By Hans Teerds
“Jaspers’ thought is spatial because it forever remains in reference to the world and the people in it, not because it is bound to any existing space.”
-- Hannah Arendt, ‘Karl Jaspers: A Laudatio’
It is in the midst of her description of the German philosopher and her tutor Karl Jaspers’ ‘faculty for dialogue [and] the splendid precision of his way of listening’ that Arendt identifies his spatial approach. Jaspers, she argues, through his thinking created a space wherein ‘the humanitas of man could appear pure and luminous.’ In speaking and listening, Jaspers was able to change and widen, sharpening and therewith ‘illuminating’ the subject. This approach of course depends upon the ability to take other perspectives into account, i.e. Kant’s ‘enlarged mentality,’ of which Arendt was the ‘political mentality par excellence.’
** This article was originally published on our blog on Monday, August 13, 2012. **
“Plurality of languages: [...] It is crucial 1. that there are many languages and that they differ not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, and so in mode of thought and 2. that all languages are learnable.”
-- Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, i.e. Thinking Diary, p. 42f
Hannah Arendt learned English quickly. In the year after her arrival to the USA in 1941, her work was already being printed by American magazines and publishers. In November 1950, as she wrote the above sentences on the “plurality of languages,” she refined her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and readied it for publication. Contemporaneously with the publication of her first book in English and shortly before her “naturalization” as an American citizen, Arendt began her Denktagebuch. The book—a diary of reflections, of sorts—was written in several languages and often, like the entry above, in German.
Our library feature photo this week comes courtesy of Joop Berding, a researcher at Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Shown in the image below is part of Berding's bookcase that is dedicated to Arendt's works.
Berding describes his personal Arendt library as follows:
Over the past few years, I have read most of Arendt’s works, mostly in English but also a number of them in German (such as the letters to Heinrich Blücher) and in Dutch. Arendt's works have been available in Dutch since the seventies. One can see a number of important works on Arendt, including the still very impressive biography by Bruehl-Young, studies by Canovan and Neiman, and others. Also, since I have a special interest in Arendt’s work on the Eichmann Trial, I have collected a number of secondary sources on the subject. Lastly, Arendt’s own interest in classical Greek philosophy has motivated me to dive into the subject as well.
The centerpiece of my collection, Arendt’s Vita Activa (The Human Condition), lays near the center of the image. The book for me is a central work in her oeuvre and is in fact one of the most beautiful and moving texts ever written.
Via the use of these volumes, I have written a number of articles about Arendt, most of them in Dutch and mainly about the impact of her political views on education. At the moment, I am preparing an edited volume about the impact of Arendt’s theories on professionalism in education, care, and welfare.
For more information about my interest in Arendt, again most of it in Dutch, please check out my website www.joopberding.nl.
Do you have images of your own personal Arendt library that you would like others to see? Send them to David Bisson, the Media Coordinator for the Hannah Arendt Center, at email@example.com, and your photos might get featured on our blog!
Wednesday, December 1, 2010: Lunchtime Talk
Participants: Ursula Ludz, then a visiting scholar at the Hannah Arendt Center, as well as the editor of Letters: 1925-1975 by Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger and Arendt’s Denktagebuch, among other publications.
In 2010, Ursula Ludz gave a lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. She was at the time engaged in a project of constructing an advanced bibliography of Arendt’s own reading. Her talk is an overview of her findings.
(Featured Image: Norman Rockewell's "Portrait of America," Source - Brenna Eaton)
“Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”
– E. B. White
Before becoming the author of a few famously heart-warming children’s novels, E. B. White was the author of one of the most chilling pages of non-fiction in the English language. Written on Aug. 27, 1939, it describes an entire nation’s “long vigil at the radio”, a world twitching “nervously from the likelihood of war at 86 on the dial to the possibility of peace at 100”. In the face of a monstrosity that everyone knew was coming but had not yet begun, time had been suspended, the world having shrunk to the size of a radio “box [everyone] live[d] in”. “Hour after hour”, White writes, “we experience the debilitating sensation of knowing everything in the world except what we want to know – as a child who listens endlessly to an adult conversation but cannot get the gist, the one word or phrase that would make all clear.” It was published on Sept. 2--the day after the German invasion of Poland began.
"If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice...Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon..."
Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, fell on the 27th day of the month of Nisan or in April this year. It begins at sundown and continues into the next day. A memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, it is a time to call these events to mind and consider their continued resonance and relevance in our own dark times. How shall we, in the words of Hannah Arendt, bear the burden of such a past? With what attitude should such events be commemorated?
Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1964, a televised conversation between the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, and the well-known German journalist, Günter Gaus, was broadcast in West Germany. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her controversial analysis of the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, had just been published in German in the Federal Republic and Gaus used the occasion to generate a “portrait of Hannah Arendt.” The interview ranged across a wide field of topics, including the difference between philosophy and politics, the situation in Germany before and after the war, the state of Israel, and even Arendt’s personal experiences as a detainee in Germany and France during the Second World War.
Already a cause célèbre in the United States the book had brought Arendt lavish praise and no small amount of damnation. What Gaus especially wanted to know was what Arendt thought about criticism levied against her by Jews angered by her portrait of Eichmann and her comments about Jewish leaders and other Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Above all,” said Gaus, “people were offended by the question you raised of the extent to which Jews are to blame for their passive acceptance of the German mass murders, or to what extent the collaboration of certain Jewish councils almost constitutes a kind of guilt of their own.”
Gaus acknowledged that Arendt had already addressed these critics, by saying that such comments were, in some cases, based on a misunderstanding and, in others, part of a political campaign against her, but he had already crossed a contested border. Without hesitation, she corrected Gaus:
First of all, I must, in all friendliness, state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance. Someone else did that in the Eichmann trial, namely Mr. Hausner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. I called such questions directed to the witnesses in Jerusalem both foolish and cruel.
True, Gaus admitted. He had read the book and agreed that Arendt had not made that point exactly. But, he continued, some criticism had been levied against her because of “the tone in which many passages are written.”
“Well,” Arendt replied, “that is another matter...That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.”
What did she mean by ironic? “If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice.... Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon...” To convey the shock she experienced when, contrary to her own expectations, Eichmann “in the flesh” appeared to be more a clown than a monster, Arendt countered with a reverse shock, adopting a sardonic, unsentimental voice to unmask what she later termed “the banality of evil.” It could be read as her way to diminish the self-aggrandizement of the architects of the Final Solution to middling size. The trouble was she used this voice rather undiplomatically to describe not only Eichmann’s actions but also the complicity of others, including some members of the Jewish community she judged harshly for cooperating with Nazis. “When people reproach me with accusing the Jewish people, that is a malignant lie and propaganda and nothing else. The tone of voice is, however, an objection against me personally. And I cannot do anything about that.”
“You are prepared to bear that?” asked Gaus. “Yes, willingly,” Arendt claimed. What she had not anticipated was how unprepared many who read her were to take on this new shock of the “banality of evil” on top of the horrifying accounts of Jewish suffering conveyed at the trial.
In fact, “bearing the burden of the past,” thinking about the past in its morally perplexing and disconcerting entirety, was the focus of Arendt’s writing, from her earliest essays to her last. And in no case did this burden bearing affect her more personally than when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem. When she returned from a European trip taken for a needed rest soon after the book’s release, she found stacks of letters waiting for her. Some correspondents praised the bravery of her truth-telling, but the lion’s share found her book detestable. A few included death threats.
Was her refusal to concede that her “tone” had anything to do with the hostility the book generated merely a matter of sheer stubbornness? Or was the ironic tone itself emblematic of Arendt’s ideas about the danger implicit in thinking and the burden of responsibility that lay at the heart of judgment?
In the introduction to The Life of the Mind, Arendt offered this account of the generation of her controversial and still frequently misunderstood concept of “the banality of evil”:
In my report of [the Eichmann trial] I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil...However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous...Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?...Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?
But, Arendt insisted, thinking’s ability to condition people against evil-doing did not mean “that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though ‘virtue could be taught and learned’—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior.” What cold comfort, then, this thinking business seemed to be, offering no guarantee that evil will be avoided and good prevail.
Arendt had removed the guarantee of absolute innocence and automatic guilt from the question of moral responsibility. What did she put in its place? The capacity to exercise an “independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” And who evidenced this capacity? They were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “dared to judge for themselves.” Deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “live with themselves,” sometimes they even chose to die rather than become complicit. “The dividing line between those who think and therefore have to judge for themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”
Nonetheless, Arendt’s tone made it seem as if she knew she would have acted more valiantly than those who cooperated with the Nazis. Outraged by her moral judgment of Jewish leaders many asked: Who is she to judge those who were forced to make difficult decisions and, in the interests of saving the many sacrificed the few? Arendt answered this question in a 1964 essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” “Since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled by the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
—Kathleen B. Jones
This Quote of the Week is adapted from an essay originally appearing in Humanities Magazine, March/April 2014.
"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
“It may well be the region of the spirit or, rather, the path paved by thinking, this small track of non-time which the activity of thought beats within the time-space of mortal men and into which the trains of thought, of remembrance and anticipation, save whatever they touch from the ruin of historical and biographical time. This small non-time-space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, can only be indicated, but cannot be inherited and handed down from the past; each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.”
—Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
In the preface to Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt foregrounds the Nazi/German occupation of France. She does so in order to emphasize how intellectuals who had previously pursued only their own, private careers suddenly became involved in the greater cause of the Resistance. This period, she suggests, was one of an abrupt convergence between “deed and word.” Confronted with the horror of Hitler’s state of emergency, the usual careerist “masks” of “insincerity” were cast off. Then, the introduction of a real state of emergency—that of the Resistance —produced a “public space [within which] freedom could appear.”
After the Liberation and the return to “normal” life, deed and word bifurcated again. As quickly as the new public intellectuals had turned away from academic detachment during the occupation, most returned to it after the war. The overall lack of a common enemy, or at least one as unifying as Nazism had been, meant the dissolution of the new public culture. The end of the war heralded the return of “innumerable cliques” and “paper wars” and the loss of the public culture that that tragedy had inspired.
Arendt articulates a temporal dimension of this shift from private to public and back to private life. There is a time, Arendt writes, that is between past and future. I call this non-time. Here is how Arendt describes this non-time: It is
an in-between period which sometimes inserts itself into historical time, when not only the later historians but the actors and witnesses...become aware of an interval in time which is altogether determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.
The ascendant public awareness of the gap between the “no longer” and the “not yet” is important since it enhances the collective capacity for remembrance and anticipation. Rather than freezing “the” present in a temporal vice-grip between “the” past and “the” future, non-time plasticizes past and future, loosening its hold. Existing in such a non-time enlivens public freedom, enabling the collective ability to resist transcendentally imposed temporal imperatives. In her time, of course, this meant above all else, resisting the trans-European spread of Nazism.
For a brief period during the war and the resistance, she writes, thought had fused with action and historical and biographical time gave way to the free, indeterminate time that Arendt inflects politically as “public freedom.” Her assertion is that non-time, unlike the historical time of past, present and future, is a more radically open yet situated temporality “at the very heart of time”—and at the core of public freedom as well.
Arendt, however, did not limit her analysis to the early-20th century politics of Europe. Indeed, she selected numerous instances of the transformative, freedom-enhancing capacities of non-time, including the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as, in the aesthetic domain, the modernist literature of Franz Kafka. In doing so, Arendt suggested the dynamism and applicability of her concept to a wide variety of situations - including, potentially, our own.
In this way, the act of thinking slips humanity out of historical and biographical time and into a non-time that reconstitutes the world. In the midst of resisting harkenings back to “the” past or any harkenings forward to “the” future, non-time, for Arendt, emerges as a plasticity subject to intervention.
The point, for Arendt, was to bring forth “the treasure” of non-time, within new temporal conditions that situate subjects anew, such that these new subjects might in turn, resituate the new temporal conditions. As she writes: “each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it [the ‘treasure’] anew”.
How might today’s public, some fifty years after Between Past and Future, begin the fight for the public freedom Arendt sought? How might non-time assist in such a task?
Consider the mass media ascription of a non-transformative teleology to the Occupy movement. One refrain of critics of the Occupy movement was that it was not “really” seeking revolution at all. In its most common form, the critique asserted that occupiers were nothing more than recent college graduates confronted with mounting student loan debt and murky career horizons. What they really sought, therefore, was careers. But from the perspective of non-time, was this judgment necessarily “correct”, or was it instead a bit of both?
The frequency with which the same mass media outlets publish pieces concerned with economic justice today is far less today than at the height of the movement’s influence. In late 2011 and early 2012 however, journalists wrote and editors published as though they too had abruptly become aware of the gap “determined by things that are no longer and by things which are not yet.” From the perspective of non-time, the plasticity of public freedom gave way to the historical and biographical time that renders it inert. It was this that allowed the ascription of a non-transformative teleology to hold sway after the decline of the new public culture.
Of course, overstating the revolutionary nature of the occupy movement would also be foolish. Zeitgeists such as those that brought forth the French Resistance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (not to mention, of course, literary modernism), are destined to decline by definition. The occupy movement proved no exception. That said, Arendt did provide some hints regarding how the treasure of non-time might be indicated amidst new, post-zeitgeist conditions, such as our own.
In her view, if humans are to move beyond the predetermined presentism of conditions set by the past, as well as the ascribed teleologism of past conditions in the future, the task is that of producing a critical, engaged public culture not as a periodic impulse, but as a permanent habit.
Doing so requires more than just heeding the often mis-read call to change the world “rather than” interpret it (as an excuse for acting without thinking). Instead, Arendt asserted, we must change the world, and at the same time, change the manner in which we interpret it. In other words, the transcendental hallucinations of time must be transformed by the immanent materiality of non-time. Why? Because, in contrast with those who speak, predictably, of “the” past or “the” future, for Arendt, the present is always an unknown moment of struggle between the past and the future.
- Jason Adams
This Quote of the Week was originally published on September 3, 2012.
It can be dangerous to tell the truth: “There will always be One against All, one person against all others. [This is so] not because One is terribly wise and All are terribly foolish, but because the process of thinking and researching, which finally yields truth, can only be accomplished by an individual person. In its singularity or duality, one human being seeks and finds – not the truth (Lessing) –, but some truth.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Book XXIV, No. 21
Hannah Arendt wrote these lines when she was confronted with the severe and often unfair, even slanderous, public criticism launched against her and her book Eichmann in Jerusalemafter its publication in 1963. The quote points to her understanding of the thinking I (as opposed to the acting We) on which she bases her moral and, partly, her political philosophy.
It is the thinking I, defined with Kant as selbstdenkend (self-thinking [“singularity”]) and an-der-Stelle-jedes-andern-denkend (i.e., in Arendt’s terms, thinking representatively or practicing the two-in-one [“duality”]). Her words also hint at an essay she published in 1967 titled “Truth and Politics,” wherein she takes up the idea that it is dangerous to tell the truth, factual truth in particular, and considers the teller of factual truth to be powerless. Logically, the All are the powerful, because they may determine what at a specific place and time is considered to be factual truth; their lies, in the guise of truth, constitute reality. Thus, it is extremely hard to fight them.
In answer to questions posed in 1963 by the journalist Samuel Grafton regarding her report on Eichmann and published only recently, Arendt states: “Once I wrote, I was bound to tell the truth as I see it.” The statement reveals that she was quite well aware of the fact that her story, i.e., the result of her own thinking and researching, was only one among others. She also realized the lack of understanding and, in many cases, of thinking and researching, on the part of her critics.
Thus, she lost any hope of being able to publicly debate her position in a “real controversy,” as she wrote to Rabbi Hertzberg (April 8, 1966). By the same token, she determined that she would not entertain her critics, as Socrates did the Athenians: “Don’t be offended at my telling you the truth.” Reminded of this quote from Plato’s Apology (31e) in a supportive letter from her friend Helen Wolff, she acknowledged the reference, but acted differently. After having made up her mind, she wrote to Mary McCarthy: “I am convinced that I should not answer individual critics. I probably shall finally make, not an answer, but a kind of evaluation of this whole strange business.” In other words, she did not defend herself in following the motto “One against All,” which she had perceived and noted in her Denktagebuch. Rather, as announced to McCarthy, she provided an “evaluation” in the 1964 preface to the German edition of Eichmann in Jerusalem and later when revising that preface for the postscript of the second English edition.
Arendt also refused to act in accordance with the old saying: Fiat iustitia, et pereat mundus(let there be justice, though the world perish). She writes – in the note of the Denktagebuchfrom which today’s quote is taken – that such acting would reveal the courage of the teller of truth “or, perhaps, his stubbornness, but neither the truth of what he had to say nor even his own truthfulness.” Thus, she rejected an attitude known in German cultural tradition under the name of Michael Kohlhaas. A horse trader living in the 16th century, Kohlhaas became known for endlessly and in vain fighting injustice done to him (two of his horses were stolen on the order of a nobleman) and finally taking the law into his own hands by setting fire to houses in Wittenberg.
Even so, Arendt has been praised as a woman of “intellectual courage” with regard to her book on Eichmann (see Richard Bernstein’s contribution to Thinking in Dark Times).
Intellectual courage based on thinking and researching was rare in Arendt’s time and has become even rarer since then. But should Arendt therefore only matter nostalgicly? Certainly not. Her emphasis on the benefits of thinking as a solitary business still remains current. Consider, for example, the following reference to Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at MIT and author of the recent book Alone Together. In an interview with Peter Haffner (published on July 27, 2012, in SZ Magazin), she argues that individuals who become absorbed in digital communication lose crucial components of their faculty of thinking. Turkle says (my translation): Students who spend all their time and energy on communication via SMS, Facebook, etc. “can hardly concentrate on a particular subject. They have difficulty thinking a complex idea through to its end.” No doubt, this sounds familiar to all of us who know about Hannah Arendt’s effort to promote thinking (and judging) in order to make our world more human.
To return to today’s quote: It can be dangerous to tell the truth, but thinking is dangerous too. Once in a while, not only the teller of truth but the thinking 'I' as well may find himself or herself in the position of One against All.
The secret of American exceptionalism may very well be the uniquely American susceptibility to narratives of decline. From the American defeat in Vietnam and the Soviet launch of Sputnik to the quagmire in Afghanistan and the current financial crisis, naysayers proclaim the end of the American century. And yet the prophecies of decline are nearly always, in a uniquely American spirit, followed by calls for rejuvenation. Americans are neither pessimists nor optimists. Instead, they are darkened by despair and fired by hope.
Decline, writes Josef Joffe in a recent essay in The American Interest, “is as American as apple pie. “ The tales of decline that populate American cultural myths have many morals, but one common shared theme: Renewal.
“Decline Time in America” is never just a disinterested tally of trends and numbers. It is not about truth, but about consequences—as in any morality tale. Declinism tells a story to shape belief and change behavior; it is a narrative that is impervious to empirical validation, whose purpose is to bring comforting coherence to the flow of events. The universal technique of mythic morality tales is dramatization and hyperbole. Since good news is no news, bad news is best in the marketplace of ideas. The winning vendor is not Pollyanna but Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little, who always sees the sky falling. But why does alarmism work so well, be it on the pulpit or on the hustings—whatever the inconvenient facts?
Joffe, the editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, writes from the lofty perch of an all-knowing cultural critic. Declinism is, when looked at from above, little more than a marketing pitch:
Since biblical times, prophets have never gone to town on rosy oratory, and politicos only rarely. Fire and brimstone are usually the best USP, “unique selling proposition” in marketing-speak.
The origins of modern declinism, pace Joffe, are found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the rapacious carnage that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” WWI deflated the enlightenment optimism in reason and science, showing instead the destructive impact of those very same progressive ideals.
The knowledge that raised the Eiffel Tower also birthed the machine gun, allowing one man to mow down a hundred without having to slow down for reloading. Nineteenth-century chemistry revolutionized industry, churning out those blessings from petroleum to plastics and pharmacology that made the modern world. But the same labs also invented poison gas. The hand that delivered good also enabled evil. Worse, freedom’s march was not only stopped but reversed. Democracy was flattened by the utopia-seeking totalitarians of the 20th century. Their utopia was the universe of the gulag and the death camp. Their road to salvation led to a war that claimed 55 million lives and then to a Cold War that imperiled hundreds of millions more.
America, the land of progress in Joffe’s telling, now exists in a productive tension with the anti-scientific tale of the “death of progress.”
“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of “false consciousness” built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.
Joffe stands above both extremes of the declinism pendulum. Instead of embracing or rejecting the tale of decline, he names decline and its redemptive flipside the driving force of American exceptionalism. Myths of decline are necessary in order to fuel the exceptional calls for sacrifice, work, and innovation that have for centuries turned the tide of American elections and American culture.
[D]awn always follows doom—as when Kennedy called out in his Inaugural Address: “Let the word go forth that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” Gone was the Soviet bear who had grown to monstrous size in the 1950s. And so again twenty years later. At the end of Ronald Reagan’s first term, his fabled campaign commercial exulted: “It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better.” In the fourth year of Barack Obama’s first term, America was “back”, and again on top. Collapse was yesterday; today is resurrection. This miraculous turnaround might explain why declinism usually blossoms at the end of an administration—and wilts quickly after the next victory.
Over and over the handwriting that showed that decline was on the wall was, in truth, “a call to arms that galvanized the nation.”
Behind this long history of nightmares of degeneration and dreams of rebirth is Joffe’s ultimate question: Are the current worries about the death of the American century simply the latest in the American cycle of gloom and glee? Or is it possible that the American dream is, finally, used up? In other words, is it true that, since “at “some point, everything comes to an end,” this may be the end for America? Might it be that, as many in Europe now argue, “The United States is a confused and fearful country in 2010.” Is it true that the US is a “hate-filled country” in unavoidable decline?
Joffe is skeptical. Here is his one part of his answer:
Will they be proven right in the case of America? Not likely. For heuristic purposes, look at some numbers. At the pinnacle of British power (1870), the country’s GDP was separated from that of its rivals by mere percentages. The United States dwarfs the Rest, even China, by multiples—be it in terms of GDP, nuclear weapons, defense spending, projection forces, R&D outlays or patent applications. Seventeen of the world’s top universities are American; this is where tomorrow’s intellectual capital is being produced. America’s share of global GDP has held steady for forty years, while Europe’s, Japan’s and Russia’s have shrunk. And China’s miraculous growth is slipping, echoing the fates of the earlier Asian dragons (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) that provided the economic model: high savings, low consumption, “exports first.” China is facing a disastrous demography; the United States, rejuvenated by steady immigration, will be the youngest country of the industrial world (after India).
In short, if America is to decline it will be because America refuses to stay true to its tradition of innovation and reinvention.
As convincing as Joffe is, the present danger that America’s current malaise will persist comes less from economics or from politics than from the extinguishing of the nation’s moral fire. And in this regard, essays such as Joffe’s are symptoms of the problem America faces. Joffe writes from above and specifically from the position of the social scientist. He looks down on America and American history and identifies trends. He cites figures. And he argues that in spite of the worry, all is generally ok. Inequality? Not to worry, it has been worse. Democratic sclerosis? Fret not; think back to the 1880s. Soul-destroying partisanship? Have you read the newspapers of the late 18th century? In short, our problems are nothing new under the sun. Keep it in perspective. There is painfully little urgency in such essays. Indeed, they trade above all in a defense of the status quo.
There is reason to worry though, and much to worry about. Joffe may himself have seen one such worry if he had lingered longer on an essay he cites briefly, but does not discuss. In 1954, Hannah Arendt published “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” in Commentary Magazine. In that essay—originally given as part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the relationship between Europe and America—she asked: “WHAT IMAGE DOES Europe have of America?”
Her answer is that Europe has never seen America as an exotic land like the South Sea Islands. Instead, there are two conflicting images of America that matter for Europeans. Politically, America names the very European dream of political liberty. In this sense, America is less the new world than the embodiment of the old world, the land in which European dreams of equality and liberty are made manifest. The political nearness of Europe and America explains their kinship.
European anti-Americanism, however, is lodged in a second myth about American, the economic image of America as the land of plenty. This European image of America’s stupendous wealth may or may not be borne out in reality, but it is a fantasy that drives European opinion:
America, it is true, has been the “land of plenty” almost since the beginning of its history, and the relative well-being of all her inhabitants deeply impressed even early travelers. … It is also true that the feeling was always present that the difference between the two continents was greater than national differences in Europe itself even if the actual figures did not bear this out. Still, at some moment—presumably after America emerged from her long isolation and became once more a central preoccupation of Europe after the First World War—this difference between Europe and America changed its meaning and became qualitative instead of quantitative. It was no longer a question of better, but of altogether different conditions, of a nature which makes understanding well nigh impossible. Like an invisible but very real Chinese wall, the wealth of the United States separates it from all other countries of the globe, just as it separates the individual American tourist from the inhabitants of the countries he visits.
Arendt’s interest in this “Chinese wall” that separates Europe from America is that it lies behind the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor. “As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call “reactionary,” whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” The same can largely be said today.
The danger in such European anti-Americanism is not only that it will fire a European nationalism, but also that it will cast European nationalism as an ideological opposition to American wealth. “Anti-Americanism, its negative emptiness notwithstanding, threatens to become the content of a European movement.” In other words, European nationalism threatens to assume on a negative ideological tone.
That Europe will understand itself primarily in opposition to America as a land of wealth impacts America too, insofar as European opposition hardens Americans in their own mythic sense of themselves as a land of unfettered economic freedom and unlimited wealth. European anti-Americanism thus fosters the kind of free market ideology so rampant in America today.
What is more, when Europe and America emphasize their ideological opposition on an economic level, they deemphasize their political kinship as lands of freedom.
Myths of American decline serve a purpose on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Europe, they help justify Europe’s social democratic welfare states, as well as their highly bureaucratized regulatory state. In America, they underlie attacks on regulation and calls to limit and shrink government. These are all important issues that should be thought and debated with an eye to reality. The danger is that the European emancipation and American exceptionalism threatens to elevate ideology over reality, hardening positions that need rather to be open for innovation.
Joffe’s essay on the Canard of Decline is a welcome spur to rethinking the gloom and the glee of our present moment. It is your weekend read.