Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?
[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.
The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”
The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:
Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.
The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.
As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”
The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:
His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”
The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”
Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.
If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.
‘This child, this in-between to which the lovers are now related and which they hold in common, is representative of the world in that it also separates them; it is an indication that they will insert a new world into the existing world.’
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
What can we know about Arendtian action? In The Human Condition, Arendt tells us, variously, that it belongs to the public sphere, “the space of appearance”, that it takes place between political equals, and that it is “ontologically rooted” in “the fact of natality”. “Natality”, here, is not the same as birth, though it relies on the fact of birth for its conceptual understanding. Natality is the distinctly human capacity to bring forth the new, the radical, the unprecedented: that which is unaccountable by any natural causality, but the fact that we must recourse to the patterns of the natural world in order to explain it is what interests me here.
When we try to fix a notion of Arendtian action, it becomes clear that speech has an important role to play, though the precise relationship between speech and action is a slippery one. Actions are defined in speech, becoming recognisable as actions only when they have been placed in narrative, that is: regarded with “the backward glance of the historian”. At the same time, most actions “are performed in the manner of speech”. Speech is rendered as the revelatory tool of action, but, further to this, both action and speech share a number of key characteristics so that it is impossible to fully disentangle the one from the other.
A moment of possible illumination arrives under the heading “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive”. For Arendt, action has no end. It contains within it the potential to produce an endless chain of reactions that are both unforeseeable and irreversible. With such terrifying momentum attached to everything we do, forgiveness is our release from the consequences of what we have done, without which “our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to a single deed from which we could never recover”. In this context, forgiveness is always radical. It is the beginning of the possibility of the new: “… the act of forgiving can never be predicted, it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action”.
What’s more, forgiveness is personal, though not necessarily individual or private. It is, traditionally, connected to love, which Arendt describes as unworldly, indeed: “the most powerful of all anti-political human forces”. In the image of the lovers’ child, the child is used to represent the possibility of forgiveness, that is made representative of the world in its ability to join and divide.
Ultimately, it is not love that Arendt places in relation to forgiveness, it is a distant respect that can only occur “without intimacy and without closeness; it is a regard for the person from the distance which the space of the world puts between us”. Yet, in this moment in the text, Arendt leans upon an image of the unworldly in order to pull from it the particular activities of the world. It is the ability of action to emerge -- unforeseeable, unprecedented -- that Arendt performs here in language. It is the movement of the imagery that alerts us to the essential quality of action to appear, unexpected, as well as to the fragility of the political realm and its complex array of differences from and interconnections with the private. One need only examine the syntax to understand the dynamic of action that Arendt illustrates here: where a semi-colon would usually indicate two halves of a balanced equation, Arendt uses it as a springboard from which to make a tiger’s leap into the new.
There are a number of things to be gained from a close reading of the linguistic representation of the movement of action, not least in light of the fact that, in writing this book, Arendt is expressing a deep-seated fear that the faculty for action is about to slip away from us entirely. While much ink has been spilled over whether or not the categories and oppositions that arise in The Human Condition can be fully understood in any concrete way, on whether or not they hold, it may be that the apparent slippages in the text are, in fact, our most fruitful way in to understanding the particular dynamics and character of Arendtian action; an understanding that may then be put to some homeopathic use in our own work.
In the most recent NY Review of Books, David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy:
“Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?”
Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.
What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving.
Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:
More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.
There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.
Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.
There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights. Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.
When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.
The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.
Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.
In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.
Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.
Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.
The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.
The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.
Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.
There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. 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.
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 Present. 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.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
“Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking.”
- Jean-Francois Lyotard
Richard Reilly who sent us this pic noted, "Plenty of Arendt study done here comparing
literary works with many concepts developed in her work."
This Wednesday, February 26, there will be a screening of the film "Hannah Arendt" at Purchase College (in the Red Room, 1st floor, Student Services Building). The 2:30 pm screening will be followed by a 4:30 pm panel discussion featuring:
- Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College
- Anne O'Byrne, Philosophy, Stony Brook University-SUNY
- Anna Jurkevics, Political Science, Yale University
Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
Thanks to Josetxu V for sending us this thought on thinking.
"Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man´s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light."