“[W]henever I transcend the limits of my own life span and begin to reflect on this past, judging it, and this future, forming projects of the will, thinking ceases to be a politically marginal activity. And such reflections will inevitably arise in political emergencies.”
---Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Thinking)
There have been several new studies on and discussions about Adolf Eichmann lately. In them, Arendt’s name is frequently mentioned for fairly obvious reasons. Her remarks on Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness,” including her “banality of evil” and its relevance in assessing modern day atrocities, have forewarned against the consequences of totalitarianism for more than a half-century now. But some scholars, including Bettina Stangneth in her new book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, are challenging Arendt’s ideas. This gives us an opportunity to look back on Arendt’s theories and reevaluate their logic ourselves.
“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)
In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.
"Before we knew how to circle the earth, how to circumscribe the sphere of human habitation in days and hours, we had brought the globe into our living rooms to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes."
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
In 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus sailed west towards India, the German merchant and mathematician Martin Behaim constructed the first globe of modern times, the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe, measuring some 21 inches in diameter. The temporal coincidence of Columbus and Behaim’s endeavors speaks to an important phenomenon of the modern age that Hannah Arendt analyzed in the final chapter of her 1958 study The Human Condition. Arendt argues that the unprecedented enlargement of the world through the discoveries of early modern seafarers presupposed a more fundamental shrinkage of the world through the measuring activities of modern science. When Columbus and his fellow travelers embarked on their adventures, man had already elevated himself to a theoretical vista point from which he could look at the world as “a globe to be touched by our hands and swirled before our eyes.”
Man’s success in assuming a perspective beyond his being embedded in the world around him, an unearthly perspective that Arendt calls world alienation, is one of the fundamental preconditions of objectivity in modern science. But world alienation also describes modern man’s estrangement from his immediate earthly surroundings. With the globe in our living rooms, we have the world at our fingertips, but we no longer inhabit a place inside it. The modern age has enlarged the world’s physical territory while shrinking its experiential potentiality into a measurable dataset. Swirling the globe before his eyes, the mathematical theories of Martin Behaim embody both the knowledge and the melancholia of modern man.
One of the principal ways in which western societies have responded to the condition of world alienation over the past 150 years is tourism. Alienated from our immediate surroundings, we imagine immersing ourselves as tourists into foreign lands. While the beginnings of modern mass tourism can be dated back to the second half of the nineteenth century, tourism received important new impulses during the economic growth of the 1950s. In 1957, the year preceding the publication of Arendt’s The Human Condition, Arthur Frommer’s travel guide Europe on 5 Dollars a Day appeared and introduced to the world a new movement of low budget, long distance travel. Although Arendt never mentions tourism explicitly in her book, there are important lessons to be learned from her analysis of world alienation when dealing with Frommer’s promise of cheap travel and authentic experience overseas—a promise of which we have seen countless iterations in the heap of travel literature ever since.
The problem with Frommer’s promise does not lie simply in the fact that the millions of vacationers who are touring with Frommer immediately turn the recommended off-the-beaten-tracks paths into the new highways of travel. Rather, the existence of Frommer’s alternative travel guide presupposes a world that is, in all its common and uncommon aspects, translatable in the form of a guidebook. Before anybody sets out to travel to and discover Europe for him - or herself, Europe—or Thailand or Namibia, for that matter—have already shrunk to the format of a well-indexed pocket book, easy to navigate, but impossible to inhabit.
Arendt makes us sensitive to the necessary frustration of tourism’s promise to be immersed in the world through travel: the very embarking into the world as a tourist presupposes a technological and cultural infrastructure that has already necessarily distanced us from the world. No new journey into the world can escape the shadow of Martin Behaim, as he melancholically touches the globe with his hands, swirls it before his eyes, and reminds us of the fact that the world ceased to be ours at the moment we made it our object.
-Martin Wagner, Ph.D. candidate at Yale University
In 1956, as Russian tanks bore down upon Hungary and the short-lived freedoms of the Hungarian revolution, the director of the Hungarian News Agency sent a telex to the world. As Milan Kundera reports in a 1984 essay in the New York Review of Books, this Hungarian newspaperman, facing imminent death, ended his dispatch “with these words: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.”” The lesson Kundera draws is that the question of Europe—what Europe is and what it means for Europeans—had shifted from Western Europe to Central Europe. No one in London, he writes, would say “I am prepared to die for England and for Europe.” And while Russian dissidents like Solzhenitsyn were prepared to die for their country, it was not Europe that inspired them. Rather, it is in the countries of Central Europe where the idea of Europe came to express a value and an ideal for which lovers of freedom would make the ultimate sacrifice. As Kundera writes, ““To die for one's country and for Europe”—that is a phrase that could not be thought in Moscow or Leningrad; it is precisely the phrase that could be thought in Budapest or Warsaw.” The center of Europe has moved, it seems, to central Europe—a fact that helps put the current Ukrainian controversy in context.
The story of the Hungarian News Director was told by Rob Riemen yesterday at “What Europe: Ideals to Fight For Today,” a conference in Berlin asking the question: What values or ideals today might Europe fight for? Riemen quipped that the Hungarian news director may have been the last man willing to die for Europe. But as Europe confronts not only a financial crisis but also the political crisis in Ukraine and the prospect of a rising Russian enemy in the east, there is the question: Will Europe come together and stand up for something like European values in the face of Russian forces intent on holding onto a Central European state? Are there any values today that Europe is willing to fight for?
That question was put directly by the American scholar and advocate for Ukrainian democracy Timothy Snyder in his keynote address at the conference. Snyder, who has been writing widely about the Ukraine crisis in the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, claimed squarely that the question of Europe is going to be answered in the Ukraine. The Ukraine, he argued, is a test case for whether Europe is just a dream or whether it will finally become a reality. Snyder downplays the extremist elements of the Ukrainian protests, arguing that extremists in Ukraine represent only 3-5% of the population, far less than in Hungary or even in France. Rather, the Ukrainian revolutionaries on the Maidan are European idealists who are risking their lives for the idea of Europe. Like the Hungarian news director 60 years ago and unlike Western Europeans in London, Paris, and Berlin, Ukrainians are the ones putting their lives on the line for the chance to become part of Europe.
Snyder spent much of his speech and the bulk of the question and answer session arguing the Ukrainian revolution is mild, democratic, and non-fascist. As Snyder was speaking, a small group in the Ukraine calling themselves the Right Sector surrounded the Ukrainian Parliament demanding the resignation of a government minister. Here is how the New York Times reports the standoff:
“The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement. In fact, the nationalist groups, largely based in western Ukraine, had formed just one segment of a broad coalition of demonstrators who occupied the streets of Kiev for months demanding Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster.”
Even if Snyder is right and the Ukrainian revolutionaries are more like European democrats than the extremists imagined by Russian propaganda, it remains to be seen whether the corrupt oligarchs of Ukraine will permit the formation of a meaningfully democratic and liberal government oriented towards Europe. For Snyder, this is an existential question not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe. He believes that Ukraine will orient towards Europe and then argues that the future of Europe will flourish or wither depending on whether Europe welcomes its Ukrainian brothers and sisters into the European Union and protects them against the anti-European Eurasian axis centered in Russia. Europe, he insists, rise or fall on the question of how it handles Ukraine.
If Ukraine is the test case for the future of Europe, the European future looks bleak. The European Union was born from a deep wish for security and prosperity. Governed by consensus and centered around a monetary union, the European Union seems incapable of acting boldly to protect anything but its most basic financial interests. Faced with threats to Ukrainians claiming the mantle of Europe, European leaders are paralyzed. Germany receives the bulk of its oil from Russia and is unwilling to risk economic pain that would come with sanctions. The United Kingdom relies on the billions invested by Russian Oligarchs in British tax havens and London real estate and is unwilling to accept asset friezes that would threaten the inflow of dirty Russian money. And France has opposed an arms embargo on Russia because it has a contract to supply Russia with two warships worth $1 billion. Amidst austerity and with little sense of common purpose outside of peace and prosperity, the European Union has almost no ability to think the Ukrainian conflict through the political lens of a clash of ideas or a clash of civilizations.
Snyder called upon Europe to do just that. He argues that Europe must recognized that in Russia and the growing Eurasian Alliance Europe finally has an enemy, one that sees Europe as a threat. The question, he insisted, is whether Europe will grow up and finally act collectively to oppose a growing existential threat. The Ukraine crisis, he argued, is the test case that will decide the future of Europe.
The problem is that Europe is nearly existentially unable to articulate common ideals for which they will fight. Europe shies from articulating a vision of itself as exceptional or distinct in ways that are worth defending. Not only does Europe lack a common language or a heartfelt national anthem, but also it lacks a sense of what Europe means. Numerous speakers including Walter Russell Mead sought to defend an idea of European integratin and solidarity, but none offered an answer to the oft-repeated question, “What are European ideas to fight for today?”
The contrast between Europe and the United States was frequently cited at the conference, and it is helpful to compare the two. In the United States there is a clear national sense of what it is we stand for and those ideals for which we will fight. These are perhaps best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…. [We] here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As Seymour Lipset writes in American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, “The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.” There is, Lipset writes, an “American Creed” that includes five fundamental (if contradictory) values: 1) liberty; 2) egalitarianism; 3) individualism; 4) populism; and 5) laissez faire.
Whether one agrees with Lipset’s articulation of the American Creed, the claim of American exceptionalism has been central to the American self-understanding as well as the American willingness to imagine itself the guardian of a particular idea of justice throughout the world. Here is one articulation of the exceptionalist idea from John F. Kennedy, from a speech he gave to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1961.
“I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. “We must always consider”, he said, "that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”
President Barack Obama recently articulated a similar view in a speech at the United Nations:
“Some may disagree, but I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for own interests, but for the interests of all.”
For all the controversy around American exceptionalism and the disdain for it on behalf of many intellectuals, the American belief in its destined role as the guardian of constitutional democracy and self-government has indeed led America to put aside self-interest in the pursuit of idealistic aims.
The point of departure for these reflections as well as for the “What Europe?” conference (sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and Bard College Berlin) was a sentence by Hannah Arendt from her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age.” In that essay, Arendt writes:
“The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: “What are we fighting for?”
Amidst the loss of assured and common values in the wake of the loss of tradition, one great challenge today is the articulation of those common values and shared ideals that can still bind and inspire us and compel us to fight and suffer something beyond our narrow self-interest. The problem of Europe today is that the European Union is still ideologically barren, or if it has an ideology, it is a patently pedestrian ideology of economic security. As Ulrike Winkelmann of taz Berlin said at the conference, the Financial Times is the de facto newspaper read by European Union officials in Brussels. There is neither a European newspaper nor a European vision except for the maintenance of peace and economic growth. The problem for Europe as it faces the emergence of a real enemy on its Eastern front is that it means little to say “Give me peace or give me death.” At some point Europeans will either forge a common ideal for which they will collectively struggle, sacrifice, and even fight, or the European project will prove itself to be the mirage that Timothy Snyder hopes it is not and President Putin is seeking to prove it to be.
The video of Timothy Snyder’s speech will be available soon on the Hannah Arendt website. Until then, you can read his latest essay in the New York Review of Books.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.