Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
27May/142

The Emperor’s New Clothes and Pluralistic Ignorance

Arendtquote

“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda

Who could forget the story of the Emperor’s new clothes?  A pair of scheming tailors promise the ruler of a rich kingdom a suit of clothes woven with a magical property: only truly worthy individuals can see them. The Emperor accepts, but when the enchanted robes arrive he finds he cannot see them. Neither can his advisers. Neither can any member of his court.

Secretly ashamed, the Emperor and his retinue proceed to parade through the streets. The many subjects who have assembled there in order to catch a glimpse of the robes find their own proud hopes embarrassed. The farce reaches its peak when an uninhibited youth finally points out the obvious: the Emperor is wearing nothing.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s fable skewers social pretension, not political domination. It cautions against face-saving falsehoods, not forced untruths. Nevertheless, the story of the Emperor’s new clothes highlights political hazards quite similar to those discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1950 lecture, “Ideology and Propaganda.” In particular, both texts focus attention on the threat of pluralistic ignorance that arises whenever free public discourse is throttled by convention, or prohibited by law.

Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.

States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.

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Arendt did not think that loneliness was exclusively a product of totalitarian modes of government. She believed this estranged state of mind could also be non-coercively induced by long exposure to commercial standards and patterns of life in liberal societies. To understand this view, we should distinguish loneliness from a similar concept to which Arendt assigned very different meaning, namely, solitude.

Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.

Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions.

If loneliness aligns with pluralistic ignorance by signifying a gap between belief and action, solitude provides a check on pluralistic ignorance by enabling individuals to revise their beliefs and prepare their judgments in isolation from forces that might repress or distort them. But solitude only fulfills this purpose when the isolated individual returns to political life and expresses a judgment or performs an action in which the connection between private belief and public undertaking is manifest. In this way the forces that sustain pluralistic ignorance are undermined, or overcome.

We might ask what the predominant causes of loneliness and pluralistic ignorance are today, seven decades after Arendt’s lecture. Recent revelations concerning the operations of the National Security Administration show that active, systematic surveillance of citizens’ personal communications is no Cold War relic, but rather a present reality. Within some communities, at least, awareness or suspicion of direct government surveillance will likely inhibit free expression, and bar open discourse.

At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows. Additionally, the tendency of participants in digital communications to cluster amongst like-minded peers, and to expose themselves only to opinions likely to match their own, limits the chances of encountering checks or dissensions from one’s judgments that could effectively alter one’s beliefs, or expose a gap between conviction and action. In light of such facts, we might alter Arendt’s phrase to speak loneliness and certainty as states of mind characteristic of our present age.

Source:  Spideroak.com

Source: Spideroak.com

It would be a mistake to end on such a gloomy note, however. Digital technologies have also created powerful new means of expressing judgments, or organizing actions that are truly political, in the sense that their conclusion is not pre-determined, their progress not fixed in any one direction. Although the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the last several years have disappointed the hopes of many of their proponents, their unanticipated paths of development have helped to make vivid the risks imposed by action, and the radical openness of politics. These are topics worthy of contemplation; they are also topics that demand debate.

--Paul Morrow

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Mar/143

Dr. Strangelove and the Banality of Evil

Arendtquote

Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.

-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.

The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.

strange

Still from "Dr. Strangelove"

In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.

According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking.  This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.

The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.

The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.

-Ian Zuckerman

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3Feb/142

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm

Arendtquote

“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.

sand

The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.

origins

Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
1Nov/130

Canard of Decline

ArendtWeekendReading

The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.

hope

Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.

“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?

Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:

Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.

The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.

The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.

America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”

“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.

Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.

[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.

Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”

Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?

Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:

Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).

In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.

As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.

There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”

Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.

European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:

America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.

Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.

The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will  cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.

That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.

What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.

Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.

doom

In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.

Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
7Jun/130

In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?

ArendtWeekendReading

In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.

watson

Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.

tech

Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.

think

There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
13Mar/130

East Side Gallery

FromtheArendtCenter

We commonly assume that political acts and claims are shaped by some form of reasoning. How then do we respond to political stands in which arguments are piled atop arguments in contradictory ways, and where the force of the various arguments is less important than victory? We see in political discourse a definite willingness to embrace any argument that helps one win, whether or not it makes sense.

One example of our cynical embrace of bad arguments is the recent controversy over the East Side Gallery in Berlin. The Gallery is comprised of a series of murals that, over the course of the past two decades, an international cast of artists has painted and re-painted on an approximately one-mile stretch of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, the East Side Gallery occupies the longest existing remnant of the Wall, and it has become a significant landmark not only for those visitors who seek to experience something of the city’s Cold War past, but also for those long-time residents who regard it as an embodiment of the city’s contemporary feel and texture.

east

The tumult of the past few weeks erupted over the plans of a developer, Maik Uwe Hinkel, to construct luxury apartments and an office complex in the former border zone—now a modest green space—that lies between the East Side Gallery and the Spree River. According to the agreements reached by Hinkel and the local government, these new buildings would entail the creation of an access road and pedestrian bridge to allow passage to pedestrians, bicyclists, and emergency vehicles. The road and bridge, in turn, would require the removal of two stretches of the East Side Gallery and their replacement in the adjacent green space. Local planners had first approved the construction and the alteration to the East Side Gallery back in 2005, and since that time Hinkel’s plans had aroused little concerted opposition.

When workers lifted out one concrete slab from the Gallery on Friday, March 2nd, however, hundreds of demonstrators flocked to the site to prevent any further removals. A group of activists hastily organized a larger demonstration that same weekend, one that ultimately drew a raucous crowd of more than six thousand people. In the face of these surprising protests, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit declared that all further work on the site would be postponed until at least March 18th, when a meeting of the major players would decide its fate. Since then, the developer and the relevant local officials have all declared their eagerness to find a solution that preserves the East Side Gallery in its current state. Even the slab removed earlier this month seems destined to return to its former location.

Yet the apparent success of the protest threatens to overshadow the problematic aspects of the demonstrators’ arguments. On the one hand, many of the organizers and protesters regarded their opposition as a small but significant rejoinder to the insistent tide of commercial development in post-Wall Berlin. To adopt the terms of Sharon Zukin’s recent book Naked City, they saw the East Side Gallery as an embodiment of the city’s distinctive authenticity and rootedness, which they argued should be protected from the homogenizing onslaught of upscale growth and gentrification. To wit, one of the coalitions that spearheaded the protest calls itself “Sink the Media Spree” (Mediaspree Versenken), a name that invokes developers’ recent efforts to transform the area along the river into a headquarters for high-tech communications and media. Its webpage declares that this portion of Berlin should preserve “the neighborhood” as it currently exists and not fall victim to “profit mania” (Kiez statt Profitwahn).

But the East Side Gallery cannot be cast so readily as an incarnation of local authenticity, especially the kind that stands opposed to commerce. First of all, many government actors and city residents were far more eager to see the Wall dismantled in the months and years after November 1989 than to see it preserved, and they condoned if not actively contributed to its wholesale removal. As a result, the survival of the East Side Gallery represents the exception, not the rule, in the city’s engagement with the Wall as a material structure. Second, artists from around the world initially established the East Side Gallery as a celebration of artistic and political liberty, but their murals received support from the local and national governments because they helped to draw tourists to Berlin and added to the city’s cachet as a cultural destination. In the light of this state patronage, I find it rather curious to hear activists pitching the East Side Gallery against the forces of capital and development.

demonstrate

On the other hand, many demonstrators contended that the alteration of the East Side Gallery would amount to an intolerable attack on the city’s historical inheritance. One variation of this position is that the removal of the two sections constitutes a dilution if not erasure of Germany’s traumatic past. According to this argument, the East Side Gallery should be left intact so that residents and visitors can confront the traces of the country’s division. Another, more strident variation insists that the construction plans display a callous disregard for those who suffered under the East German regime and, more specifically, lost their lives while attempting to escape it. In the words of one activist in Der Tagesspiegel: “the most important point is not whether the Wall will be opened. We are against the combination of removing the Wall and building hotels and apartments in death strips.”

Again, the East Side Gallery’s connection with Germany’s fraught past is not nearly as straightforward as the activists and demonstrators have suggested. As Brian Ladd details in his book The Ghosts of Berlin, the murals of the East Side Gallery were not painted until the early 1990s, after the Wall had fallen and East Germany had ceased to exist. In fact, this portion of the Wall could not have been painted before 1989, because it stood in East Berlin, and anyone who attempted to leave a mark on it, or even lingered near it, would have been apprehended by East German police officers or border soldiers. Of course, amateur and professional artists did draw and paint some striking imagery on the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, but they created it on the Wall’s “outer” surface while standing in West Berlin, where they had much less to fear from East German border personnel. The muralists who launched and maintained the East Side Gallery certainly meant to evoke and further this tradition of “Wall art,” but in the process they abstracted it from a prior historical era and relocated it in another part of the city.

I note these objections not because I support the proposed construction or the alteration of the East Side Gallery. In particular, I am not at all convinced that the partial removal of the Wall is really necessary, whether or not Hinkel and the city go ahead with the area’s development. But I am troubled by the protesters’ reluctance to take the ironies and complexities of the current circumstances more fully into account. They are too eager to cast the developer and local officials as the villains in this story, particularly when the city and the federal government have in fact created a substantial memorial landscape related to the Wall. And they are too quick to position themselves on the moral high ground. Given the Wall’s disappearance from virtually every other part of the city, their demands for preserving the East Side Gallery seem more than a little belated.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Feb/130

Geography is not Destiny

How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.

As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).

Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.

Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.

Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.

There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.

He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.

Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.

Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.

-Jeffrey Jurgens

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
2Oct/120

Malaise in the Classroom: Teaching Secondary Students About the Presidency

The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

-Jimmy Carter,  July 15, 1979

Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency.  This critique should not be surprising.  In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president.  Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge.  Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking?  More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself?  And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future?  By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.

Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.

Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive.  These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency.  In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.

This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms.  Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past.  Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies.  Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.

Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech.  In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies.  After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations.  His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.

Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency.  He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president.  In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal.  Schools give the historical Carter even less respect.  Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency.  The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels.  Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him.  Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.

Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech.  But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people.  A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today.  The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era.  The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma.  As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.

It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception.  However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump.  Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive.  The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.

Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional.  In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency.  In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching.  Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason).  “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech.  But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate.  In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.

The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency.  As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure.  However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter.  Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.

Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly.  Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership.  Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference.  In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.

Did Carter’s speech matter?  The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment.  In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition.  These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical.   In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.

-Stephen Mucher

Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.

The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.” 

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
30Aug/120

Are American Prisons Totalitarian?

This question may appear curious if not ill-formed. Many of us certainly associate prisons with the minute and pervasive exercise of power over the inmates who inhabit them, but we are also more accustomed to using “totalitarian” to describe dictatorial governmental regimes and sociopolitical movements. As a result, we may be inclined to think that the term is not of the same category as the institutions that, in this instance, it purports to describe.

At the height of the Cold War, however, a number of scholars posed the question of prisons’ totalitarian character in all seriousness and with considerable urgency. And not uncommonly they answered it in the affirmative. One of these was the Princeton sociologist Gresham Sykes, who conducted archival and field research at the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in Trenton in the early and mid 1950s. The book that resulted, The Society of Captives (1958), is one of the classics of modern criminology.

Sykes has the following to say about prisons near the beginning of his treatise:

The detailed regulations extending into every area of the individual’s life, the constant surveillance, the concentration of power in the hands of a ruling few, the wide gulf between the rulers and the ruled—all are elements of what we would usually call a totalitarian regime. The threat of force lies close beneath the surface of the custodial institution and it is the invisible fist rather than Adam Smith’s invisible hand which regulates much of the prisoner’s activity. The prison official is a bureaucrat, but he is a bureaucrat with a gun.

The combination is a fearful one, for it is the basis of the calculated atrocities of the concentration camp and the ruthless exploitation of the Soviet lager. It is true that the American maximum security prison is different from these in terms of the nature of the tasks which the prison seeks to perform, the characteristics of the officials who direct these tasks, and the matrix of the democratic community in which the prison is embedded. The prison is not planned with an eye to annihilating its captive population—either physically or psychologically—nor is it designed to wring the last ounce of effort from an expendable labor force. Instead, it pursues an odd combination of confinement, internal order, self-maintenance, punishment, and reformation, all within a framework of means sharply limited by law, public opinion, and the attitudes of the custodians themselves. None the less, attempts to exercise total social control through the use of a bureaucratically organized administrative staff would all seem to be cut on much the same pattern and the prison appears to offer many clues to the structure and functioning of the new leviathan (pp. xiv-xv).

In formulating his argument in this manner, Sykes takes a stance on prisons that resonates with the ideas of another noted sociologist, Erving Goffman. Goffman’s work on “total institutions,” much of it collected in his 1961 book Asylums, also likens psychiatric hospitals, boot camps, and prisons to Nazi concentration camps.

Significantly, Sykes bases his characterization of totalitarianism on articles by Norman Polanski and David Riesman as well as the 1954 volume Totalitarianism edited by Carl Friedrich. He also makes reference to Bruno Bettelheim’s work on the social psychology of the concentration camp. Yet in the entirety of his book, Sykes never refers explicitly to Arendt, although his comparisons practically beg for some consideration of her writing. This omission is telling, for Arendt was deeply skeptical of any effort to apply the concept of totalitarianism to superficially similar practices and institutions in other historical contexts. By her lights, such extrapolation denied the distinctive, indeed unprecedented nature of concentration camps under the Nazi and Soviet regimes, just as it banalized totalitarianism’s departure from other modes of tyrannical and authoritarian rule. Sykes’ qualifications (“It is true that…”) were not minor caveats that could be quickly passed over (“None the less…”), but fundamental objections that vitiated his argument. It was precisely this kind of conceptual and historical imprecision that, for Arendt, fatally compromised the bulk of social science scholarship. (For more on Arendt’s objections, see my post on Peter Baehr’s book Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences here.)

But Sykes’ argument can be questioned not merely on these broad theoretical grounds, for his own empirical material and close analysis challenge the notion that prisons wield “totalitarian” power. First, the efforts of prison staff to exercise control are undermined by the contradictory imperatives to which they must respond. Penal institutions are commonly justified on the basis that they punish convicted offenders and (ostensibly) deter potential criminals, but since the nineteenth century they are also supposed to rehabilitate inmates so that they forego crime and productively rejoin society at large. These tasks, as Sykes notes, are “not easily balanced in a coherent policy” (p. 12), and they tend to result in inconsistent procedures and practices.

Second, prisons are simply unable to discipline inmates in any exhaustive way, even as they impose heavy restrictions and deprivations on the people subject to their regulation. On the one hand, prisoners do not typically regard prison guards and other staff members as figures of legitimate authority, and the staff members lack an effective system of rewards and punishments that might encourage inmates’ conformity in the absence of a felt duty to obey. On the other hand, the very conditions of prison life—the severe limitations on inmates’ autonomy, the absence of physical security, the material impoverishment, the curtailment of heterosexual relations—tend ironically to encourage behavior that defies institutional rules and norms. As a result, “the prison official…is caught up in a vicious circle where he must suppress the very activity that he helps cause” (p. 22).

And third, prison guards in particular are in close contact with the inmates they supervise, and they are subject to a variety of pressures that inhibit their ability and willingness to exercise power as fully as they might. In order to manage their everyday duties, Sykes finds, they commonly refrain from reporting infractions they have witnessed, neglect basic security requirements, and even pass forbidden information to inmates (about, say, upcoming searches for contraband). In the end, most corrections officers can “insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted. Only by tolerating violations of ‘minor’ rules and regulations can the guard secure compliance in the ‘major’ areas of the custodial regime” (p. 58).

Based on my admittedly limited insights as a Bard Prison Initiative faculty member, I find much to commend in Sykes’ analysis of the structural tensions that define American penal institutions. Judging from my interactions with incarcerated students, many of his observations remain relevant to present-day correctional facilities in New York State. But it is precisely Sykes’ insights on these matters that lead me to doubt the notion that American prisons represent total(itarian) domination. As his detailed analysis of “prison argot” indicates, prisons do not destroy inmates’ sense of personhood, spontaneity, and collective solidarity, and his closing account of rioting highlights how they can mount serious opposition to prison authorities.

All of this might lead us to wonder why Sykes and other social scientists even entertained the question of prisons’ potentially totalitarian character. What were the circumstances that made such an inquiry intelligible? On this count, we would do well to recall the Cold War context in which Sykes’ book was written. For many Euro-American commentators in the 1950s and ‘60s, totalitarianism was the overriding problem of their time, and one that was all the more disturbing because it had seemed to emerge so abruptly and unexpectedly. There was thus a keen interest in attempting to comprehend what totalitarianism was or at least might be. This interest led a fair number of scholars to seek out cases that could illuminate the concept, including ones that ranged beyond the paradigmatic instances of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

At the same time, totalitarianism was widely perceived as a mortal hazard to Euro-American liberal democracy and Western civilization as a whole. As Carl Friedrich suggests in his introduction to Totalitarianism (1954), however, the perceived threat could come not merely “from without,” but also “from within” (p. 3). His implication was that the U.S. and other “free” societies could harbor their own forms of brutality and terror—and that the line separating them from “totalitarian” states was not as bright as often presumed.

I would suggest that Sykes turned to the concept of totalitarianism, in no small part, to lend moral and rhetorical force to his critical analysis of American penal institutions. Even as he professed that he sought to avoid value judgments, he also admitted that like other skeptics, “I too believe that attempting to reform criminals by placing them in prison is based on a fallacy” (p. vii). We might therefore read his recourse to totalitarianism in the light of the subversive questioning of American ascendancy that was beginning to coalesce in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Such recourse is all the more striking given that “totalitarianism” became one of the chief weapons that conservatives used to denounce leftists and other critics as “pro-Soviet” sympathizers. In the end, then, Sykes’ book speaks not only (and directly) to the nature of prison as a modern institution, but also (and more obliquely) to the wider cultural and political ferment that defined Cold War America.         

-Jeff Jurgens

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Feb/120

Education in a Transitory World

"Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home."

-Hannah Arendt,  Between Past and Future

Facing the command of the ghost, Hamlet laments his task of revealing that his uncle murdered his father to rule Denmark: "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right." As the heir to the throne, Hamlet's personal situation is inherently political and Shakespeare's tragedy stages the premature death of the father as genealogical break that raises the question of succession. Arendt generalizes Hamlet's words in a manner that might appear paradoxical at first: how can the world always be becoming out of joint? Is there never a moment of rest or cohesion from which the disjunction starts?

Her conception of finitude is key here: humans make a world (comprised of structures and practices of living together) that lasts only for a set period. In this sense "home" for Arendt does not offer the permanent refuge that philosophers and poets often long for. The crisis in education that she writes of in the late 1950s is in part one of a particular time and place. She does critique specific pedagogical trends such as an emphasis on play-like activities in the classroom over "the gradually acquired habit of work." In a broader sense, however, the crisis of education actually responds to the crisis in authority that she sees occurring over a long historical arc. While she recognizes the declining power of the parent, teacher, and expert, however, Arendt does not merely advocate a harsh return to old models. Instead she advocates a "minimum of conservation" that allows the most basic operation of reinterpreting the past based on new conditions. The word "education" derives from the Latin root ēdūcĕre, meaning "to lead forth" but for Arendt such a journey could have little confidence in its destination.

Political and economic shifts in the post Cold-War era have put pressure on education such that today it is increasingly charged with directly preparing students for integration into a system of world trade. Students have in recent months raised demands against student debt in higher education which is the result of a system of individual financing that appears less reasonable to those now facing uncertain careers.

 At the same time, higher education budgets continue to be cut in general (especially at public institutions) and the Humanities continue to come under specific attack, usually under the rubric of lack of immediate relevance. Rising debt without prospect of repayment and budget cuts both suggest something worse than a crisis in education: a threat to education itself in its role in transmitting ideas of the past in order to enable the new generation to reconfigure a common world.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Dec/110

Violence, Power, Technology, and Identity-Lance Strate

Last week I attended a public lecture at Fordham University given by Richard Bernstein, a philosopher on the faculty of the New School, the subject of the lecture being "Hannah Arendt on Power and Violence" and the sponsor being Fordham's Philosophy Department.

The lecture began with some discussion of who Hannah Arendt was, e.g., German-Jewish intellectual, had an affair with Martin Heidegger when she was an 18-year-old student and he was a married professor in his 30s, wrote her dissertation on St. Augustine, escaped from Nazi Germany before things got really bad, met and became friends with Walter Benjamin in Paris, unlike Benjamin was able to escape to the United States, and famously wrote about totalitarianism, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann (architect of the Nazi concentration camps) and the banality of evil (which sums up my own previous encounter with Arendt's thought).  Of course, that's just a cursory summary of a rich and eventful life.

I joined a few of my colleagues from the Philosophy Department at Fordham and met with Bernstein prior to the lecture for some discussion, and he mentioned that, although Arendt was not a practicing Jew, at the end she asked that someone say Kaddish for her at her funeral.

Admittedly, it's not all that unheard of for folks to suddenly get religion when the end is near (no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes), and for individuals who have been disconnected from their traditions to suddenly want to reconnect.  But what I found poignant about this request is that she asked for someone, rather than someone specific, which I take to be a sign of isolation in that typically it would be the immediate family who would say the prayer.  No doubt, there were many who said Kaddish on her behalf, not the least on account of her significant work during and after World War II on behalf of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in general as a political philosopher with a strong sense of social justice.

And that brings me back to Bernstein's lecture, the main part of which was a summary of an influential essay that Arendt wrote for the New York Review of Books back in 1969, entitled, "Reflections on Violence".   And if you haven't read it already, I do recommend it.  It's clear that Arendt wrote the essay in response to the escalating violence occurring in the United States during the late 1960s, which included increasingly more violent antiwar demonstrations, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of militant movements especially within the African-American community, and rioting in inner city slums, which caused harm especially to African-American populations.  No doubt, the escalation of violence bore some similarity to the rise of Nazism in Germany, motivating this essay.

I won't reproduce this rather lengthy essay in its entirety here, but I do want to note some salient points.
To begin with, Arendt thinks it's important to distinguish between violence and power (as well as force and strength).  Violence, unlike power, is technological in nature--violence "always needs implements" so that:

The revolution in technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare. The very substance of violent action is ruled by the question of means and ends, whose chief characteristic, if applied to human affairs, has always been that the end is in danger of being overwhelmed by the means, which it both justifies and needs. Since the end of human action, in contrast with the products of fabrication, can never be reliably predicted, the means used to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.

Now what she's saying here is very much in keeping with the intellectual tradition known as media ecology, the type of approach associated with scholars such as Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman.  Whereas McLuhan said that "the medium is the message," for all intents and purposes, Arendt here is saying that the means is the message!

Arendt goes on to note that traditionally, violence has been seen as an instrument of power, but that technological advances in warfare (she mentions the possibility of robot soldiers!), weapons of mass destruction (especially biological weapons that can be used by small groups rather than large states), and guerrilla warfare (and what we now call terrorism) have led to a reversal of that relationship.  In many ways, this is a very prescient observation:

What all these very uncomfortable novelties add up to is a reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers. The amount of violence at the disposal of a given country may no longer be a reliable indication of that country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power. This again bears an ominous similarity to one of the oldest insights of political science, namely that power cannot be measured by wealth, that an abundance of wealth may erode power, that riches are particularly dangerous for the power and well-being of republics.

Arendt also goes on to make a similar point about the use of violence for revolutionary aims.  Noting the leftist leanings of the baby boomer generation (e.g., the hippies), she points out:

This is the first generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb, and it inherited from the generation of its fathers the experience of a massive intrusion of criminal violence into politics - they learned in high school and in college about concentration and extermination camps, about genocide and torture, about the wholesale slaughter of civilians in war, without which modern military operations are no longer possible even if they remain restricted to "conventional" weapons.

But noting the then recent shift to militancy within "the movement" (as it was known), she again invokes a key critique of the technological environment and its discontents:

Their behavior has been blamed on all kinds of social and psychological causes…  Still, it seems absurd, especially in view of the global character of the phenomenon, to ignore the most obvious and perhaps the most potent factor in this development, for which moreover no precedent and no analogy exist–the fact that, in general, technological progress seems in so many instances to lead straight to disaster, and, in particular, the proliferation of techniques and machines which, far from only threatening certain classes with unemployment, menaces the very existence of whole nations and, conceivably, of all mankind. It is only natural that the new generation should live with greater awareness of the possibility of doomsday than those "over thirty," not because they are younger but because this was their first decisive experience in the world. If you ask a member of this generation two simple questions: "How do you wish the world to be in fifty years?" and "What do you want your life to be like five years from now?" the answers are quite often preceded by a "Provided that there is still a world," and "Provided I am still alive."

That sense of pessimism became very much characteristic of the 1970s, and continued into the 1980s, eventually dispelled by Reagan's rhetoric of optimism, economic recovery, and the fall of the Soviet bloc, but also coincided with the revolution in personal computing that in turn led to the rise of the internet.  Has that sense of pessimism returned anew, in the post 9/11 decade where concern about terrorism, warfare, and the loss of liberty are still present, and especially in light of the financial disaster of 2008 that continues to affect the global economy?  Are movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street leading the way to increased freedom and justice both in the world?  Or are they a prelude to increased violence?

I think Hannah Arendt at least helps us to formulate some important questions, and reminds us that however unpredictable the ends may be, we would do well to pay close attention to the means being employed.

There is also some further common ground between Arendt and McLuhan (a point first brought to my attention by my old classmate Paul Lippert, who was also in attendance at Bernstein's lecture).  For Arendt, violence requires technology.  For McLuhan, technology is a form of violence.  The relationship between the two is certainly worth considering, even in relation to the seemingly benign technologies we refer to as new media.  What is the violence that they do, to our political arrangements, our economic and financial arrangements, our social organization and way of life?

To return to Arendt's essay, her essay was primarily concerned with the differences between power and violence, which she argues amounts to an almost diametrical opposition.  Arendt notes that most scholars and intellectuals see violence as a manifestation of power, perhaps its ultimate manifestation.  But they're wrong.  And noting the connection between power and rule, Arendt makes a rather interesting aside about bureaucracy in discussing the traditional equation of power with violence:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man - of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

Now, I'm not sure I would agree with her about bureaucracy being the most tyrannical of systems, but I would note that bureaucracy is what James Beniger referred to as an invisible technology, and what Lewis Mumford viewed as a type of machine, in some instances a megamachine.  Bureaucracy is a reflection of machine ideology, inhuman and inhumane, and inorganic as well.  So I think Mumford probably agreed with her point when he read the essay, as I assume he did, back in 1969.

Back to the point, Arendt argues that power is not simply about domination, that obedience and command go hand-in-hand, so that individuals who are willing to obey are also willing to give orders to others, and vice versa, and conversely individuals who resist obedience to authority also resist being placed in a position of authority over others.

But more importantly, she stresses the role of consent of the ruled, or governed, the centrality of cooperation to the establishment of power.  This is consonant with Kenneth Burke's view that rhetoric is not about conflict, but rather about identification, about establishing, maintaining, and increasing common ground.  This also falls in line with Jacques Ellul's arguments about the role of propaganda in technological societies, especially integrative and sociological propaganda, where the main goal is to establish and reinforce the legitimacy of the society, and keep people from questioning or acting in ways that work against the effective functioning of the social machine.

Some may also note the similarity of Michel Foucault's views on power, but then there's the question of whether he was aware of Arendt's work and just didn't acknowledge her influence (as he didn't acknowledge the influence of others, e.g., Erving Goffman).  But let's take Jean Baudrillard's advice, and "forget Foucault" and stick with Arendt (and I would venture to predict that by the end of the century Foucault will largely be forgotten, and Arendt's thought will still be discussed).

Anyway, all this is not to say that power minus violence is necessarily a good thing, as Arendt explains:

Indeed, it is one of the most obvious distinctions between power and violence that power always stands in need of numbers, whereas violence relying on instruments up to a point can manage without them. A legally unrestricted majority rule, that is, a democracy without a constitution, can be very formidable indeed in the suppression of the rights of minorities and very effective in the suffocation of dissent without any use of violence. Undivided and unchecked power can bring about a "consensus" that is hardly less coercive than suppression by means of violence. But that does not mean that violence and power are the same.

Consensus may be tacit, and can continue as long as the power structure is not challenged.  That is how a single master can control many slaves who outnumber him and could otherwise overpower him.  That's how political systems in decline can still cling to power, as long as no one internally, or externally, challenge their rule.  Now, let's hear some more of what Arendt has to say:

To switch for a moment to conceptual language: Power is indeed of the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification through something else cannot be the essence of anything. The end of war – end taken in its twofold meaning – is peace or victory; but to the question, And what is the end of peace? there is no answer. Peace is an absolute, even though in recorded history the periods of warfare have nearly always outlasted the periods of peace. Power is in the same category; it is, as the saying goes, "an end in itself." (This, of course, is not to deny that governments pursue policies and employ their power to achieve prescribed goals. But the power structure itself precedes and outlasts all aims, so that power, far from being the means to an end, is actually the very condition that enables a group of people to think and act according to means and ends.) And since government is essentially organized and institutionalized power, the current question, What is the end of government?, does not make much sense either. The answer will be either question-begging -- to enable men to live together -- or dangerously Utopian: to promote happiness or to realize a classless society or some other nonpolitical ideal, which if tried out in earnest can only end in the worst kind of government, that is, tyranny.

Arendt does acknowledge that power needs legitimacy, which brings us back to consent, and which she differentiates from justification.  Is there a difference that makes a difference here?  Perhaps. Justification requires some sort of rationale, some logic, some explanation.  Legitimacy is merely a matter of agreement, of assent on the part of the group, or the majority.  In this sense, legitimacy works on the relationship level of communication, as a form of metacommunication, whereas justification works on the content level of communication, to use the terms developed by Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues, based on the systems view of Gregory Bateson.

Given that violence is different and distinct from power, Arendt notes that violence has the potential to disrupt and overcome power, and to do so quite easily:

Violence, we must remember, does not depend on numbers or opinion but on implements, and the implements of violence share with all other tools that they increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find out that they are confronted not with men but with men's artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance that separates the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What can never grow out of it is power.

So, violence can destroy power, but it cannot create power.  When governments resort to violence, it is a reflection of their loss of power.  And the use of violence to maintain or gain power has unwanted, often unanticipated effects (typical of technology, after all), boomerang effects.  Arendt notes, "the much-feared boomerang effect of the 'government of subject races' (Lord Cromer) upon the home government during the imperialist era meant that rule by violence in far-away lands would end by affecting the government of England, that the last 'subject race' would be the English themselves."  Or as Edmund Carpenter (and Marshall McLuhan) put it, drawing on the Book of Psalms, they became what they beheld.

In keeping with the Arendtian approach, I think it's correct to say that violence is not war, and I would say that there can in fact be war without violence. A state of war can exist without any battles actually taking place. This has been the case in the Middle East between Israel and various Arab states since Israel declared its independence. And of course it was the situation we referred to as the Cold War. War, as Kenneth Burke pointed out, requires a massive amount of cooperation within each society at war, and a certain amount of agreement on the ground rules for war (e.g., the Geneva Convention). Indeed, terrorism can be distinguished from war insofar as terrorists do not play by any rules, and do not seek any form of agreement on how to conduct hostilities. War is violence constrained by rules, therefore akin to a game, whereas violence itself knows no rules, and is no game.  McLuhan observed that war is a very effective form of education. Violence, on the other hand, teaches us about nothing except itself. Violence only teaches us to be violent, or to avoid violence.

Image by Francois Robert

Arendt also differentiates between violence and terror:  "Terror is not the same as violence; it is rather the form of government that comes into being when violence, having destroyed all power, does not abdicate but, on the contrary, remains in full control."  Of course, this concept of terror is an older understanding of state-produced terror, the "reign of terror" as it were.  But perhaps we can base a more contemporary understanding of terrorism based on this view, with the idea that terrorists seek to destroy power, and to exert a form of control without actually taking power.  This perhaps would be a way to distinguish between terrorists and genuine rebels and revolutionaries.

So, Arendt summarizes the distinction between power and violence in this way:

Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.

Arendt also discusses the role of rage as a cause of violence, and this leads her to consider "black rage" as it was known in the 60s, the anger expressed by African-Americans and the violent acts that stem from that anger, notably the riots that occurred in Harlem, Watts, Newark, and elsewhere.  This leads to an interesting comment on expressions of "white guilt" as a collective phenomenon:

Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.

A controversial comment, to be sure, but one that is quite thought-provoking.  And it is an altogether basic point, coming from a Marxist perspective, that one way that those in power maintain power is via a strategy of divide and conquer, and nowhere has this been more apparent in US history than in the division between black and white in the lower classes (as well, between the German working class and German Jews that was encouraged and capitalized upon by the Nazis).

Arendt also criticizes those scholars who argue for the inherent naturalness of violence as a biological imperative, and therefore its inherently irrationality.  Instead, she notes that "violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."

I can't help but note the interesting result if we substitute technology for violence in this quote:  "technology being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, technology can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals."

The danger of introducing violence bring us back to Arendt's implicit take on McLuhan's medium is the message, that the means are the message, which is to say that the means become the ends.

Still, the danger of the practice of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will not merely be defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world.

Interestingly, Arendt suggests that "the greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence."  This returns to the point of bureaucracy as technology, that it is impersonal and dehumanizing, that you cannot question it or argue with it.  Thinking about it, what Plato criticizes about writing in the Phaedrus applies to bureaucracy quite well, at least on those two points.  Otherwise, in regard to Plato's 3rd major point about writing, we could modify the original critique and note that bureaucracy gives the appearance of a knowledgeable and accountable government, but in fact represents the complete absence of those qualities.

In his lecture, Bernstein stated that what people want is the freedom to act, to participate.  That is what the exercise of power by bureaucracy, power without accountability, without responsibility (the key to responsibility being response as Martin Buber has insightfully stated), resists and essentially prevents.

Power based on participation is the formula for a just and stable society.  Can technology, which is arguably inherently violent, actually increase genuine participation in the establishment of a legitimate order and power structure?  Proponents of new media, such as my friend and colleague Paul Levinson, believe the answer to be unequivocally yes.  There is no question that new media are undermining existing power structures all around the world, and here in the US.  But can they form the basis of a new political order?  Arendt's arguments cast some doubt on the possibility (and Neil Postman would undoubtedly agree), and should give us pause, as we ought to recall the unpredictability of the ends, and the overwhelming "power" of the means.

Arendt's essay also made me think about the close association that Marshall McLuhan made between violence and identity.  According to McLuhan, violence is a response to the loss of identity, and constitutes an attempt to regain identity.  In his final television appearance, with Mike McManus at the end of 1977, McLuhan stated,

All forms of violence are quests for identity.  When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You're a nobody.  Therefore you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody, and so you become very violent. And so identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you?  Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities.  So it's only the threat to people's identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers, these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.

Adding McLuhan's insight to Arendt's commentary, we can equate identity with power, loss or lack of identity with a loss of power and impotency.  Identity not only tells us who we are, it binds us together in common cause, as a group identity.

This brings us back to Kenneth Burke's view of rhetoric as a means to foster identification.  Through the forging of a common identity, we create the basis for cooperation and consent, and therefore, in Arendt's sense, power.

When group identity breaks down, cooperation and consent go into decline (this sounds chillingly familiar, come to think of it), and the power of the state/government ebbs.  Violence then becomes the means to compensate for it.  On the other side of the coin, when individuals or groups do not feel that they are part of the larger group identity, and consequently may feel a loss or lack of identity in contrast to the majority, they may resort to violence as a means of compensation.

Bringing Burke back into play (and, for that matter, Alfred Korzybski), it becomes clear that power and identity are very much symbolic phenomena.  Identity typically is established by having and/or gaining a name.  When we share the same name, the same surname, or the same nationality-name, we indicate that we have a shared identity.  That is why shifts in language and also bilingualism can be seen as a threat to identity (witness the overwhelming resistance to Spanish in the US, and the problem of Quebec in Canada, which McLuhan was trying to address).  Power is a function of symbolic order, and identity is a function of symbolic assignment.

Anomie is the sociological term for lawlessness, for being an outlaw, rejecting society's laws and rules and norms.  But it also means, in a sense, being without a name.  Being nameless grants a license to kill, or otherwise commit violent acts that violate law, ethics, and morality.  Anonymity reduces the barriers to violence, and distance aids in anonymity.  It is harder to commit violence with one's bare hands than to pull the trigger of a gun, easier still to drop bombs from a plane, and easier still to push a button and launch a missile.  Technology creates distance (as Max Frisch observed, it is the art of never having to experience the world), and grants a measure of anonymity.

Violence is a response to a lack of power.  Technology is a response to a lack of power.  Violence is a response to a lack of identity. Technology is a response to a lack of identity.

Lacking identity, the individual may try to make a name for himself or herself.  This may involve achievement, typically through competition and success in surpassing others, which might be understood as a form of symbolic violence.  But often enough, individuals make names for themselves through genuinely violent acts.

Violence is a response to loss of power/identity, but violence cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.

Violence can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.

Technology is a response to loss of power/identity, but technology cannot restore power/identity, that is, cannot restore it to its previous state of being, its positive existence.  Technology can produce a new kind of power/identity, but only a negative form of identity/power, e.g., villainy/tyranny.

Violence/technology/innovation is associated with the loss of our name/language/symbolic order.  Violence/technology/innovation cannot restore our name/language/symbolic order.

Only we, as human beings, can bestow a name, can employ language.  Only we, as human beings, can create an identity, can establish symbolic order.  Only we, as human beings, can create power, and we have the potential to create power in a manner that Hannah Arendt would insist on, within an ethical framework, and grounded in peace, justice, and human rights.

Violence is divisive.  Violence separates the hunters from the prey, the attacker from the target, the winner from the loser, the victor from the victim (as the saying goes, you're either one or the other, which represents a cynical worldview, of course).  Violence is a zero sum game.  Violence performed on one's self is internally divisive, but that's another story.

Technology is divisive. Technology separates the user from the used, the individual from the world, the actor from the acted upon, the subject from the object (technology objectifies the world, and the others who inhabit it).

Violence/technology is an I-It relationship, to use Martin Buber's terminology.

Power is unifying.  Power brings together the ruler and the ruled, government and citizen, in consent and cooperation.  Power binds us together (for good or for ill), in creating, maintaining, repairing, renewing, and revising the symbolic order.

Identity is unifying.  Identity is a shared sense of self, group membership, imagined community, a common ground, a common name, an interconnectedness.

Power/identity is an I-You relationship, an I-You becoming Us.

All too often, power/identity is established through some larger form of divisiveness, a shared identity among insiders in contrast to outsiders, the identification of the other against which we define ourselves.  Identity established through divisiveness is the same as power established through violence, it carries the seeds of its own disintegration, it is not sustainable.  Divisiveness corrupts because any insider group can sense that they might, at some point, become outsiders, and that the only way to prevent this is to single out some other insider group and treat them as outsiders.

The problem before us is one that we have faced throughout our long history:  How to overcome division and forge a truly unified identity.  The name for this identity is no mystery:  it is humanity.  To achieve a global human identity there must be a global human power, a symbolic order, a mutual empowerment based on consent and cooperation.

Does this sound utopian?  I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller's remark that we are in a race between utopia and oblivion.  And even if it's not possible to achieve absolute unity, we certainly have made some significant progress towards that goal, and it certainly seems to me that we have the potential to make a great deal more progress if we have the will to do so.

And I think Hannah Arendt would agree that this positive sense of a will to power begins with thought, I believe she would agree with McLuhan that nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate the possibilities and the consequences of our actions.  And I think Arendt would say that we have to start by thinking, that it's only when we stop thinking that solutions seem hopelessly utopian and problems become insurmountable.

-Lance Strate

Dr. Lance Strate is Professor of Communication and Media Studies and Director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University.  He is the author of Echoes and Reflections:  On Media Ecology as a Field of Study, and On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology.
Click here to visit his blog. 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
5Dec/110

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl Speaks on Hannah Arendt

In light of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's recent and untimely passing, we thought it would be appropriate to post two different clips of her speaking about Hannah Arendt. Young-Bruehl was, of course, a student of Arendt as well as her biographer.

The first is an NPR interview from 2006 which marked what would have been Hannah Arendt's 100th birthday. While Young-Bruehl addressed Arendt's writings about Eichmann and the banality of evil, she also discussed Arendt's thoughts on McCarthyism and her fear of close-minded thinking in the United States:

But she, of course, was more worried as the 1950s went on about the implications of the way in which America and its allies opposed Stalin. She was as concerned about this as she was about the Stalinist regime.

Then she was most worried there had come about in America a kind of frame of mind that was quite rigid and obsessional itself, and Joseph McCarthy was the exemplar of this, that found any means to justify the end of anti-communism reasonable.

Listen to the NPR interview here.

The second piece, considerably longer, is a lecture Young-Bruehl delivered at an April, 2010 Conference on Hannah Arendt. Her lecture is entitled, "The Promise of Hannah Arendt's Politics." One of the topics she discussed was Arendt's Post WWII perception of cosmpolitanism and the negative impact of statelessness:

While efforts were being made after the War toward a world politics, a politics in which states could put their resources to the world concerns they shared, working for world peace, intellectuals of various backgrounds were considering the meaning of cosmopolitanism in that historical moment –a window of opportunity before the so-called Cold War gripped the world.  In 2002, looking back on this post-war moment ...two British political theorists, Fine and Cohen, contributing to an essay collection called Conceiving Cosmopolitanism, named the moment  “Arendt’s moment.”  Hannah Arendt had offered an analysis  of “crimes against humanity” that was, they argued, defining of the moment.

By concentrating their attention on Arendt’s thoughts about international law and the 1945 Nuremberg Trials, Fine and Cohen overlooked, I think, the centerpiece of Hannah Arendt’s cosmopolitanism, which was her critique of the late 19th and 20th century sovereign nation-states, which, she emphasized, were states that had turned on groups of their own people, eliminating some and creating wave upon wave of stateless others.

No leaders ... had, in Hannah Arendt’s estimation, grasped fully the key stumbling block to any harmonious world organization of nation-states and any Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the problem of statelessness.

Listen to Young-Bruehl's speech here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
31Oct/111

A Thinking Space – Elizabeth Young-Bruehl

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.

Elizabeth Young-Bruehl

To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog. 

 

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
4Oct/110

The Truth Within the Fact in the Context of Politics-Blagovesta Atanassova

"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists."  

Hannah Arendt, "Origins of Totalitarianism"

What is truth? Is there such a thing as a universal truth or is truth something that is based on one’s belief? I was confronted with this question recently, in my Theory of Knowledge class, and my first reaction was: yes, there is such a thing as a universal truth! But as I got to think about it more and more, I came to realize that actually truth is what one makes it to be. For an example, it was a universal truth for many societies, including the Ancient Greeks, that the Earth was the center of our solar system. It was the logical thing to assume, since everyone could see that the Sun and the Moon circled our planet. But did that make the theory true? In the early 1500s, Nicholas Copernicus realized that, while the Sun might seem to circulate the Earth, it is, in fact, the Earth was circulating the Sun and the only reason it seemed to be the other way was because Earth was making circles around itself. Today, through modern technology we have concrete proof that the Earth truly circulates the Sun - and nobody would believe if they were told the geocentric theory.

The purpose of that analogy is to show that society can quickly be convinced based on what they see on the surface. For the early people, it was very clear that the Sun moved on the sky and that the Moon did so, as well, thus the Earth had to be the center of the universe. Similarly, in history and politics, sometimes people tend to be led by their beliefs rather than what is beneath the surface. Many politicians have for years believed that lies are not harmful when trying to achieve a great cause. Yet, that is not so. Perhaps, for those leaders who chose to lie, it is indeed not harmful, for they do tend to achieve their goals. All they need is the perfect circumstances, a few wielded facts and the right words. For the society which follows them blindly, the consequences are often much greater.

One great example in history would be that of the French Revolution. The time preceding the Revolution was that of a financial crisis. More and more people struggled to survive, having lost their jobs, living under miserable conditions and often unable to buy even a loaf of bread. As in many occasions in history, one man succeeded to make the best of the situation. Maximilien Robespierre was one of the many revolutionary leaders. He used the people’s desperation, and, using a language of hatred, inspired the people to rise against the government and overthrow the monarchy. In much what he said, Robespierre was right - indeed, the royal family lived an expensive life off of the money of the people. What he did not tell, however, was that, the royal family in France had always lived in the same way Marie Antoinette and her husband did - the difference was that the previous generations did not have to face the financial crisis the last French royal family did. Thus, by twisting what is now known as a historical fact and using the desperation of the French people, Robespierre created a truth of his own, which the people accepted and turned into a universal truth. That lead to Robespierre achieving his goal - he got power and became a leader. But those who had supported him, such as his fellow revolutionaries, suffered, for almost all of them followed the royal family on the guillotine. Robespierre’s reign of terror lead France into a different kind of crisis, and it was a consequence of the people’s folly. It took generations to achieve the ultimate goal of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood”. 

Of course, not all political figures twist the truth to achieve a greater good for themselves - in some cases; they do it believing that they would achieve a greater good for their country or even the world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is, to this day, known as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. And, in many ways, he saved this country. But in order to do so, he had to make sacrifices. Sacrifices that cost others great pain. At the end of WWII, at the Conference at Yalta, a document known as the Declaration of Liberated Europe was signed by FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In that document, it was declared that after the end of the war, with the liberation of the countries influenced or occupied by Germany, free elections would be held, in order to establish new order. These words sounded very promising, yet there was a problem - they were very vague. At the time, almost nobody was able to see that. The war

had caused too much damage. All people wanted was a peaceful resolution. The prospect of free elections seemed wonderful, and everyone was too eager to believe there would be such a thing. I can testify for that, using the example of the country of my birth - Bulgaria. When the Declaration of Liberated Europe became a public fact, preparations for elections began in Bulgaria. Candidates were picked out, campaigns were started. Great was the shock of the people, when the government, which had been a communist-oriented one, with a prime minister close to Stalin, arrested everyone who had been pro-democracy and executed the leaders of the opposition. Not too surprisingly, the leaderships of almost the entire Eastern Europe, with the exclusion of Greece, turned red, or pro-Soviet. There was a purpose behind the vagueness of the Declaration of Liberated Europe - free elections, as far as Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill were concerned, meant elections in which Stalin’s post-war vision of spheres of influence in Eastern Europe would become a fact. In other words, the

Big Three knew that at the Eastern European elections, there would be no governments that would turn out as pro-democratic. FDR also succeeded to achieve his goals - there was peace, but he had to lie and sacrifice Eastern Europe for it. Citizens did not know that - they believed in what they saw on the surface, in what they heard from their leader and created a universal truth, which ended up hurting the Eastern European peoples.

History often tends to repeat itself, although in different forms. Today, I can clearly see a radical new movement in the United States - a country that has always symbolized freedom, democracy, and rational thinking. I angered to hear a statement that the newly popular Tea Party had made - they accused President Obama of being a socialist. I cannot be sure if it is the atrocity of this statement, or the amount of people supporting it that bothered me more. Ever since the Cold War, in the United States the term “socialist” had ben related to the Soviet Union and its dictators. I find it funny, knowing the true meaning of the term, how correct the Tea Party leaders are. For, the initial ideal of socialism is that all people would be equal. If one sees the term in this fashion, then yes, Obama is a socialist, for he wants all Americans to have equal opportunity, and he has been fighting for that with the Universal Health Reform and the plans for job opportunities. But I know that the Tea Party does not use it in this way, nor do their supporters see it as such. No, they use the term in a Soviet-related fashion, thus offending people like my mother, who lived in a communist state, experienced the transition, and came here from a post-communist society and knows what the true meaning of a communist dictatorship is. But the Tea Party leaders have found the perfect circumstances, hitting on a nerve in a time of deep economic and financial crisis and have used a hateful language to achieve their own purpose - to have power. Perhaps it is too early for many of their followers to see, but as I personally believe, American society is dividing and the people are suffering. The problem is, they believe they suffer because of the wrong person. They have created their own truth, a truth which for them is universal, like the truth of the geocentric theory or the free-elections of post WWII Europe.

No, there is no universal truth, there is truth based on the interpretation of facts. And it is the responsibility of society, the citizens and their leaders to overcome their bias and look beneath the surface, seeing the facts as they are.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.