Telos 175 (Summer 2016): Political Theory, Political Theology

Critical theory inherited the mission of philosophy to know the world and to pursue the good life. Careful examination should shed light on the cosmos and our place within it and contribute to a beneficial ordering of human concerns, when wisdom informs governance. Yet that aspiration to know the world encountered the limits of intelligibility, beyond which reason could not proceed. Meanwhile, the efforts to remake the world in the spirit of reason elicited processes of rationalization, as deleterious to the world around us, the natural environment, as to the world within us, the ongoing cultural crisis of modernity and its social corollaries. That is Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment at the foundation of the critical theoretical tradition that continues to provide a framework with which to articulate a critique of the contemporary in its many heterogeneous facets: the disruption of all forms of solidarity, the pressures on family structures, the erosion of educational opportunities, the growing gap between rich and poor. Add to this the ominous shifts in the international order, including the breakdown of state structures from North Africa through the Middle East, the strains on the European Union, and the return of a repressive semi-dictatorship in Russia, while—at this point in the presidential election season—the United States seems to be tumbling dangerously toward Weimar conditions.

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On the Legacy of September 11

The aftermath of the War on Terror rages on despite bipartisan assurances that “major combat operations are over” and that “the war is coming to a close.” This ongoing conflict has produced, and continues to produce, prodigious human casualties and economic hemorrhaging. Tim Luke’s words regarding September 11, 2001, are in many ways as timely today as they were nearly fourteen years ago.

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Charlie Hebdo and Universal History1

The worldwide reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks can be seen as a welcome indication of a global consensus concerning freedom of speech, individual rights, and opposition to Islamic fundamentalism. However, left-wing critics such as Noam Chomsky have criticized the worldwide demonstrations against the attacks as hypocritical because they ignore the more serious massacres that have been conducted by Americans with drone strikes and in military activities in Iraq, Serbia, and Syria. As Chomsky writes, “[a]lso ignored in the ‘war against terrorism’ is the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times—Barack Obama’s global assassination campaign targeting people suspected of perhaps intending to harm us some day, and any unfortunates who happen to be nearby. Other unfortunates are also not lacking, such as the 50 civilians reportedly killed in a U.S.-led bombing raid in Syria in December, which was barely reported.” Such an equation of “their terror” with “our terror” is based on an image of a universal history in which all of mankind lives within a unified natural community and there is a single standard of measure that could be the basis of criminal behavior. We see this same approach in a more moderate form in Jack Miles’s similar exhortation that the proper response to ISIS and Al Qaeda is that “[y]ou are criminals and we send criminals to jail” rather than declaring a “war on radical Islam.” For both Chomsky and Miles, terrorist attacks count as criminal activity and should be equally condemned from the universal viewpoint of a peace-loving humanity. By diminishing the difference between criminal violence and war, they illustrate the basic tenet of a version of universal history—that all humans are linked together into a common set of natural laws and that such laws transcend historical and political differences. Every war in this perspective would be just as senseless and unjustified as any other form of murder. Teju Cole and Slavoj Žižek make a similar move when they indicate that there is something hypocritical about the support for Charlie Hebdo when other massacres, such as the one by Boko Haram in Baga, Nigeria, go unnoticed and unmourned.

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Totalitarianism, Then and Now

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johannes Grow looks at Russell A. Berman’s “Saddam and Hitler: Rethinking Totalitarianism” from Telos 125 (Fall 2002).

In “Saddam and Hitler: Rethinking Totalitarianism,” Russell A. Berman examines the limits of current efforts to understand totalitarianism in light of the juxtaposition of Nazi Germany and Baathist Iraq. He questions the “cultural approaches” often implemented when approaching the study of the Nazi years. Berman doubts whether the German people, under the increasingly violent and fanatical Nazi regime, were truly a Volksgemeinschaft, a happy population believing in every word of the leader, be it true or false, or as the Baathist regime in Iraq demonstrated, a regime of violence, with the party and the leader as the center node propagating terror throughout the state. The author examines three problems present in contemporary discussions of the Nazi regime that may be further elucidated through a juxtaposition of Hitler’s “movement” with the old Saddam regime. The first involves the futility of defining these regimes as either “Left” or “Right.” These types of distinctions do not allow for a full exploration of the effects of these regimes. The second problem is the aligning of Nazism with a sort of “cultural hegemony” rather than with an environment of coercion, violence, and politics. The third concern involves limiting the question of totalitarianism to a certain period history rather than examining its effects on the present.

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Now Available as Kindle eBook: Jihad and Jew-Hatred by Matthias Küntzel

We’re pleased to announce that Matthias Küntzel’s Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism, and the Roots of 9/11 is now available for purchase as a Kindle eBook. To purchase the eBook, visit the product page or buy it from within your Kindle reader or mobile Kindle app.

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The Post-Secular and the Pluralization of Political Theology

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

With the confirmation hearings of John Brennan as director of the CIA fresh in the news, who can doubt the accuracy, or at least the resonance, of Carl Schmitt’s conception of the sovereign—the sovereign is “he who decides on the exception.” With sovereignty so conceived, it has effectively been cast outside the law, introducing a certain arbitrariness and creating a legal limbo that undermine the principles of a liberal democracy.

Enhanced interrogation. Drone attacks on foreign soil. Targeted assassinations. And now, a 16-page white paper from the Department of Justice outlining the legal authority to kill a U.S. citizen without trial. In the words of the New York Times report, the legal brief “adopts an elastic definition of an ‘imminent’ threat, saying it is not necessary for a specific attack to be in process when a target is found.” It also asserts that the decision to kill is not subject to judicial review or restraint.

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