Vaclav Havel’s Endless Spring


I first encountered Vaclav Havel’s work in college. Later, he was a constant presence during my trip through the former states of Eastern Europe in the summer of 1990. The Velvet Revolution was our inspiration, not only for what it achieved in Czechoslovakia, but also for what it promised in the West: a restoration of hope and utopian dreams to politics.

When Havel became President of the Czechoslovakia Assembly and then of the Czech Republic, I, like many, let hope take root. Here was a President who could speak of the soul and of the human needs of his citizens. Here is Havel speaking in 1990, as President of the Czech Republic:

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous.

This was not a President speaking in platitudes. Havel of course criticized the communists. But his critique was universal, aimed at our entire civilization:

When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extremes — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators.

Politicians simply don’t talk this way, and it was thrilling for those of us following what was happening in the center of Europe. Could it be that he was a new type of politician for our times? Might we finally have found a philosopher king, one who could rejuvenate politics both in the former Soviet bloc and also in the West?  It was a time for grand dreams, dreams that reach from the post-communist revolutions of 1989 to the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the week since I heard that Havel had died, I have thought much about what he has given me and those of us who were touched by his politics and his writing. Havel wrote not simply about the horrors of totalitarianism, but as movingly about the horror of living in a world in which people have stopped meaning what they say. The true evil of our time is not simply repression—although we should never ignore or accept the horrors of repression—but soul-destroying meaninglessness, the loss of a politics of purpose, and the absence of higher truths that might inspire human greatness.  In such a world, individuals retreat into their private lives, focus on themselves and their careers, and abandon the political aspect of human being: the need to live in public together with others as part of a common world. Havel did not only identify and write about this problem; his Velvet Revolution is, along with recent movements like the Arab Spring, a shining example of the power of people to reassert human meaning in an inhuman world. 

I have also since Havel’s death been thinking about his essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Hannah Pitkin had me re-read Havel’s essays in a course on Hannah Arendt, and “The Power of the Powerless” stands out as one of the all time classic works of political thinking. I teach it frequently and often recommend it to my students. In memory of Vaclav Havel, and as a present to you all, we have laid out a version for you. Enjoy your Holiday Read. But do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a gift that will enthrall you for years

In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel makes famous the story of the green grocer. Every year the grocer receives from the Communist Party a sign that reads: “Workers of the World, Unite!” He is told to display the sign in his shop window. He does so year after year, thoughtlessly, because the Party tells him to and doing so harms nobody. It is easier to comply than to resist. There seems to be no point in refusing, since what can one individual do against the Party machine.

Years such as 1989 and 2011 remind us of the power of one. So too does Vaclav Havel. Such reminders are well worth heeding. For what the green grocer does not realize is that he is not as powerless as he thinks. If he were simply to refuse to put the sign up in his window, that one act of resistance will speak volumes. For his refusal shows both the weakness of the state and the power of the one—a power embodied in Havel’s life and, perhaps, most nobly expressed by Henry David Thoreau:

I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name–if ten honest men only–ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever.

What Thoreau knew and Havel showed is that man is a beginner, someone whose actions can have surprising and spontaneous reactions. Simply acting when others behave is a clarion call to return to our human potential to act and to take up our own freedom.

To act, to tell the truth, to upend expectations and be surprising, is difficult, especially since today nearly all actions are easily dismissed as simply the expected behavior of some political, social, or economic group. Occupy Wall Street is too easily dismissed as a fringe of the left just as the Tea Party is too easily written off as a bunch of right wing Republicans. In both movements, real anger and passion and humanity have striven to rise above the efforts of the spectators to reduce the calls for change to recognizable political programs. It is rare for an action today to truly surprise and force the world to take notice, as happened in Tunisia this Spring when Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Beginning something has always been hard, but it gets more challenging when all action is knowingly set within sociological and behavioral categories, thus rendered rational and unsurprising. And yet, even when it seems impossible to begin something new, the new breaks out in the world. It is this profoundly Arendtian insight that Havel teaches: that tired and meaningless political systems are always vulnerable to those who think and act. The power to think and to act can expose the lies upon which any totalitarian or post-totalitarian system must be based.

Havel’s great insight is that at a time when politics is vapid and false, one person’s action, his or her refusal to simply accept the status quo as inevitable, can set in motion profound political change. This is a lesson we continue to learn and re-learn. It is one we must never forget. “The Power of the Powerless” is one of the great essays of the 20th century. In honor of Vaclav Havel’s death, it is well worth reading again. Click here to read the essay in its entirety.


The Occupy Movement – Visualizing Change

Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.

Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.

In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.

I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn’t allow him the means to live with dignity.

Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man’s simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.

Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran’s lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.

I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe.  Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.

The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can’t afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don’t expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.

The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?

Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is  an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?

Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.

The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.

Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a “mere machine”—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a “perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things.”

Hannah Arendt discusses Kant’s use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:

Metaphor is  … the very substance of poetry”; without it, “there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen.”

For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of “dog” or of “God” that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.

As Arendt writes:

[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains “concrete” and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and “the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations” through plausible associations by which images are joined together.

Arendt’s point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.

That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, “fascinating and disquieting.” It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.

The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon.  She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that

“poetry,” when read aloud, “will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points.”

I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance “Floating the Tongue” is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world.  In Arendt’s words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge “the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances.”

Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. “Politics,” writes Hannah Arendt, “deals with the coexistence and association of different men.” As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.

A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that  provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.

For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion.  We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.

On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.

-Roger Berkowitz

On Facts (For Elisabeth Young-Bruehl)-Patchen Markell

“Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics”

I spent December 2 in Greencastle, Indiana, talking about politics, political theory, and the life and work of Hannah Arendt at DePauw University.  Over dinner, I had sung the praises of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography of Arendt, For Love of the World—a book that needs no publicity from me, but which I’ve come to admire all the more as I’ve learned how much and what kind of effort it takes to recount even a slice of someone’s story, much less a whole life.  When I came back to my hotel room after dinner, I found, online, the news of Elisabeth’s death.  In this terrible retrospect, my comments about the biography felt inadequate.  I’d said something about the care she devoted to the facts of Arendt’s life, which, I worried, might have sounded trivializing, as if a biographer were just an assembler of details, and as if Elisabeth hadn’t also been an interpreter and a thinker in her own right. Not to mention that invoking the facts must have seemed quaint, or naïve: who talks that way anymore?

Arendt, of course, talked that way, and it had always sounded a little jarring to my constructivist ear.  Maybe that’s why, like many other readers, I had usually remembered her essay “Truth and Politics” as a forceful attempt to emancipate politics from the category of philosophical truth, and neglected its other half: a defense of the political relevance of “factual truth,” which Arendt had no trouble characterizing as a matter of respect for the “brutally elementary data” of human events.  (Her preferred example: “On the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium.”)  But I had recently had occasion to come back to “Truth and Politics” and to Arendt’s invocation of factual truth, and—I now realized—the line of thought that had emerged from that reading wasn’t unrelated to my deepening appreciation of For Love of the World.

The real reason Arendt’s appeal to brute facts was so jarring, I think, is that we’re used to hearing such appeals as table-thumping attempts to end a conversation, to put doubt to rest, to anchor a political judgment in something undeniable; and that sounds like the very strategy Arendt criticized in the case of appeals to rational or philosophical truth, which are supposed to have enough “compelling force” to cut through the tangle of competing and conflicting opinions.

But this wasn’t Arendt’s point.  She conceded that claims to factual truth, like all truth-claims, assert a kind of peremptoriness, and therefore strike us as “despotic” in their “infuriating stubbornness.”  At the same time, though, she insisted on the weakness and fragility of factual truth, not only in the sense that facts are vulnerable to manipulation at the hands of political actors, but also in the sense that the “mere telling of facts,” on its own, “leads to no action whatever.”  The bruteness of facts is extraordinarily limited in its reach: that it was the German army and not the Belgian that crossed the frontier in 1914 may be one of those givens that we “cannot change,” but nothing further follows from the fact itself.

Why, then, are these “brutally elementary data” politically relevant?  Because in an era of “organized lying,” in which political actors and ideologists do not simply deny or falsify particular facts, but struggle to represent factual truth in general as a tightly ordered, internally consistent system, the recounting of inconvenient facts can disrupt such efforts to give factual truth a compulsive power that, Arendt thought, reality itself lacks. In this context, an appeal to the bruteness of facts needn’t obscure plurality or bypass the need for judgment: on the contrary, it can disclose that need, showing an audience its situation in sufficient factual richness that nothing will seem to follow from that situation automatically.  (“The question was never to get away from facts but to get closer to them,” Bruno Latour once wrote; perhaps he and Arendt are not so far apart after all.)

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had a brilliant sense for this Arendtian chemistry of facts, for their paradoxical power to serve, precisely in their bruteness, as a kind of leaven, opening up rather than shutting down occasions and spaces for judgment.  Maybe all great biographers do.  Yes, she did much more than recount the facts of Arendt’s life; she was also an interpreter, who transformed the “raw material of sheer happenings” into a meaningful story, one that was informed by her own interest in and knowledge of matters for which her teacher and subject had little patience, like psychoanalysis.

But For Love of the World is not and does not feel tendentious in its treatment of the facts of Arendt’s life. It is too generous for that, it tells us too much more than it would need to if the facts were only there to prove a point, and, in the disinterested care with which it treats those many factual matters that are not cruxes in her own interpretation—and most of them are not—it invites and enables its readers to tell the story differently.  It is not the authoritativeness of Elisabeth’s account of why Arendt matters, but the firmness of her grasp of small details, and the lightness with which she deploys them, that make her book, for so many readers of Arendt of so many different theoretical persuasions, an indispensible part of “the ground on which we stand, and the sky that stretches above us.”

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

We were saddened to learn of the passing of Václav Havel yesterday.

Havel, the Czech writer, intellectual, and former dissident, was a founder of human rights movements, Chapter 77 and Vons. His outspoken support of these organizations resulted in a decade spent in and out of prison.

He was the chief negotiator and instigator in peacefully ending more than forty years of Communist rule in his country, a feat which became known as the Velvet Revolution. He then led his nation after the collapse of Communism, becoming the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993-2003.

The great thinker retained his strong sense of morality until the end, making him one of the world’s most revered leaders. His eloquence, optimism and sense of fair play inspired not only a nation, but the world.

“Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community,” he said. “Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.”

Click here to read Timothy Garten Ash’s memories of Václav Havel.

Click here to read Havel’s obituary in the New York Times.


Christopher Hitchens on Antisemitism

Christopher Hitchens has died. We and all the world are poorer for the loss.

Hitchens was not an Arendt Scholar, but he did deliver the keynote address at the Hannah Arendt Center’s inaugural conference, Thinking in Dark Times, in 2006.

I invited Christopher to speak for a few reasons. First, Christopher was constitutionally incapable of giving a bad speech. Having heard him speak many times, I can safely say that there is no one who consistently enthralled, provoked, and stimulated as Christopher did. Secondly, I invited Christopher  because it was clear to me that much of his writing at that time showed the influence of Hannah Arendt. If I disagreed with his support for the Iraq war, I had enormous respect for him as one of the few public intellectuals with the courage to express strong and often unpopular opinions. And I was always impressed at his ability to make me think, to argue for his opinions with unparalleled wit and elegance. So I took a chance and issued the invitation, along with an apology: As a brand new Academic Center with no sources of funding, we could only afford to pay him $300. I sent off my email with little hope of a response.

I did not have to wait long. Within about 10 minutes, Christopher had accepted my invitation. Indeed, he wrote, he had been thinking about Arendt’s work and was eager for a forum to engage with others writing and thinking about her. His excitement was palpable as was his generosity and magnanimity as we planned his talk and then continued our conversation after the conference. At the conference itself, Christopher reveled in conversations with Bard students and faculty, staying late into the evening, Scotch in one hand, cigarette in the other, debating and discussing with passion and joy.

The talk Christopher gave was “Reflections on Antisemitism.” It focused on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Arendt’s epilogue on that revolution, which she published in the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt later removed the epilogue from future editions, and it is not widely known or available. Arendt never hid the original epilogue, but simply said that it had “become obsolete in many details.” Christopher wanted to ask why she had written it and, more importantly for him, why she had removed it. That is the question he sought to answer in his talk.

Christopher begins by noting something surprising: Arendt’s epilogue is full of optimism. Indeed, the epilogue on the Hungarian Revolution is one of those rare instances where one finds Arendt excited about the present and hopeful for the future. Having heard about how the Hungarian workers spontaneously organized themselves into workers’ councils, she allowed herself to dream of a return of political action. As Christopher said, in his inimitable and unmatched song of a voice, Arendt even waxed nostalgic.

I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.

Christopher jumped on the optimistic, nostalgic, and naive tone of Arendt’s account, which was in many ways so out of character with the usual intensity and seriousness of her prose. What he found there was, perhaps, one of the most pure expressions of Arendt’s own ideal of political action and her faith in the possibility of the revolutionary freedom. It is worth quoting his account in full:

Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.

The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Future. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.”  Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.

These few lines of Christopher’s show how insightfully he writes and thinks. He has caught sight not only of Arendt’s writing about the Lost Treasure of the Revolutions, but also of what might be called Arendt’s own treasure, the “experience of freedom” that is the fact and the dream underlying so much of Arendt’s political writing.

Christopher went on to make a novel and I think correct argument, that the reason she later removed the epilogue had to do with the antisemitism of many of the Hungarian revolutionaries. As she became aware of the dark side of the revolution, she rethought her initial optimism, and simply withdrew the epilogue.

Christopher then offered a thoughtful critique of Arendt’s rejection of eternal antisemitism. For Arendt, the assumption of “eternal antisemitism” wrongly gives an alibi for the horrors, for “if it is true that mankind has insisted on murdering Jews for more than two thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.” What was needed, instead, was to take seriously why antisemitism reared its head in the 20th century, and also to what extent Jews themselves had a role to play in the rise of German antisemitism. In one of her many provocations in the name of telling the truth, Arendt argued that there was a way in which Jews themselves, wary of assimilation and the loss of their status as a distinct and special people, unknowingly and unintentionally played into the claims of their difference. This was a dangerous and difficult argument, one Arendt approached with her typical courage and force. She made it clear that she was in no way blaming the Jews or excusing the Germans, but was simply insisting that we confront the specificity of 20th century antisemitism. Unlike earlier antisemitism, modern antisemitism took place amidst the background of assimilation, and thus was different from earlier manifestations.

Christopher, who found out only quite late in life that he was Jewish, made a sustained argument that Arendt’s attempt to comprehend antisemitism—to find rational and logical explanations for its appearance—was misguided. Instead, he argued, antisemitism is an illogical, irrational, and inexplicable phenomenon. One that simply must be constantly called out and resisted, but never intellectually analyzed.  Here is how he put it:

When one has analyzed all the different strains and the contradictions that materialize or that constitute antisemitism, whether it’s the Jewish middlemen in the French scandal over the Panama Canal shares, or whether it’s the role of the Rothschilds in financing this or that bourgeois revolution, or whether it’s the extraordinary preeminence of Arendt’s hero and antihero Benjamin Disraeli in forwarding the cause of British imperialism in India, one is still increasingly impelled to doubt that the thing will yield to an analysis, even one that’s as deft and thorough as hers is. Kurt Blumenfeld once quoted an observation, with which Arendt greatly agreed, that was made by his friend and publisher Salmon Schocken as early as 1914. Schocken had said, “In the emancipation period for Jews, one asked: ‘What do you believe?’ Today one only asks: ‘Who are you?’” And the answer was always, to that question, as Arendt had to concede, that whatever you believe, you still have to answer that you are a Jew.  Now, this is a depressing conclusion, because it suggests that the analysis and combating of antisemitism lies somewhere outside the rationalist and Enlightenment universe.

Depressing, indeed, and yet spoken in the name of truth. The truth, Arendt thought, was often unpalatable, and yet always worthwhile. She spoke her truth. And Christopher responded with his. They were two of the bravest intellectuals of our time. And so it should not be surprising to see Christopher take Arendt on, again in the name of truth. It was a quintessentially riveting talk by Christopher Hitchens.

The entirety of Christopher’s talk at the conference is published in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics. For a limited time, you can read his essay here. If you are so inclined, enjoy a glass of scotch while you do so.



Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011


 It is with heavy hearts that we learned of the passing of Christopher Hitchens.

Hitchens, 62, had been battling esophageal cancer for the past year and a half.

The opinionated, iconoclastic, masterful writer continued working until the end, penning

poignant and candid essays chronicling his illness.

We raise our glass to you, Christopher. You will be missed. 

Click here to read a touching tribute to Christopher, written by his brother, Peter Hitchens.

Click here to visit Vanity Fair’s Memorial page erected in Hitchens’ honor.

Israel Puts Eichmann Items on Display

Fifty years after the conviction and subsequent hanging of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, the Israeli parliament has put dozens of artifacts on display relating to the daring 1960 capture of Eichmann in Argentina.

The exhibit, which will be on display in parliament for three weeks before moving to a Tel Aviv musem, showcases items that had been classified and stashed away for decades: the cameras used by Mossad agents to track Eichmann, the briefcase in which they carried fake license plates, the keys to Eichmann’s Buenos Aires apartment and the forged Israeli passport — with the alias Zeev Zichroni — his captors used to smuggle him out of Argentina.

Click here to read more.

Representation in Absentia-Jeffrey Champlin

“Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.”

-Hannah Arendt, “Truth and Politics,” Between Past and Future

When Arendt first refers to political representation, we might think we are on familiar ground. After all, the question of how to move from the citizen to the representative was a vexing problem for the founders of the United States, one that resulted in the creation of the House of Representatives and Senate. The Great Compromise was a way of balancing the representation of  small and large states, and the troubling Three-Fifths Compromise sought to guarantee representation to the southern states while preserving slavery. Today, the debate over the influence of lobbyists, political donations, and corporate personhood speaks to a renewed concern over how politicians can best represent the interests of voters.

Arendt does address questions of political representation of this sort in her detailed examination of the move from the late colonial period to the passage of the Constitution in On Revolution. In the above quote, she speaks of “political thought” in terms of the mental process of an individual—one who asks himself, “what would others who are absent think?”  Moving  from the objective statement of the first sentence to the subjective “I” of the second, she performs what she explains, bringing us inside the mind of someone who thinks through representation. The political subject does not hold on to essential or deeply rooted beliefs, but instead considers one position and then another. One might think of a sequence in a movie that switches between subjective angles, showing how a number of characters view a scene without ever moving back to an objective angle that shows them from outside. The effort of representative thinking is, first, to think from as many viewpoints as possible. This is, at least in part, what Arendt means by “enlarged thinking.”

It is important to emphasize that representation does not simply repeat or copy the multiple points of view of others. One does not, for example, ask others what they think and then consider it. Instead, she says those to whom the standpoint belongs are “are absent.” Since they are not there, a space opens in which I can create a version of their view in my mind.

Rather than re-presentation in the strict sense, it is a matter of creatively presenting. In representing all of those who are absent, I must then seek to make a judgment and judge what opinion all of those people would and should share. In such a way, political thought, as representational thought, requires that I make judgments about what all people should agree upon.

From here we would want to move to a careful study of Arendt’s claim that Kant’s aesthetic third Critique, the Critique of Judgment, has important political implications that Kant himself never recognized. A condensed version of this argument in Between Past and Future speaks of “wooing,” or persuading, others from one’s individual position. An example might be drawn from the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has gained attention in part as a platform for individual stories about injustice. From an Arendtian point of view, the success of the movement would depend on making personal insights universal by imaginatively listening to others. In this way, one does not merely tell of one’s own experience but represents the truth. Of course, to speak of representing the truth here requires that we guard against traditional prejudices. For Arendt the truth and the universal are not pre-given but constructed through action an not eternal but rather exist for a determinite period of time.

-Jeffrey Champlin

Hannah Arendt Center Awarded NEH Grant

We are thrilled to announce that the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has been awarded a prestigious NEH Challenge grant of $425,000. The grant, which requires recipients to match funds on a three-to-one basis, will help raise a $1.7 million endowment for the Center over the next four years. This grant, in conjunction with a Bard College matching grant, will ensure that the Hannah Arendt Center will receive $2.50 for each dollar that we raise.

NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. The Hannah Arendt Center received the highest grant amount given and was competing with institutions of the highest caliber across the United States.

The grant and its matching funds will help to support the Hannah Arendt Center Fellows Program, help establish an annual First-Year Seminar Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Lectureship in the Humanities, support annual Arendt Center Working Groups in the Humanities, and initiate the NEH-Arendt Center Speaker Series at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

Additionally, the funding will help the Center to continue sponsoring its annual conference, numerous lectures and lunchtime talks. The Center will continue to expand the understanding and appreciation of Hannah Arendt’s humanistic approach to thinking through content created by scholars and individuals around the world that are shared through published volumes, a media archive, a robust blog and website.

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