Is Hannah Arendt A Jewish Thinker? On one level, the answer is obvious. Arendt was indeed Jewish, raised in Germany during the first three decades of the 20th century. True, Arendt was non-religious and in much of her writing was deeply critical of Jews and Jewish leaders. Yet she was arrested twice as a Jew, once in Germany and once in France, escaping both times. If one is attacked as a Jew, she said, one must respond as a Jew. That she did. She led Jewish Youth to Palestine and wrote essays during the war calling for a Jewish army. She attended the first meeting of the Jewish World Congress. She worked for years for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her first two books—Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of Jewess, and The Origins of Totalitarianism—are deeply infused by her understanding of the Jewish question. So too is her best known book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. It would be folly to deny that her thinking is influenced by her experience of being a Jew.
But to ask if she was a Jewish thinker is something else. It is to ask whether her political thinking is inspired by or in some way quintessentially Jewish. The question is posed this way often by students hoping to find something in Arendt with which they can identify. Others ask it in the hope of redeeming Arendt from the perceived sins of her book on Adolf Eichmann. And the question of the Jewish influence on Arendt is also a scholarly question.
For some Arendtian scholars, her thinking is a distillation of the work of her first teacher and youthful lover, Martin Heidegger. Others trace the source of her political ideas to her dear friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. She is often said to be an Aristotelian; one super-intelligent recent Ph.D. argued to me last week that the decisive influence on her work was Niccolo Machiavelli. A recent article argues that Arendt’s Denktagebuch proves that her most influential interlocutor was Plato. And then there is of course a Jewish reading of Arendt, one first explored in depth (and in its complexity) by Richard Bernstein in his book Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question.
In all such arguments seeking Arendt’s true source, there is painfully little tolerance for letting Arendt be Arendt, for recognizing her to be the original thinker she is. Contextualizing is the scholarly obsession. At some point, however, we must stop and admit that Arendt represents something new—which means only that any effort to claim one privileged influence upon her work will be incomplete.
The impact of her Jewish experiences on Arendt’s thought is most visible in the distinction she makes between the social and the political realms, which runs through her entire body of thought. As Leon Botstein has written, “Arendt’s basic theoretical claim, the separation of the social form the political, originated in her understanding of the Jewish problem as decisively political rather than social in character.” Arendt sought in her early Jewish writings to make a space for Jews to preserve their social aloofness (their being separate and living according to their own laws) while at the same time engaging in political action.
At the same time, Arendt’s distinction between society and politics is infused by her reading of Carl Schmitt as well as by her rejection of the Western philosophical canon that elevates contemplation over action. In The Human Condition, where Arendt first fully develops her distinction between the social and political, Jewish concerns are absent. And yet, the roots of that distinction are explored in Antisemitism, Book One of The Origins of Totalitarianism. It would be “irresponsible,” as Jerry Kohn has written, to doubt the importance to her thinking of what Arendt experienced as a Jew. Still, it would be saying too much to call her a Jewish thinker. Arendt is, quite simply, an original. She is impossible to compartmentalize or box in. She is neither liberal nor conservative, neither Jewish nor universal. Of course she is a Jewish thinker—and so much more.
I raise these reflections in response to Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order, an important new book by Natan Sznaider. Sznaider visited the Arendt Center last week and in two public presentations made his case for two theses: First, that Arendt’s mature political thinking has its roots in her Jewish experience from the 1930s through the 1940s; and second, that she has helped articulate a uniquely Jewish perspective on human rights conveyed and concretized through catastrophe and memory around the holocaust.
The foundation for Sznaider’s argument is an exceptional archival reconstruction of Arendt’s until-now little-known work for the committee for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR). Arendt was the research director for JCR in the 1940s, when she was hired by Salo Baron, a specialist in Jewish history at Columbia University. Baron hired Arendt and gave her what was her first paid position in the United States. As research director of JCR Arendt was thrust into post-war Jewish politics. Based on fruitful work in the Salo Baron archives at Stanford, Sznaider develops an account of the close intellectual, personal, and political relationship between Arendt and Baron, based on a shared belief in what he calls a “hidden Jewish tradition.” Against the mainstream Jewish tradition of victimhood and withdrawal, Arendt and Baron shared a belief in a vibrant and glorious tradition of Jewish political activity.
In her work for the JCR, Arendt compiled inventories of Jewish cultural artifacts. Relying on a network of Jewish refugees around the world, she published lists with titles like: “Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis-Occupied Countries.” Sznaider makes the case that these lists “are among her important publications on Jewish matters” and should be considered part of the Arendt canon. Working from these lists, Arendt then traveled to Europe and negotiated with German, Israeli, and U.S. military authorities to determine the fate of Jewish cultural treasures that had been stockpiled by the Nazis or saved by European communities.
Arendt’s work at the JCR was importantly an opportunity to engage in Jewish politics as a representative of world Jewry. She was one of the few unelected Jewish leaders tasked with deciding how the salvaged cultural heritage would be distributed to Jewish communities around the world. A large part of her work was convincing the U.S. military to depart from settled international law, which required that these treasures be returned to the communities from which they came. As there were no Jews left in these ravaged European Jewish communities, Arendt and Baron, along with Gershom Scholem in Israel, argued that the Jewish cultural heritage should be distributed to new Jewish communities in Israel, America, and around the world.
According to Sznaider, Arendt saw herself as an emissary of the Jewish people. “Arendt believed that the JCR would be the representative of the Jewish people as a collective and not of Jews as citizens of their respective countries.” Through her work for JCR, Arendt came to believe in the possibility of a Jewish politics outside of traditional nation states. It is in this context, he argues, that Arendt distanced herself from Zionist circles. She was, he writes, convinced that “the only viable answer for modern Jews is politics—not necessarily Zionist politics, but collective politics of some kind.” In lieu of the security of a national state, Arendt hoped for a “federal principle of political organization, not only for Jews but for all European peoples.” It is in this sense that Sznaider argues that Arendt’s political thinking as it emerges in her later writing is deeply indebted to her experience of Jewish political action.
Sznaider has many aims in his book and one is to enlist Arendt as the progenitor of what he calls “rooted cosmopolitanism,” a modern politics that is both rooted in particular identity and also open to the modern demand for equality. Another is to argue that there is a particular Jewish perspective on human rights that is rooted in the Jewish experience of catastrophe. Human rights, he argues leaning on Arendt, does not have a philosophical ground. But Jewish history and the memory of the holocaust offer a non-metaphysical ground for human rights in fear itself.
What a week it has been in the world of corporate criminality and governmental spinelessness!
On Monday, the British Bank HSBC agreed to pay a fine for $1.92 billion for repeated and systematic violations of two U.S. laws to prevent money laundering. The bank transferred hundreds of billions of dollars for its clients, likely enabling crimes ranging from tax evasion to terrorism. Once again, no one will be indicted, let alone found guilty. The reason: concern that criminal charges would hurt the bank’s business and, because it is so big, destabilize the financial system. The story is too familiar: A bank that is too big to fail gets away with criminal activity with simply a fine. While $2 billions sounds big, it is less than one quarter’s profit for HSBC. Oh, and the banks said it was sorry, sort of: “We accept responsibility for our past mistakes,’’ HSBC’s chief executive said in the statement. Mistakes are not crimes.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday in London, British authorities did make some arrests, something U.S. authorities still seem unwilling or unable to do.
In a predawn raid, police took three men into custody at their homes on the outskirts of London. One of the men is Thomas Hayes, 33, a former trader at UBS and Citigroup, according to people briefed on the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. The other two men arrested worked for the British brokerage firm R P Martin, said another person briefed on the matter.
These arrests come in the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal, one of the biggest financial scandals ever uncovered. By colluding to fix interest rates that banks use to lend to other banks, banks ensured that they would make more money on their own student loans, mortgages, and municipal financings and consumer loans. The suits by injured parties will be keeping lawyers well paid for a decade.
On Wednesday, Bill Hwang, a high-flying hedge fund Director, pled guilty of wire fraud on behalf of his now defunct hedge fund Tiger Asia and admitted to improper trading by the firm. But Hwang himself walked out of court an innocent man, as the NY Times reports:
Federal prosecutors did not bring charges against Mr. Hwang himself. But he and his head trader, Ray Park, settled a parallel lawsuit brought against them by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mr. Hwang and his fund will pay $44 million in fines, and he agreed to a five-year ban from the securities industry.
Once again, no one in the United States is being indicted or going to jail. And yet the federal prosecutor claimed victory for the investing public, seemingly unworried about the law-abiding public:
This criminal activity by a hedge fund operator, one of the biggest in the world, is unacceptable,” Paul J. Fishman, the United States attorney in New Jersey, said in a statement. “The investing public must be reassured that they are investing in markets that are operated fairly.
Also on Wednesday Deutsche Bank, the largest German banking behemoth, announced that its offices were raided by German investigators as part of an investigation into tax evasion by two of its top executives. Deutsche Bank has many problems, including a continued investigation to its role in the LIBOR rate fixing scandal that has already claimed settlements from Barclays in England and UBS in Switzerland (see Tuesday and Thursday).
On Thursday, the Swiss financial giant UBS announced that it was close to agreeing upon a $1 billion settlement with regulators in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland and Canada around the LIBOR rate fixing scandal (see Tuesday above).
While some minor players are being charged, once again there seems to be no interest in holding any major players at the bank responsible. As the NY Times writes,
The Swiss bank has reached a conditional immunity deal with the antitrust arm of the Justice Department, which may protect the bank from criminal prosecution under certain conditions The Justice Department’s criminal division, however, could still take action against the bank. UBS also has said it is working with Canadian antitrust authorities by handing over e-mails and other documents implicating other banks.
Over the weekend, hundreds of demonstrators around England protested against Starbucks for its tax minimization strategy. Starbucks capitulated, in part, agreeing to pay a one-time voluntary tax payment to England, something that sets the dangerous precedent of tax blackmail and does nothing to address the underlying problem. Let’s be clear. Starbucks broke no laws. But it did use creative accounting to minimize its taxes. For example, the profitable Starbucks franchises in England paid large fees to Starbucks’ subsidiary firms in low-tax countries for use of Starbucks branding, logos, and for the use of the firms’ coffee recipes. In effect, Starbucks laundered its corporate profits in high-tax England by transferring its profits to lower-cost jurisdictions. This is legal. The business community mysteriously finds it ethical. The protesters are rightly incensed. The real question is why, after hearing about such shenanigans for years, do legislatures continue to refuse to pass basic legislation making such tax minimization standards illegal.
The big story of the week remains the ever-growing insider-trading scandal that has been revolving around the Greenwich hedge fund SAC Capital run by Steven Cohen. Now 12 employees and alumni of Cohen’s firm have been indicted for insider trading (six while working for SAC and six for misdeeds after they left to start their own firms). Cohen himself has not been accused of wrongdoing, but the latest of his allegedly criminal underlings, Matthew Martoma, was Cohen’s right hand man for two years. And the prosecutors know that SAC sold its large positions in two drug-development companies and then shorted the stocks in those companies based on inside information from a trial of those drugs. And they know that Martoma and Cohen had a 20 minute phone conversation discussing their investment in those companies over the weekend before they sold their shares the following week. There is no clear evidence that Martoma told Cohen about his illegally obtained information. While both men remain innocent until proven guilty, Cohen’s firm SAC Capital is clearly a place that intentionally or not encourages illegal activities. Cohen points to his large compliance office of 30 legal and support officers, but one has to wonder about the priorities at the fund.
Actually, not much wonder is necessary. As Jesse Eisinger writes in an excellent essay in Thursday’s New York Times, few of SAC’s investors seem to care about the apparent ethical culture of laxity that surrounds his firm.
Astonishingly, investors don’t seem to mind terribly. They added as much as $1.6 billion in new capital to SAC’s flagship fund from 2010 to the end of 2011, when the insider trading investigation was in full bloom, according to Absolute Return, an industry trade publication.
At least some big institutions have begun to contemplate thinking about perhaps withdrawing money from Mr. Cohen. Congratulations. What took them so long? Citigroup’s private bank has told its clients not to put in new money, according to Bloomberg. What about getting their clients out? Why hasn’t bank given that advice before this?
The biggest, most sophisticated investors certainly put an enormous amount of pressure on hedge funds. But almost none of it is about ethics and clean culture. It’s about performance. A fund that runs a few ticks lower than its peers for several months running can get put out of business.
Many institutional investors have so perfected the art of looking the other way that they make bystanders on a New York City subway platform look like models of social responsibility.
The operating standard is to allow fund managers — or affiliated businesses or employees — to go as far as they can until the moment they are caught doing something wrong. Through their actions, Citigroup, Blackstone and the others are sending a message that they will forgive rotten ethics for great returns.
Eisinger asks the right question: At what point does “willful blindness turn to complicity”? It is hard to resist that basic conclusion.
While all these scandals were unfolding, I led a discussion on Monday evening about The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis at the last great bookstore in New York City, Book Culture, up near Columbia University. We had a standing room only crowd and ran out of chairs (thank you all). The discussion featured excellent panelists, all of whom are contributors to the new book of the same name published by Fordham University Press and edited by myself and my colleague Taun Toay. The other panelists were Robyn Marasco, Paul Levy, and Vincent Mai.
One of the main issues raised was the sea change in values. In his contribution to the volume, Vincent Mai, former Chairman of AEA Investors and now of Cranemere LLC, writes:
The first thing is just a complete change in the values of the people who are in the financial community in Wall Street, and in the culture. And, as I said, it’s not to say that the people in my era were all angels and that they’re all devils today. But, having said that, there has been a huge cultural shift.
Mai tells that when he began
there was a set of ground rules that governed the way you did business that imposed a discipline that was central to the way Wall Street worked. It was the same in all the firms. And I’ve watched with a combination of fascination and horror at the way the world has changed, turned upside down.
Paul Levy, Managing Director of JLL Partners, reminds us that good people work in business but he laments that these people are increasingly trained in narrow specialties and without the broad interests nurtured by excellent liberal arts educations. Levy writes,
I am no saint, but I can tell you that when I started my working careers as a corporate lawyer I wanted to be financially successful, although I did not have a firm view on how to get there.
Nowadays, Levy laments, college graduates make $150,000 per annum and quickly expect to make $300-$400,000 and soon more than $1 million. He writes: “Getting money has become the goal, instead of building the person.”
Robyn Marasco resisted the notion that greed is behind our current problems. Greed, she writes, is often good.
Moralizing against greed is no match for the realist recognition that what is often called greed—greed for life, greed for love, and greed for knowledge—is constitutive of human striving, what Spinoza called conatus, what Schopenhauer names the will to life, what Nietzsche terms the will to power. Greed is, indeed, good, if by it we mean a dynamic and energizing force that resists satisfaction in any particular object.
Our conversation touched on the moral hazard created by the lack of criminal sanctions on any of the main players in the financial crisis, something that the news summary from this week highlights. Above all, we spoke about the upending of values and the question of how to change or restore earlier values that have been lost. And, of course, we talked about Hannah Arendt.
Few thinkers saw more clearly than Arendt the connection between what Nietzsche called the devaluing of the highest values and what we today call global capitalism. Ethics requires setting limits to behavior and the political bodies that set such limits are the trustees of firms, city councils, state governments, and national legislatures. Whether these ethical limits are legal or moral, they establish common sense criteria about what is right and what is wrong.
Arendt sees that globalization—what she at the time understood as imperialism—is actually a political corollary of nihilism, the illegitimacy of all moral and political limits. If we as a people no longer feel sure that certain behavior is simply wrong, we will be willing increasingly to lower our ethical standards in order to compete with firms and nations that operate according to lower or different standards. There seems to be no ethical limits to the depths to which our companies will sink in the pursuit of profit; and profit becomes the only meaningful and objective criteria to judge success in a world in which all other values are relative and questionable.
Arendt’s insight into the intellectual origins of the rise of capitalist rationality is the impulse behind The Intellectual Origins of the Global Financial Crisis. The book grew out of the 2009 Hannah Arendt Center conference and its recent publication is as timely as ever. On this week of seemingly endless examples of corporate malfeasance, our new book is your weekend read.
"Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition. Hence tomorrow's problem will not be to get teachers, but to recognize the good ones and not discourage them before they have done their stint."
—Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America
Jacques Barzun has died. With his passing we lose another of the grand European-born intellectuals who made America their home. Barzun was born in 1907, one year after Hannah Arendt. He did not come to the United States persecuted for his religion. He came in 1920 to pursue a university education at Columbia. He graduated Columbia in 1927, received his Ph.D. in 1932 and taught at Columbia until his retirement in 1975. Along the way he became one of the nation's preeminent scholars and public intellectuals.
Here is what Edward Rothstein writes today in the New York Times:
[Barzun] wrote dozens of books across many decades, demonstrating that old age did not necessarily mean intellectual decline. He published his most ambitious and encyclopedic book at the age of 92 (and credited his productivity in part to chronic insomnia). That work, “From Dawn to Decadence,” is an 877-page survey of 500 years of Western culture in which he argued that Western civilization itself had entered a period of decline.
Mr. Barzun was both of the academy and the public square, a man of letters and — he was proud to say — of the people. In books and in the classroom he championed Romantic literature, 19th-century music and the Western literary canon. He helped design the influential “great books” curriculum at Columbia, where he was one of its most admired figures for half a century, serving as provost, dean of faculty and university professor.
As an educator Mr. Barzun was an important critic of American universities, arguing in 1968 that their curriculums had become an undisciplined “bazaar” of miscellaneous studies.
But he was also a popularizer, believing that the achievements of the arts and scholarship should not be divorced from the wider American culture. Writing for a general audience, he said, was “a responsibility of scholars.”
Barzun's work touched nearly every part of humanistic thought, from his work on Berlioz to his late epic on the decadence of Western culture. In “Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage," he took up the critique of scientific culture initiated by Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Weber. As did Hannah Arendt, Barzun worried deeply about the way scientific thinking was intruding upon the realm of human freedom and human creativity. His last book, From Dawn to Decadence, traces Western civilization from the renaissance to the present. It is at once sad in its mourning of lost greatness and optimistic about the impending regeneration. Barzun is a brilliant guide through the ages of the western mind.
Above all Barzun was a teacher. For all of us committed to the dual goals of enlivening and making accessible the world of ideas, the loss of Jacques Barzun is a day to recall the nobility of that enterprise.
“What is necessary for the pubic realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.”
In 1973, Hannah Arendt was invited to participate in a series of conferences on the Humanities and Public Policy issues funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to be held at Columbia University. The first, scheduled for February 1974, was on the topic of “Private Rights and the Public Good,” and Arendt gave a speech in response to a paper on the subject given by Charles Frankel, a Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (The original note cards of her presentation are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and can be viewed digitally online.)
Part of the grant’s requirements included taping the sessions and providing the Endowment with a transcript of all proceedings. Arendt objected to being taped and indicated she could do no more than present her oral commentaries; she had no time to develop a fuller paper. The organizers of the conference and Arendt reached a compromise: they would prepare a transcript of her comments from the tape; the tape would stay in the possession of Columbia University and no use would be made of the transcript, other than filing it with the Endowment as required, without Arendt’s express permission.
Some months after the conference, the coordinator of the conference sent Arendt the edited transcript, along with his wishes for her speedy recovery: while Arendt was in Scotland for the second of the Gifford Lectures, she had suffered a major heart attack. Unhappy with the transcription, Arendt indicated she still had her notes and would prepare something from them, adding that she thought this would present her thoughts more clearly, “even though these notes are written down in a rather apodictic style.” She had her secretary type up a version of the notes and then made a few additional minor changes and sent them to Columbia University.
“Notes on the Discussion of Professor Charles Frankel’s Paper...” provides several succinct insights into Arendt’s critical distinctions between public and private, which are especially germane to today’s political situation.
“Every individual by virtue of his citizenship receives a sort of second life in addition to his private life. He belongs to two orders of existence. Throughout his life he moves within what is his own, and what is common to him and his fellow man.” Public happiness was something that could only be attained “in public, independent of...private happiness.”
Today, Arendt bemoaned, the opportunities for experiencing this public happiness by participating in public life had shrunk, adding, “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” It was better represented in the activities of a jury. But the paradigmatic “public right” for Arendt was the right to peaceable assembly provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Its exercise was still evident in “voluntary association”, she remarked, “of which the civil disobedience groups were an outstanding examples.” Arguably, it has been more recently evident in dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its iterations. (Though, for interesting commentary and documentary materials on this see Cindy Weber’s recent essay in Open Democracy). But what was definitely not an example of the exercise of public rights was the degeneration of peaceable assembly into “lobbying,” which Arendt saw as “the organization of private interest for the purpose of public political influence.
Evidence from the current campaign suggests that the bipartisan perversion of public into private interests continues at an obscene pace. A recent article in The New Yorker provided some frightening facts: The impact of the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has meant that “very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics...A pool of only 2100 people has given a total of 200 million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom 86%.” (August 27, 2012)
What this means, using Arendt’s terminology, is that only a tiny portion of private interests will exert tremendous political influence. Not only has the public realm shrunk; the private realm of influencing politics has all but disappeared for everyone except the very few. Entering the voting booth in 2012 will mean exercising your private right to choose between one form of oligarchy or another. What then of public life? How can it be restored?
Arendt was typically vague about what to do about the influence of oligarchies on public and private life. “Neither the capitalist system [nor] the socialist system respects ownership any more—inflation and devaluation of currency are capitalist modes of appropriation—although both, in different ways, respect acquisition,” she wrote in the same speech. As to the consequences of enshrining acquisition as a principle of social organization, Arendt had nothing but criticism—see The Human Condition for this. To protect private life, we must “restore ownership to private individuals under conditions of modern production.” And what is necessary for public life to be restored is “to shield it against the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.” Yet all recent legislation that would have restored “ownership” or secured the public realm against brutalization by private interests seem to disappeared from the legislative agenda.
Is it time to call upon the 99% to boycott the election entirely? What other act of civil disobedience would be adequate to the task of renewing public life and salvaging it from its bastardization at the hands of greedy private interests?
-Kathleen B. Jones
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