Kazin, Arendt, and the Divinity of Justice

“I think that of all the people I have ever known, you have been the staunchest in thought, the freest from conventional faithlessness.” Alfred Kazin wrote these words to Hannah Arendt in 1961.

A few months ago I was enjoying a lunch with my new friend Matthias Bormuth, author of a wonderful book on Karl Jaspers, and he was telling me how important Alfred Kazin is, how compelling and all-encompassing his thought remains today. I, admittedly, had not read much of his work. Then this week I find Edward Mendelson’s thoughtful and energetic review of Alfred Kazin’s Journals (ed. by, Richard M. Cook 
and published by Yale University Press). I may be slow, but I am definitely interested to read more of Kazin now.

Mendelson shows how Kazin was “driven by his own religious sense of what an eternal truth might really be—something demanding, uneasy, uncompromising.” Kazin was, as was Arendt, someone propelled forward by the necessity of unrealizable ideals.

What God and religion meant for Kazin are simply wonder. Neither the religious god of commandments, nor the philosopher’s god of truth—God for Kazin stood for the belief that the world was meaningful and valuable. At one point in his journals, he writes:

I do not believe in the new God of Communism or the old God of the synagogue—I believe in God. I cannot live without the belief that there is a purposeful connection that I may yet understand which I can serve. I cannot be faithless to my own conviction of value.

It is not surprising, then, that Kazin was, in his own words, charmed by Arendt, and “by no means unerotically.” According to Mendelson, “The writer who most inspires [Kazin] to reverence is Hannah Arendt.”

What most charms Kazin in Arendt is her unfailing sense of justice, her strength to pursue that which is beyond most people’s purview.

When I read her, [Kazin writes in his journals,] I remember, for a brief instance, a world, another world, to which we owe all our concepts of human grandeur…. Without God, we do not know who we are. This is what she recalls to me, and for this I am grateful.

In an essay on Arendt written after her death, Kazin elaborated:

What made her exceptional indeed… was what I will always think of as her intellectual love of God, her belief in gratitude for our gift of being. A less fancy way of saying this: many modern Jews are religiously frustrated; she was not willing to be. While she discounted Judaism, and was often impatient with Jews, she did so out of spiritual need.

Kazin’s point, I believe, is that Arendt believed in freedom and justice with the passion and conviction that religious Jews believe in God. Just as belief in God separates Jews from the everyday world, Arendt’s belief in justice made her a conscious pariah, one who stood apart from the conventions of the world that dull the intensity and mystery of human being.

Pace Mendelson, Kazin’s reverence for Hannah Arendt is founded precisely upon Arendt’s extreme insistence on justice:

In 1963, after reading Eichmann in Jerusalem —a book that echoed [Kazin’s] dismay over Jewish passivity—he sets her down as “one of the just…. She holds out, alone, for basic values.” Her sense of justice “is the lightning in her to which I always respond.”

Kazin, however, was by no means a fawning admirer of Arendt. He was and could be critical, even of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem. He shared Gershom Scholem’s view that Arendt’s tone was unnecessarily “heartless,” and he worried deeply that the “banality of evil” was being and would continue to be misused and abused by journalists around the world. And of course he has been correct in that latter assessment.

What continued to draw Kazin to Arendt, however, was simply the power of her thought. He was taken with the way she would always say, in conversation and in her books, “We must think what we are doing.” To Kazin,

‘Thinking’ as a positive ideal, as a way of closing in on any subject without surrendering to its worldly repute, became [Arendt’s] way of independence as well as a constant goad to her untiring intelligence. Her intellectual self-confidence went hand in hand with a candid “loneliness in this world” to which she always managed to give a philosophical and even theological aura.

To read the Mendelson review (membership required) click here.

Good Radio Program On Eichmann In Jerusalem

In the continuing coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann Trial in Israel, in 1951, the Guardian’s Big Ideas Series has a great radio podcast discussing the Eichmann trial and Arendt’s coverage of it. The program is hosted by Benjamin Walker and features a thoughtful interview with Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Arendt’s biographer.

Importantly, the program also discusses the Stanley Milgram experiments, which began while the Eichmann Trial was still going on. The combination of Arendt’s analysis of the Banality of Evil with the Milgram experiments is crucial to understanding the power of Arendt’s analysis. As Milgram said,

Arendt’s notion of the “Banality of Evil came closer to the truth than one dared imagine.”

One conclusion the program offers is that Milgram and Arendt showed

“That ordinary people can get caught up in their role in a bureaucratic system and thoughtlessly and  carelessly commit evil.”

What must also be recalled is that Arendt herself saw the controversy over her analysis was itself evidence that most people would act like Eichmann, something Arendt herself never said. Commenting on the controversy her analysis unleashed, Arendt wrote:

I had somehow taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction  that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted or even be expected to be trustworthy when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same.

For Arendt, Eichmann was evil, albeit banal, because he could not resist the temptation to evil. She imagined that most good and decent people should act differently. The anger aimed at her analysis, she wrote, was a result of people feeling they themselves might act as Eichmann had.  And Milgram’s experiments seemed to offer a sad confirmation of the fact that the banality Arendt found in Eichmann is much more widespread than otherwise thought.

The Guardian’s program is worth listening to, which you can do here http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/audio/2011/aug/17/big-ideas-podcast-banality-of-evil


Divergent realities the Transformation of Facts into Opinions

Hannah Arendt alerted us to the tendency at a time of rootlessness and homelessness for people to seek meaning in movements. The effect is that people will believe the lying consistency of their movement even at the expense of basic facts, something that augurs the ever-present threat of  the loss of a common world. The overall point Arendt worries about is not simply that one version of a lie will win out. Rather, the danger is that amidst the battle over facts, the very belief in the ability to “say what is,” to know the world, is put into question. Arendt’s worry is that the war over images leads not to the victory of one image over another, but to the victory in cynicism, to the belief that it is simply not possible to speak the truth and say what is:

It has frequently been noticed that the surest long-term result of brainwashing is a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established. In other words, the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth v.s. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.

It is not hard to see Arendtian musings about cynicism and the loss of a common world in today’s politics. Conservatives, as Sam Tanenhaus—the conservative editor of the NY Times Book Review argues in his book The Death of Conservatism—have taken on the trappings of a movement, valuing consistency and power of facts and political engagement in a common political world.

One example of a divergent reality that strikes me daily is that amidst the economic wreckage of the last 3 years, I personally know hardly anyone who has been permanently out of work for 2 years or more. I certainly know many who have lost their jobs and have suffered, but they have found new ones and generally they are still drinking lattes at Starbucks. The same is true for most of my friends—I ask and almost no one knows the legions of unemployed.  In the neighborhoods I live in in NYC and in the Hudson Valley, the tony restaurants are crowded and the surfeit of shoe stores and banks are still in business.

George Packer offers an example of the other worldliness of our times in his good essay on the dueling realities in The New Yorker. Packer describes Danny Hartzell, out of work or underemployed for years, whose economic life has come crashing down around him and who is one of the 16.2% of Americans out of work–according to the more accurate “real” unemployment figures. Whole communities in parts of the country are struggling and suffering, and yet in the world of the highly educated, the recession is often simply a matter of changing jobs. In Washington, the debate surely shows which world the politicians are living in.

There is another way in which Packer’s essay raises the specter of dueling realities. He invokes Max Weber’s famous distinction between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends, association the former with President Obama’s pragmatic effort at compromise and the latter with the Republican’s “raving mad” posture of “juvenile righteousness.” Seems right.

Then  I happened to find a copy of the Wall St. Journal at Starbucks, so I read it, the editorial inclusive. There I found the following points made:

1. The president “remains far more interested in maneuvering to blame a default or credit downgrade on Republicans than in making himself part of any plausible solution to a crisis he insists is imminent.”

2. “it has long been clear that Mr. Obama isn’t interested in spending reform. In February he proposed a budget that spent more than any in U.S. history. In April he demanded that Congress pass a “clean” debt ceiling hike that included no spending cuts whatsoever. Only after House Republicans unveiled their own sweeping budgetary reforms did the White House rush to also claim it wanted deficit reduction as part of the debt-ceiling debate.”

3.  “The President insists his party is offering serious spending cuts and entitlement reform. He also likes to talk about “balance,” which to him means real tax increases immediately and speculative spending cuts some time in the distant future. Behind the scenes the White House has only ever agreed to token reform and cuts. Here’s a number for the debt history books: Mr. Obama’s final offer in the Biden talks was a $2 billion cut in 2012 nondefense discretionary spending. The federal government spends more than $10 billion a day.”

Compare this with Packer:

President Obama, responsibly acceding to the reality of divided government, is now the leading champion of fiscal austerity,…

And compare it also with a recent NY Times editorial:

Mr. Obama, in fact, had already gone much too far in trying to make his deal palatable to House Republicans, offering to cut spending even further than the deficit plan proposed this week by the bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which includes some of the Senate’s most conservative members. The White House was willing to cut $1 trillion in domestic and defense spending and another $650 billion from Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

There are a few things I find interesting about these contrasting views.

1. Packer and the Times on one side (should I say the left?) and the WSJ on the right (admittedly so) are both claiming the mantel of centrist pragmatism, Weber’s “ethic of responsibility.”

2. Depending on whether you live in The New Yorker’s and The New York Times‘ reality or the Wall St. Journal’s reality, you probably see the real world quite differently. You actually see it otherwise, with different facts and different realities. The nation’s two most respected newspapers and probably its most respected weekly present such completely divergent factual pictures of the world, that people who read the one can barely have a meaningful conversation with people who read the other.

3. To read both the NY Times and the WSJ on the same day is to  have very little ability to tell which one is closer to a factual reality–it is, really, to enter a weird situation in which the claim of a common world begins to break down and the confidence fades that there is some truth, that someone can with authority say what is. The point is, that when facts become reduced to opinions, it is almost impossible to talk meaningfully with one another, let alone to have an intelligent political discourse. There is nowhere, it seems, to turn for facts when all facts are simply one sides’ opinion. I can trust the NY Times more than the WSJ, or vice versa, but it is incredibly difficult to actually discriminate between fact and opinion. This makes a mature political discourse nearly impossible.

It is precisely the reduction of facts to opinions that Hannah Arendt so worried about in her essays Lying in Politics and Truth and Politics. And it is the question of how, and also if, we can re-animate a culture of fact in our world that underlies the Arendt Center’s upcoming conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. You can see the program here. And register here.


The City on the Hill is Bankrupt: Politically, Not Economically.

AAA is gone, and with it, one fears, the City on the Hill. American exceptionalism is a fraught theme, and yet it still provides a demand for action that inspires and stiffens the Emersonian backbone of the nation. It is not the economy that will burn the city to the ground, but our collective political weakness. The question before us is whether there is still enough common spirit left in the United States of America to undergird a regeneration of public life and a commitment to the public good–or will the country drown in a flood of individuals unapologetically craven to their private interests.

We could use some of Emersonian self-reliance right now. For our problems, despite the very real and extraordinary debts we have, are less economic than political, moral, and spiritual. Which is why the calm pleadings of economists saying “its not so bad” ring hollow. And why Standard & Poors was more right than wrong to base its decision not only on economic factors, but also on our  political swamp:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed.

Of course this political morass is not limited to the United States. The European Union has been uniquely incompetent in owning up to the size and severity of the crisis in the Eurozone—consider  Italian politicians who refuse to understand that a low-growth economy with 120% of its GDP in debt is a problem. Leaders in Japan have been equally oblivious for 15 years to the fact that their massive debt and culture of passing the buck is simply not working.

But let’s return to the City on the Hill. U.S. politicians continue to promise rosy days ahead, talking about the greatness of America as if the dream were eternal. But it is time to wake up and one can only wonder what or whom today will serve as Henry David Thoreau’s cock crow to rouse us from our debt-financed consumer binge. Someone, somehow, needs to wake us from our looming bankruptcy.

As Walter Russell Mead wrote earlier today, our bankruptcy is more than just an economic problem:

Of what does this looming bankruptcy consist?  In our case it is the looming inability to pay the trillions in unfunded liabilities of all levels of government, but behind it lies a deeper failure and a poverty of soul.  Spiritual near-bankruptcy is the common condition that binds China, Japan, Europe, the US and much of the rest of the world together.

Here in the U.S. as in much of the world, we refuse to take seriously what any sane person knows to be true, that the standard of living that has characterized the American Dream for half a century was and is founded upon funny money and debt. We need to take political control of our destiny, but that first requires that we be honest with ourselves and admit  that whatever solutions we offer to our problems, most of us will suffer  a decrease in the standard of living.

It is an open question how this will happen. Will the highest earners  retain their privileges? Yes,  barring a political revolution of some sort, which is also a possibility. Will those with wealth keep their money in the United States pay taxes as citizens, or will they move that wealth to tax havens around the world even as they militate for tax rebates and lower tax rates at home? Will we as a nation recognize the need for everyone to suffer together, or will we insist on slogans like “no taxes” and “soak the rich”? But the biggest question is: Will we suffer for nothing or will we somehow find a way to make suffering meaningful so that the city on the hill might rise again?

The changes that come—soon or possibly pushed down the road into the future— will encompass all areas of American life. Medical care will be rationed (rationally or economically); the unique privilege of every family living in its own house is already eroding as college graduates move back in with family; salaries and average wages will decrease; our consumption economy will contract. This will be painful but there is no way to avoid it. The question is, when will we find a leader or a political movement that will actually call upon us to face up to our future, inspire us to build a new city on the hill, and and imagine a way for us to get there?

No thinker understood the threat to public society and public action as clearly as Hannah Arendt. She saw that the philosophy of representative government fit all too well the bourgeois desire to focus on one’s private interest and let paid representatives go to Washington simply to ensure that one was left well enough alone to pursue one’s dream. She also saw that a consumer society values the immediate needs of life over the more diffuse and human need to build a common world. Amidst all the post-9/11 rhetoric of patriotism, it is easy to forget that we are living through an utter loss of public feeling and common sense in this country and in others beyond. The bond with our past as well as with our future has been cut and the question for all of us is how, or if, we can in some way live in a world without that sense of connection to a past and a future. This is what Arendt meant with the title of her book Between Past and Future, that space of thinking without bannisters, divorced from tradition, where we have nothing to fall back upon but ourselves. It is a scary proposition, but we have no choice but to live up to it.

Ignore the Facts

Ignore the facts. At least that is what Michele Bachman willfully does, according to her former Chief of Staff.

In today’s Wall St. Journal, Bachman’s former Chief of Staff Ron Carey has this to say about the current Congresswoman and Republican Presidential Candidate (Bachmann has won all the recent straw polls in Iowa):

“Another staff frustration, according to Mr. Carey and some other former aides: It was often hard to get Ms. Bachmann to stope repeating assertions shown to be false.

Ms. Bachmann earned headlines in 2007 when she claimed to have seen secret Iranian plans to carve a “terrorist safe-haven zone” from Iraq once U.S. forces left. She later said her remarks were misconstrued.

Last year she accused Mr. Obama of spending $200 million a day on a trip to India. The White House vehemently deinied the figure, which had surfaced in an Indian newspaper, attrtibuted to a questionable source.

For months, Mr. Carey said, the staff tried to get Ms. Bachmann to stop saying in speeches that Mr. Obama had added more to the federal debt load than all other presidents combined. “It was simply not true, and yet I could never get her to drop that line,” he said.

Amazingly, these revelations are minor parts of the WSJ story and are barely commented upon. I gather this is because it is simply not considered news, let alone shocking, when a major political figure today continues to play fast and lose with the facts. That is just politics, or so it is thought.

Bachmann is not the only politician who seems convinced that if you repeat a falsehood often enough it becomes a valued opinion, if not a truth. Writing in the New York Review of Books 40 years ago, Hannah Arendt Arendt noticed that today unwelcome facts are tolerated only to the extent that they are consciously or unconsciously transformed into opinions. This tendency to transform fact into opinion, to blur the dividing line between them, has led to the now widely observed de-factualization of our world. In her essay “Truth and Politics,” she suggests that our de-factualized politics demands a pre-political discourse of truth-telling.

Without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.

Against the danger of de-factualization stands the truth-teller. The truth-teller, Arendt writes, takes her stand outside the realm of politics. The artist, the scholar, the scientist, the fool: the truth-teller shares their allergy to all political causes. What politics needs, in Arendtian terms, are institutions and persons dedicated to truth outside the scramble for power. In a time when everything is political, the demand for truth only grows more urgent.

It is clear that we face today a crisis of fact that is rotting the core of American politics. It is hard not to be struck by the ascendant stupidities that lately emerge under the umbrella of free speech: that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is a Marxist; that some members of Congress are sure he isn’t an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; that many law-abiding liberals seem to have forgotten that illegal immigrants are here, as yet, illegally; and on. Even before the technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we today have created multiple, insular, and conflicting manmade realities with nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.

I think we can agree that our democracy needs rescuing, the question is how to do so. From all sides we hear two opinions:

1) Responsible political discourse begins with facts.
2) There is little or no responsible political discourse.

The first opinion is a fact. The second, need not be.

Which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is sponsoring a conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in An Age Without Facts” on Oct. 28-29.

Bringing Thinking to our Prisons

The Bard Prison Initiative is one of the most inspirational and also practically important programs that make a difference in our world. It is also one dedicated to the idea that thinking deeply about oneself and one’s world is at the core of responsible and engaged citizenship. Every year one of the Hannah Arendt Center fellows teaches courses in prisons through BPI. These fellows report what other Bard colleagues also say, that the students in prisons are inspirational and brilliant.

Watch the PBS Newshour show on the Bard Prison Initiative that aired last week: