When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
The new Hannah Arendt bio picture by Margarethe von Trotta has been released in Europe. It will hit theatres in the US in May, although it is making the rounds of festivals now. The good news: “Hannah Arendt” the film is really wonderful. I’ll have more to say about the film at some point soon, but until then we’ll be passing along the most interesting reviews. To get us started, here is a write up by David Owen, who teaches political theory at the University of Southampton. If you see the film and have some thoughts, pass them our way and we’ll post them on the blog.
The opening scene of the film shows the organised abduction of an ordinary-looking older man on a country road before cutting to a woman, obviously European in her movements, listening to classical music in a room whose decor is clearly American. These people are, of course, Adolf Eichmann and Hannah Arendt – and thus the film signals its central focus, namely, Arendt’s relationship to the event of Eichmann’s Trial in Jerusalem and the questions that Arendt’s report and the reactions to it raise concerning the relations of the private and the public, the personal and the political, and, more specifically, the conditions (and wisdom) of a philosopher speaking philosophically about politics in public.
The film’s portrayal of Arendt is unfolded through her relationships, most notably with her husband Heinrich Blücher, her friend Mary McCarthy, her once class-mate and now friend and colleague Hans Jonas, her old political mentor and friend the Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld, the editor of the New Yorker William Shawn, and her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger. All except the last of these are played out within a linear dramatic narrative that tracks Arendt’s circle from the capture of Eichmann through the trail in Jerusalem to the composition and publication of, and reaction to, Arendt’s New Yorker articles. The relationship to Heidegger is interspersed into the narrative through flashback’s that are Arendt’s memories of her relationship with Heidegger and his disastrous foray into public political speech in the Rectoral Address of May 27th 1933, a public act which he later spoke of privately as ‘die größte Dummheit seines Lebens’ but which he never publically renounced. This figuring of her relationship to Heidegger within the dramatic structure of the film is unfortunate in a number of ways, not least the portrayal of Heidegger as a clownish naïf, but primarily because through the use and positioning of these flashbacks within the film, von Trotta offers an open-ended analogy between Heidegger’s and Arendt’s acts of public speech. Even if von Trotta means only to raise the suggestion, since these flashbacks are Arendt’s, that Arendt reflects on her Report on the Eichmann Trial through the prism of her personal relationship to Heidegger and his own abrogated stress on the necessity of thinking, it gets in the way of the rest of the film which is a beautifully shot and compelling piece of narrative drama with a strong ensemble cast, not least in the sensitive use of documentary footage in the reconstruction of the Eichmann trial.
In different respects, Blücher and McCarthy are presented as Arendt’s supports. Blücher’s wandering eye and philandering (which Arendt is portrayed as accepting as a fact about which it would be hopeless to rail) are offset by his role as loving companion and sounding board for her thoughts. McCarthy is the female confidant, a blousy American whose insecurity in her personal life and work contrasts with and highlights Arendt’s European roots and location in an older tradition.
By contrast, the relationships with Hans Jonas and Kurt Blumenfeld are offered as both deep but also, finally broken, by Arendt’s writing on Eichmann. This is given early expression in, first, an argument between Jonas and Blücher about Eichmann’s abduction to be placed on trial in Israel which foreshadows the more dramatic rupture between Jonas and Arendt – and, second, Arendt’s visit to Blumenfeld’s family in Jerusalem (on her way to cover the Eichmann trial) in awkwardness and already emerging disagreement are covered over by the depth of their friendship. Later, after the report is published, Arendt will dash to Jerusalem to visit a seriously ill Blumenfeld in his sickbed only for him to turn his back to her. The issue von Trotta raises here concerns not so much whether Arendt’s arguments are right or wrong but rather how much one can reasonably ask one’s friends to bear in respect of one’s own commitment to intellectual integrity. For Blumenfeld, Arendt’s remarks on the role of the Jewish leaders in co-operating with the Nazi organization run by Eichmann and hence facilitating the Shoah are a betrayal of the Jewish people. Arendt’s response — that she does not think of herself as having such an obligation — adds only insult to injury. For Jonas, Arendt’s fault is arrogance — and certainly the portrayal of her relationship to William Shawn, an editor overwhelmed by awe at Arendt which she shows no compunction in exploiting, is given as testimony to this side of her character. This issue is raised for us acutely by the climax of the film to which I’ll come shortly but there are two other features that deserve comment first.
The first is the presentation of the charge made against Arendt by her public critics that she is cold, without feeling, and McCarthy’s defense of her as simply having a courage that her critics lack, in the context of a portrayal of Arendt among students and friends as a caring and humorous person who, at one point, privately breaks down in the face of the reaction to her report. The second is the portrayal of the process of composing her writing of Eichmann which combines two elements: the engagement with a vast mass of empirical material, piles of folders of paper (court transcripts, etc.) are arranged around the study and apartment, and the difficulty of writing: Arendt sits reading and is haunted by voices from the trial, she spends a lot of time lying down on a divan smoking endless cigarettes, she types in a controlled frenzy. Here it seems to me that the film is linking these features in a way that is insightful and important, namely, that Arendt had to steel herself to write her report at all, that she had to set aside her own feelings and relationships to others in order to be able to try to serve truth, that intellectual conscience (redlichkeit) makes demands that are hard to bear. In this sense, the film suggests that the critics (who remind me of Martha Nussbaum on tragedy) are right to see her writing as cold and without feeling but quite wrong in their judgment of the significance of this fact and the courage that the writing required of her. At the same time, her response to William Shawn that her writing about the Jewish leaders was purely factual raises for the viewer the question of whether she has lost the ability to discriminate between her judgment and facts in this process. In making this point, the film does not attempt to adjudicate the question of whether Arendt was right or wrong to write the report that she composed, rather it tries, I think compellingly, to make intelligible how she could come to speak in the way that she did (it may also explain why she was entirely unconcerned that Eichmann was hanged).
Let me now turn to the climax. As the drama following the publication of her report unfolds, Arendt is presented as treating from public space and, against McCarthy’s advice, refusing to engage publically with the criticisms directed at her work by critics for whom she has no intellectual respect (echoes of Heidegger’s postwar silence are raised here). When she returns to The New School, at that time almost entirely a Jewish institution, her colleagues shun her and she is asked to resign from teaching her classes which she refuses to do — but she does acknowledge an obligation to the students, who have supported her (and whom the film portrays her as feeling responsible to, for example, in the scene where McCarthy arrives at her class to tell her that Blücher has had a heart attack and is in hospital, and her first shocked reaction is to return to finish her class). When she has offered her explanation to a lecture hall packed with students and the three staff before whom she was hauled for dressing down and discipline, she rebuts – albeit not wholly convincingly — the charge by a staff member that she is blaming the victims for their own victimhood and is given rapturous applause by the students. As they leave, she sees that Hans Jonas is also in the audience. His face, in a bravura piece of acting by Ulrich Noethen, gives us no clue as to what is to come next but seems to express a process of internal struggle. Arendt goes to him, hopeful that her explanation will have healed the rupture of their friendship, but far from it — Jonas rejects her account, she has gone too far, and, in a bitter expression of the end of their friendship, refers to her as “Heidegger’s little darling”.
The question raised by this film is that of ‘thoughtlessness’. Arendt presents Eichmann as a creature who cannot think, for has abdicated the realm of thinking, and at the same time she sees Heidegger as a philosopher whose movement into the public realm is marked by a shift to thoughtlessness (a view that allows her to continue to engage Heidegger’s philosophical work after 1933 in contrast to Jonas). Is Arendt similarly ‘thoughtless’ is her reflections on the Jewish leaders? The film asks us to consider this question but not, I think, quite in Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness but in the broader sense that underlies it. Her commitment to understanding, to making intelligible, to truthfulness is given clear expression as too are the demands this makes on her — but what about the demands that this makes on her friends, is there not a kind of thoughtlessness here? Is there not a kind of thoughtlessness in her failure to anticipate the entirely predictable response to her moralized interpretation of the role of the Jewish leaders, whose cooperation with the Nazis, she writes, should strike Jews as the darkest episode of a dark chapter of human action?
I don’t think that the film ultimately takes a stance on this issue – rather it raises for us the question of the relationship of Arendt’s sense of thoughtlessness to our ordinary sense of that word. And it must be noted that while Arendt’s thesis concerning the banality of evil is a fundamental insight for moral philosophy, she is almost certainly wrong about Eichmann. As David Cesarani and, more recently, Bettina Stangneth have compellingly argued, Arendt was — like almost everyone else — taken in by Eichmann’s strategy of self-presentation in the trial as a nobody, a mere functionary, a bureaucratic machine. Yet the evidence of Eichmann’s commitment to Nazism and, contra Arendt, his commitment to anti-Semitism that has emerged in more recent years, especially well-documented by Stangneth’s study Eichmann vor Jerusalem, suggests that Jonas was right — Eichmann was a monster who hated Jews. The film is composed in a context in which we, and von Trotta, know this — and I think the film’s refusal to resolve the issues that it raises is precisely an acknowledgement of this context. In this respect, Thomas Assheuer’s review in Die Zeit which suggests that Arendt’s reading of Eichmann was directed against that of the Israeli Prime Minster David Ben Gurion who represented him as a monster of evil for ideological purposes may have some force but not against the film. Rather the film leaves us with questions concerning the relationship between friendship and the service of truth, of emotional life and the conditions of writing truthfully, and of the conditions and costs of public speech.
The Hannah Arendt Center has followed the shadow dance of the fiscal cliff less for its fiscal than for its political lessons. While a deal was struck, it is hard not to be impressed by the breakdown of our political class. Like the Europeans, we are now officially kicking the can down the road, refusing to address our meaningful problems. There is, in short, no political will and no political leadership with the courage and willingness to act in ways that might help us imagine a new way out of our predicament.
One could say it is the fault of voters. But there is a funny thing happening in politics. The House of Representatives, which is supposed to be the most populist of the major branches of government, is the one branch of government that is calling loudly for painful spending cuts and resisting the rise of our out-of-control debt. True the House is calling for tax cuts, but so too did the Senate and the President. What distinguishes the House now is its insistence on cutting spending. The Senate and President—imagined to be more protected from popular will—are instead combining now to cut taxes, increase spending, and keep the gravy train of government-subsidized stimulus flowing. In a strange way, it is the political body most responsive to voters that is at least calling for change—even if the House Republicans refuse to be honest about what those changes would be or what they would mean. Why or how has this political inversion happened?
One of the few Senators who voted against the compromise is Michael Bennett, the Democratic Senator from Colorado who was supposed to be cliff jumping in Vail (it’s nice here!) but stayed in Washington to vote “No.” Interviewed by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Bennett says: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.” Bennett, a free thinking Democrat, knows that things have to change.
"The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.
But what is it about the system that needs to change? Some see this as simply a matter of policy. Nouriel Roubini, writing today in the Financial Times, thinks taxes need to go up for all Americans to help support a welfare state that is drastically underfunded and yet ever-so necessary:
Neither Democrats nor Republicans recognise that maintaining a basic welfare state, which is right and necessary in our age of globalisation, rapid technological change and demographic pressure, implies higher taxes for the middle class as well as for the rich. A deal that extends unsustainable tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans is therefore a pyrrhic victory for Mr. Obama.
Roubini may very well be right. But as he himself recognizes, the political will to exercise this transformation is simply not there. What that means policy wise, I do not know.
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.
The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.
Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:
Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.
Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.
What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.
Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.
Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.
It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.
The most exciting aspect of Occupy Wall Street was seeing Americans—young and old, white and black, Jew and Muslim—coming together in public spaces to talk about matters of public importance. The most disheartening failure of Occupy Wall Street was how quickly those conversations turned to navel gazing. Instead of aiming to lead, to take on responsibility, and to honestly and courageously work to impact the public world around them, the protesters (and that is what they are, at least to date, rather than revolutionaries) satisfied themselves with talking to like-minded people about their dreams and hopes. Occupy Wall Street fizzled because the passions and happiness at making a difference gave way to the solipsistic self-pleasuring of those speaking to themselves, and those like them.
Consider, as an alternative, the villagers of Wukan, China. In September of 2011, the village government sold town land to real-estate developers. Such deals are reportedly common in China, since China repealed local agricultural taxes in 2006. To raise money to run local governments, Chinese local officials are increasingly selling farmland to developers. According to Michael Young, "the local government compensates the farmers with a minimum amount of money and then is paid 50 times more by the developer." According to Young, "60 to 70 percent of local government income comes from selling land to developers." The land sales "enrich officials" and also contribute to economic growth of China.
The land sales have generated huge resentment throughout China, and for a while Wukan was no different. In 2009 villages petitioned and protested the sale of 67 acres of land to a Hong Kong developer. In September of 2011, another protest erupted, but this time serious clashes only intensified the protests. Eventually new villagers were elected to the village government. One of these, Xue Jinbo, was then arrested and died in custody, amidst rumors of torture and mistreatment. The resulting uproar led to something unheard of in China: A free and democratic village election with secret ballots.
On February 11, 2012, over 6,000 of the Wukan's 8,000 residents filled out "pink ballots in rows of plywood booths that ensured their choices would remain secret, then dropped them in big steel boxes sealed with tamper-proof stickers.
Officials tallied the votes in the schoolyard as residents looked on." According to The New York Times report,
It was the first truly democratic vote here in decades, if not ever, and something of a landmark of transparency in China's opaque politics. By the time it ended, the very men who had led Wukan's struggle against an entrenched village autocracy had been chosen as its new leaders.
Even as the Times article reports on the amazing victory in Wukan and the optimism it has spawned, the narrative of the article questions whether anything will change. The corruption underlying the land sales is deep and "reaches into layers of higher governments." The new leaders of Wukan have received threats. Other similar attempts at protests in China have lately been suppressed: "this month in Zhejiang province, north of Guangdong, officials suppressed a Wukan-style land protest in Panhe by systematically rounding up protest leaders and sealing their village off from journalists." The Times quotes Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing scholar, who argues: "Reform in China doesn't start in places like Wukan. It starts at the top and soaks downward."
I am not an expert in Chinese politics. But dismissals of the Wukan revolution—and that is what happened in Wukan—do seem to ignore the incredible and seemingly impossible victories of the people there.
So what, we must ask, has changed in China? How does the people's occupation and revolution in Wukan compare to the Occupy Wall Street movement here?
Whether or not the people of Wukan get their land back, they have tasted what Hannah Arendt calls public freedom. Like OWS, the people of Wukan experienced the joy of collective action in public. In both cases, they did not simply protest. They also created councils and general assemblies and thus built organizations in which people could act together in public. But there is where the similarities end.
In Wukan, the people did not only occupy parks. They came together and created a new power in society and used that power to take over their government.
Leaders emerged, who channeled the spirit of protest into demands not only for redress of their land claims but for an openness and participation in government. What Wukan shows, in other words, is a new model for revolutionary politics in China—a path towards the creation of local power centers built upon the consensus of individual villagers.
I have no doubt that China can, if it wants, violently suppress these concretions of people power. As Syria is showing now, unrelenting violence can overcome power. And yet, to employ such violence risks destroying the power of the state itself, which is always based upon the consensus of the people. More likely, the revolution in Wukan is an example of the way that people in China are, in steps big and small, demanding the control of their political fate.
What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words,
They knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
Arendt was always alive to this sense of "public happiness" which she distinguished from the economic and social needs that comprised being well fed and comfortable. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions." It was this passion to be involved, to be seen and heard in matters of public importance, and to distinguish oneself before one's peers that Arendt points to as central to the experience of freedom in America.
The promise of Occupy Wall Street was not simply that it would bring about economic equality or other specific results. It was that it returned citizens to the public square to engage again in the public life of the nation. Its failure, at least to date, is that its activists refused to take seriously the responsibility and need to speak and act not only in public, but also for the public.
By avoiding taking stands, by eschewing leadership, by insisting on appealing to everybody, by seeking to offend no one, and by holding themselves above and outside of politics, the movement became consumed by itself, inward looking, and, ultimately, apolitical. The joy of OWS did not translate, as did the joy of the collective action in Wukan, into political power. If we are to rejuvenate our political culture, it is better to look to the revolutionaries in Wukan than the protesters in Zuccotti Park. Or rather, maybe the OWS movement needs to pay attention to Wukan, and think about how to transform its power, joy, and public engagement into political channels.
See the NY Times Slideshow of the Voting in Wukan, here.
A new film, “Five Broken Cameras,” has won praise for doing something as difficult as it is simple: bearing witness. Here is how The New York Times describes the film made by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian Villager who started making his film when he was given a video camera at the birth of his son:
The new documentary intersperses scenes of villagers fighting the barrier with Mr. Burnat’s son Gibreel’s first words (“cartridge,” “army”), undercover Israeli agents taking away friends and relatives, and Mr. Burnat’s wife, Soraya, begging him to turn his attention away from politics and be with his family. Over six years, Mr. Burnat went through five cameras, each broken in the course of filming — among other things, by soldiers’ bullets and an angry settler. At the start of the film, Mr. Burnat lines up the cameras on a table. They form the movie’s chapters and create a motif for the unfolding drama — the power of bearing witness. Mr. Burnat never puts his camera down and it drives his opponents mad.
It takes incredible courage and resolve to do something as simple as tell the truth. And yet, the truth is absolutely essential in our world. To do so is both selfish (in regard to one's family) and selfless (insofar as one sacrifices oneself to the public need for truth). As Jaqueline Bao wrote on this blog in September, "In bearing witness, we carry the burden of the unpleasantry of truths just as we give life to the permanence of the world by establishing a common reality."
For Hannah Arendt, the world can survive without justice. But it cannot survive without truth. As she writes:
“What is at stake is survival, the perseverance of existence, and no human world destined to outlast the short life span of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men willing to do what Herodotus was the first to undertake consciously—namely, to say what is.” (Truth and Politics, 229).
I have not seen Five Broken Cameras. But I hope to. I am sure it tells one side of the complicated story that is euphemistically referred to as the Middle East Crisis. And yet, in Mr. Burnat's resolve to bear witness, we encounter one way that the truth must be told.
Five Broken Cameras won the Audience Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and is one of about a dozen films competing at Sundance this week in the World Documentary category. You can watch the trailer for Five Broken Cameras Here.
The governors of two of our largest states gave "State of the State" messages this week. Both were controversial. Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York took on the teacher's union and demanded that teachers be subjected to measures of accountability. Governor Jerry Brown in California dared California to dream big and challenged the state to move forward with the high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Arendt Center is focusing its attention on the desperate need to rethink leadership in our time and wondering how we might encourage bold and courageous leadership. Cuomo's speech does just that. Brown's falls short.
Both Brown and Cuomo embraced the mantle of bold leadership. Brown styled himself the daring doer with his call to build a much-debated high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco:
Critics of the high-speed rail project abound, as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. The Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical, and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal, ‘Totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.
Cuomo, for his part, imagined himself the rampaging reformer taking on the entrenched interests of the unions. He challenged the teacher's union to accept teacher evaluation that would carry meaningful consequences for ineffective teachers. And promised to withhold funding to districts that do not. “No evaluation, no money. Period,” the Governor said.
I learned my most important lesson in my first year as Governor in the area of public education. I learned that everyone in public education has his or her own lobbyist. Superintendents have lobbyists. Principals have lobbyists. Teachers have lobbyists. School boards have lobbyists. Maintenance personnel have lobbyists. Bus drivers have lobbyists. The only group without a lobbyist? The students.
Well, I learned my lesson. This year, I will take a second job — consider me the lobbyist for the students. I will wage a campaign to put students first, and to remind us that the purpose of public education is to help children grow, not to grow the public education bureaucracy.
I am no fan of union bashing. As an educator myself, I have enormous respect for those who teach. Teachers should be paid more, not less, and good teachers should receive performance bonuses, as is currently happening in Washington, DC. Study after study shows that the biggest factor in whether a child learns is the teacher, not how much money is spent. I think anyone who teaches knows this is true.
Cuomo's decision to take on the education establishment on teacher evaluation is a small step. But it does show a Democratic Governor exerting leadership by opposing a union that is part of his traditional constituency.
He is insisting that the services government provide be better. And he reminds us that government is first and foremost about providing services for citizens, not about providing jobs. If we are going to preserve faith in government, we need to make government work. Cuomo seems intent on doing just that.
Brown, on the other hand, seems entrenched in the failed policies of government. I love fast trains (so does my 2 year old son). I suffer every week on the slow train between New York City and the Hudson Valley where I teach. As someone who has lived in Europe and marveled at the Chinese, I desperately wish that the United States could build a transportation infrastructure that would work.
Thus I am open to Brown's risk-taking insistence we build fast trains. That said, he is committing to a project for which most of the funds are not yet raised and that won't be completed until 2033—under optimistic forecasts.
Who knows if a fast train designed in 2010 will even be useful in 2033? The Erie Canal took 8 years to build. The U.S. built the Panama Canal in less than 10 years. It is one thing for medieval towns to dream big and build a gothic cathedral over decades and centuries, for one has faith that God will still have need of a place of worship. But with technology changing so fast, the $100 billion train could be obsolete before it is completed.
Real leadership requires not simply dreaming big, but acting big. Leadership entails cutting through the bureaucratic red tape that makes it so expensive and time-consuming to take on major public-works projects in this country. Courage would be for a democratic governor to pursue his dream for major infrastructure while at the same time insisting on regulatory and labor reform that would allow the train to be completed in less time than the Erie Canal.
Just yesterday Republican Candidate and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began running a television ad called "Timid or Bold." The point is to contrast his own apparently bold leadership with Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's supposedly timid style—a style and substance the ad compares with that of Barack Obama. Only Gingrich, so the ad implies, has the courage and daring to take the steps need to right the ship of state.
Whatever one makes of their diverse policies, the spat between Gingrich and Romney highlights a basic ambivalence about leadership in modern politics. On the one hand, we crave a bold and brash leader—look at the groundswell of support for first Hermann Cain, then Newt Gingrich, and then Ron Paul. On the other hand, we are quick to abandon such leaders as soon as their foibles, eccentricities, infidelities, and crimes are brought into the light of day. We demand of leaders today a moral probity that would have toppled giants like Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. This is of course not to compare the current Republican candidates to these leaders, but merely to point out that there is today a deep desire for a leader who can break out of the mold of technocratic political hack and, at the same time, a fear of those who shoot from the hip, take chances, and make mistakes.
The political consultant and pollster Frank Luntz writes that,
Successful leaders establish [their] persona not by describing their attributes and values to us, but by simply living them.
Leaders are like "superstars," those who connect viscerally with their people. They do so, via authenticity. Leaders must be unhesitating, direct, and assured. They must "show" their decisiveness, and not simply tell it. The best politicians are "always true to themselves." As Luntz puts it, "You cannot get away with acting in politics for too long."
Luntz is right, which is why what he says so terrifies me. For as we demand of our politicians ever more authentic leadership at the very moment when the politicians themselves have retreated behind the opacity of spin, counter-spin, and double-speak. At no time have politicians been such consummate actors; or, at the very least, at no other time have they been so clearly seen to be so. We live in a moment of unparalleled transparency coupled with an unspeakable fear of revelation. The result is that the American people vacillate between an impossible hope for a political superstar and the unyielding despair that such leadership is no longer possible.
Few people have thought so deeply about the activity of politics as Hannah Arendt. One who did, however, was Max Weber. In 1918 Weber delivered his lecture "Politics as a Vocation" at the invitation of a group of radicalized students. Weber's lecture famously draws a distinction between two motives of political leadership, an ethic conviction and an ethic of responsibility.
Weber’s ethic of responsibility holds that while a responsible politician takes both ends and means into account, he must be willing to employ violence to fight for the good. On the other hand, Weber’s ethic of conviction is best exemplified by religious actors: “A Christian does what is right and leaves the outcome to God.” With Thoreau, the adherent of the ethics of conviction says: let the world be damned so long as I am saved. Fiat Justitia, pereat mundus. It is just such an absolutist ethic of conviction that Arendt condemns in her essay Truth and Politics.
Weber affirms the necessary opposition between these two ethics. “It is not possible,” he writes, “to reconcile an ethics of conviction with an ethics of responsibility.” Nevertheless, after twice reaffirming the fundamental antagonism between the two ethics, Weber qualifies his distinction. While politicians must act responsibly according to the rational dictates of the head, there is as well a need for heartfelt conviction. Weber remains skeptical of political appeals to the heart; most politicians who do so are sentimental and manipulative “windbags. And yet, Weber writes:
I find it immeasurably moving when a mature human being—whether young or old in actual years is immaterial—who feels the responsibility he bears for the consequences of his own actions with his entire soul and who acts in harmony with an ethics of responsibility reaches the point where he says, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’
When a responsible politician, aware of the consequences of his actions, decides to rationally take an unbending stand, then, Weber argues, he acts both as a politician and as a human being. Such an act “is authentically human and cannot fail to move us.” There is, in the action of a fully human politician, the recognition of the tragic nature of political action. The politician takes his ethical stand fully aware of the foreseeable and even the potentially unforeseeable consequences that may follow. In this sense, then, “an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility are not absolute antitheses but are mutually complementary, and only when taken together do they constitute the authentic human being who is capable of having a ‘vocation for politics.’”
The point is that politics is a difficult calling, one that requires both mature responsibility and also brash and bold decisiveness—and also the judgment to know when each is called for. And at certain times, any great politician must be willing to throw away success and popularity for a cause he believes in. Thus:
Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.
Which brings us to my favorite lines from the end of Politics as a Vocation:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. [A]ll historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.
We would do well to have some politicians meditate on Weber's account of the political calling. But if they won't, you should. Weber's essay is here for you to read over this first weekend of this critical election year.
A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
To read more by Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, click here to visit her blog.