A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog.
An interesting piece by Stephen L. Carter from SF Gate about the death of Qaddafi. Carter discusses the dictator's death in relation to Arendt's distinctions concerning revolution.
The Hannah Arendt Center's fourth annual conference,
"Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts"
October 28-29, 2011 10:30AM-7:00PM
Olin Hall, Bard College
On-site registration begins at 9:30 AM each morning.
Click here to watch a live simulcast of the conference.
Click here to view the conference program.
Tweet about the conference to @arendt_center.
Post a comment about the conference on Facebook here.
Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, and author of The Death of Conservatism will be giving the keynote address this Saturday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference, Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. Click here to read an insightful conversation with Tanenhaus in which he discusses five books that shaped conservative culture, including the novels of Bellow and Updike.
Read the third installment here, pages 52-68.
Read the full article at The New Yorker online.
Andrew Sullivan has an excellent essay in The Daily Beast about the undeniable allure of the Occupy Wall Street protests, in spite of what he calls "the hippie problem." As much as there are elements of the protests and the protesters that sound naïve and even coarse, as much as they at times seem out of touch, there is a core truth to the Occupy Wall Street movements that is so profound that it cannot be denied. In short, we must agree with the basic idea: that our democracy and our political system are broken. Here is Sullivan:
The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.
If you have any doubt that we have lost all trust in our democratic government (and who has such doubts), read this front-page article in today's NY Times.
A healthy democracy needs at least two things.
First, a strong middle class. As thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt have emphasized, political life requires that the people share a common world. Those who are too rich or too poor are excluded from what the people share; they exist often on the fringes of that consensus of common sense. It is the middle classes that determine a strong and meaningful sense of what the people are and give depth and sense to the public world. The best Constitution, Aristotle writes in his Politics, is one that encourages the largest middle class. The loss of our middle class has weakened that common sense and threatens our political system.
Second, a healthy democracy needs a shared factual world. As Hannah Arendt has argued, 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.
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College convenes a conference exploring the loss of fact and the attack on common sense that have corroded our political world and fed our unprecedented distrust of politics. The conference—Truthtellng: Democracy in an Age Without Facts—is this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-29. You can watch the conference via live web simulcast by going to the Arendt Center website on Friday, beginning at 10:30 am.
To read more of Andrew Sullivan's article, click here.
Novelist and critic Zadie Smith will be speaking Friday at the Hannah Arendt Center conference “Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts.” In her Rules for Writers published last year in The Guardian, Smith declares, “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
We are excitedly preparing for the start of the Arendt Center's conference, "Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts" which begins on Friday. In the spirit of Hannah Arendt and the truth, we thought we would revisit Arendt's "Truth and Politics", which appeared in The New Yorker in 1967. We'll be providing you with an installment a day for the next four days. Enjoy!
Click here to read pages 49-50.
The piece can be read in its entirety at The New Yorker online.
In light of the Occupy Wall Street protests the word “revolution” is being bandied about all over the press. We might, however, pause and ask if we have lost a sense of its true significance. Read “The Meaning of Revolution", the first chapter of Hannah Arendt’s stellar On Revolution to grasp what is really at play on Wall Street, as well as what is at stake. “Crucial,” Arendt writes, “to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a beginning should coincide.” Revisiting Arendt’s classic promises to thoughtfully stoke discussion about our current political climate.
Then read “The Power and Paradox of Revolutions” in which Seyla Benhabib provides an important critique of the revolutionary movements in the Arab world. We invite readers to also consider these reflections with reference to Occupy Wall Street and the shift underway in the United States. Benhabib, thinking with Arendt writes, “revolutionary power that destroys the old order must do so in the name of another, higher kind of authority. But where does this authority derive from?” While the OWS protesters seek to abolish what they deem a withered way of governance their aim is to bring about what they consider a sounder political process. What is the legitimizing force in the revolutionary movement underway today in this country?
Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.
The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?
The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:
Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.
The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn't address leverage, and it doesn't target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.
What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade). Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.
Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.
Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.
So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:
1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.
2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.
3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the "Uptick Rule," a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.
4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.
While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument. In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.
Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.
If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let's use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let's have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.
A piece by the Arendt Center's Roger Berkowitz which appeared in "Arguments", the blog of "Democracy, a Journal of Ideas" on October 20, 2011.
“Consensus” is the title of a video flying around the web. With chants and crowd noise in the background, the video begins with a voiceover by a young woman who says:
People ask all the time, well, who are the leaders. Well, none of us are leaders and we are all leaders. We're all the same.
This idea of a leaderless movement is often mentioned in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ lack of demands. What’s overlooked is the deep conviction that many in the movement have about the idea of consensus and the practice of direct and leaderless democracy. What are we to make of the experiment with direct and leaderless democracy going on in Zuccotti Park?
1. The protesters are enjoying themselves. For some critics, this is evidence of the lack of seriousness of the protesters and evidence that they are spoiled and naïve elites with nothing better to do with their time. But what is wrong with bringing joy into politics? Politics, as Hannah Arendt never tired of saying, is an activity of public happiness, of the joyful acting together in public. Those who criticize public happiness have another view, namely, that serious things require working or raising one’s family. We thus have here two opposed views of the world, one prioritizing private life, the other focusing on public life. I give the protesters credit for resisting the self-centered narcissism of modern politics. As did the original Tea Party activists, they have rejuvenated the political discourse.
Click here to read the rest of the piece.
Read Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 essay, "The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man".
Several years ago a friend spent a year studying in Tokyo. Upon her return, in the midst of relaying stories from her time there, she--a modest and reserved young woman--confided that to earn a little extra money she had done something she would never have considered in her native city: modeled nude for a drawing class. She had done this work not in Tokyo, but rather in a small village, Iitate, a few hours away. Her description of its marvels left me ready to depart for a land I had never had a great curiosity about or particular desire to visit. She was a trained dancer and, though retired, had retained both her suppleness and strength. As she spoke I imagined light stretching past the mountains and into the studio full of artists. Their hands steady and serene as they rendered on canvas the shape of stillness my friend had choreographed before them.
That village, Iitate, once one of the country’s greatest wonders is now almost emptied after an evacuation order was handed down in May. Evan Osnos takes us back to the town in his excellent report on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the October 17th issue of The New Yorker. Twenty five miles from Fukushima, the village’s six-thousand residents have been driven from their homes by the emissions released during the March disaster at the nearby plant. The radiation levels are scored on a large meter in the village, and Osnos helps read the numbers for us. “Being there,” he writes “was equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every twelve hours.”
The crisis last spring in Japan, and the country’s sordid history with nuclear technology that led up to it, weaves together two strands of Hannah Arendt’s thought. The first, of particular interest to us at the Arendt Center this fall, is her understanding of truthtelling, and the frail existence of the fact in the political sphere. The second is of course the rise of nuclear power in the twentieth century and the influence it had upon Arendt's work. The detonation of nuclear weapons, Arendt writes in the first pages of The Human Condition, marked the inauguration of modern politics that separates humanity from its earthly essence. Fukushima reveals the relation between these two phenomena: the ways in which the modern parodying of truth is itself born of and bound to the modern desire to ‘untether,’ as Arendt would say, from the earth.
Osnos' report details the nuclear fables and fibs that precipitated March’s meltdown, as well as those that were used to try to swathe it. In the decades after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese were forced to prove they could muster an appetite for nuclear technology, both for the sake of diplomacy and because the geography of the country meant, with limited natural reserves of fossil fuels, they needed to turn to nuclear sources to meet their energy needs.
The term appetite is not used merely metaphorically. Osnos brings to the reader’s attention videos run at nuclear plant exhibitions in the early 1990’s, when the country was trying to convince the public to embrace nuclear energy. The videos featured the cartoon character Little Pluto Boy; in one reel he is encouraging a child to drink down a glassful of his noxious namesake claiming, “It is unthinkable that I could cause any effects on the human body!” Plants were increasingly made to resemble amusement parks in order to mollify anxious mothers. Women, the government realized, would be the arbiters of the country’s nuclear future, and an aggressive effort was underway to persuade them there was no harm in bathing their newborn in a tub of uranium or letting their youngster quaff a pint of plutonium.
The misinformation campaigns crafted to buttress the “myth of total safety” around nuclear facilities was carried out, as Osnos discusses, in concert with the aggressive de-regulation of the industry. An uncanny intimacy developed between government regulators and those in the business of fission. Tokyo Electric’s practice of doctoring Fukushima records, came to light in the early 2000’s, followed five years later by the admission that their initial gesture to come clean about the forgeries had itself been a lie, obscuring half a dozen other “emergencies” at Fukushima that had gone unreported.
This nuclear history is certainly a version of both the manipulation of facts that Arendt warned us against, as well as truth’s strange resistance to it. She writes of truth:
“Whatever those in power may contrive, they are unable to discover or invent a viable substitute for it. Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it.”
The simple obstinacy of the factual world means that while an un-repaired reactor, or the faulty handling of fuelrods, may be camouflaged, such truths will eventually erupt—in this case literally and catastrophically—back into the realm of affairs.
What is both clear and crucial here is that this obstinate quality of facts, essentially the symptom of the immanence of the human world, stands in direct opposition to our attempted flight from it that Arendt takes up in her writing. The physical wish to transcend our earthly home and its limitations, through space voyage and cellular vivisection, is often accompanied by the attempt to denigrate and deny facts; the earth’s epistemological furniture. A falsehood as blatant as that plutonium is potable, is not just industry spin, rather it is part of the ethos that says the greater the kilowatts the better the chance that we will accomplish that twentieth century feat of finally busting out of our bodies.
Nuclear power, like its nefarious cousin the bomb, both represents and trades on this desire to collapse the distance between man and the heavens. On January 1st 1954, the Japanese daily Yomiuri, ran a series of articles announcing the benefits of nuclear energy: “Finally, The Sun Has Been Captured” the headline sang.
Less than a decade after Little Boy seared shadows onto Hiroshima sidewalks, recovery from the phosphorescent wreckage involved not disowning but ratifying the notion that the best way to proctor prosaic events is to attempt to invigilate cosmic ones. We want nothing more than to arrest the very star on whose charity our orphan planet necessarily depends and owes its very existence.
Nuclear technology is therefore such an important pivot in Arendt’s thinking since what it articulates is a fundamental shift in the ontology of the human condition: the moment at which the species acquired the ability to erase itself. For a thinker who took natality, “the fact that we have entered the world through birth,” as the axiom of her theory, finding ourselves in a state in which the principle of beginning is itself extinguished is both a philosophical and political colossus. Nuclear disaster has the ability to vaporize not just persons but their very origins, meaning its message is ultimately not “you will be gone,” but rather, “you were never here.” That man is a creature, his arrival and departure from the earth unbidden, is part of the quintessence, the truth, of human being. The development of nuclear capabilities marks the threshold of modernity for Arendt because it warps this, not only by dictating man’s departure, as all warfare does, but by expunging the evidence of man’s very arrival.
Iitate’s were only six of the eighty thousand “nuclear refugees” that Japan had on their hands in the aftermath of Fukushima. The government has predicted it will be two years before the village is habitable again. I wonder whether the artists my friend stood for—fastened to the earth by nothing more or less than her own bare flesh—will ever return to their studios. The image of such a class there again seems to me at once both deeply sorrowful and yet also one of the few visions of hope available. From the other side of the globe I can picture the easels encircling the body of a beautiful woman; cool, and lithe, and flecked with light, as she orbits gently in a silence hollowed out by the heat of the world’s worst kind of radiance.