalism (Palin Edition)

Reddit was all hot-n-bothered yesterday because a Daily Kos blogger (citing another blogger, citing an anonymous blog commenter) says Sarah Palin’s bus tour is a sham & a fraud. More specifically, that Palin has been jetting around to book signings via private plane and only pretending she’s touring the country by bus. Furthermore, there’s the explosive revelation that Palin’s plane is actually owned by Samaritan’s Purse, a shadowy cabal that uses charity work as a front for Franklin Graham’s own nefarious plots. To add insult-to-injury, she’s using this charity plane to fly to forts (Bragg & Hood) and defame our Commander-in-Chief (heil!) in front of our own troops!

Let’s be frank up front: the people peddling this non-sense are pulling the Left-wing equivalent of a Glenn Beck move and that these folks cast their ballot for the same man I did makes no difference whatsoever.

Maguindanao Massacre

If you look at a map just right — try squinting or unfocusing — the islands of the Philippines together look like the profile of the head of a donkey. I assure you this is no commentary on the character of the Filipino people. In fact, I was born in a small town in the eye of that ass. Alas, I am not actually a Pinoy, but I still can’t help but share in the highs and lows of that country. Some 10 days ago I rejoiced with them when homeboy Manny Pacquiao once again triumphed; from that high, we now get tragic news of a mass slaying in the South. Monday, right in the mouth of the donkey, 100 armed men slaughtered 52 unarmed civilians, many of them women, in order to prevent their participation in elections.

The political extremes in the Philippines are astounding. On the one hand, it is a nation that endured decades under an oppressive (CIA-backed) dictatorship, then promptly embraced democracy by electing a woman, a womanizer, and a born-again believer. This is the nation which has had two non-violent coup d’tats, both successful, and one of which I personally participated in. Their peaceful revolutions, and the attendant concept of alay dangal, have motivated pacifists worldwide. On the other hand, it’s a country still rife with political corruption from top to bottom, usually of a form more overt than what we know in the US. The beauty of People Power is unfortunately starkly contrasted with the deep ugliness that can also characterize Filipino politics, an ugliness made violently manifest on Monday in Maguindanao. GMA, a major media outlet, echoed my thoughts:

The crime that occurred in Ampatuan was uniquely savage, but it was also an extreme example of the violent tendency in our politics. At the other extreme are the many citizens who are bravely committed to the difficult and complex process of peacefully deciding who our leaders should be, such as those souls who perished on Monday. It is this tension between savagery and peaceful process that has marked our electoral history.

I wish I felt much hope for the capture and prosecution of those responsible, but I don’t really, especially since the alleged perpetrators appear to have tentacles reaching across vast swaths of power. Tomorrow, Thursday, is a National Day of Mourning.

Terry Eagleton on Waking the Dead

Speaking of Walter Benjamin, the eminent Terry Eagleton has an article in New Statesman entitled “Waking the Dead” about Benjamin and history.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it… In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.