"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.
Germany’s Deutschlandfunk Radio program recently broadcast an interview with Margarethe von Trotta about her new film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is now set to be released on May 29 in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films. The Hannah Arendt Center will be hosting an opening night screening at the Film Forum in NYC. More information to follow.
The radio interview is in German. We offer here in translation von Trotta’s response to Susanne Berg’s first question:
Susanne Berg: How important is it today to come to terms with Hannah Arendt?
Margarita von Trotta: I think Hannah Arendt was one of the most important people and thinkers of the last century. And we are not yet through with the last century. Particularly as Germans the century will pursue us for a long time. I say always, that Hitler wanted a 1,000 year Reich. It lasted only 12 years. But we will have to deal with it for 1,000 years. In this regard we cannot now say, yeah, it’s the 21st century, now it is all in the past. And as I saw the documentary over the Eichmann trial—there is a wonderful film called “The Specialist” by an Israeli, I thought then for the first time, this I want this man in a film. And that was still before I knew that I would describe Hannah Arendt. It was because he showed me what Germany was. Not the greats, not Hitler, not Göring, not Goebbels, all these whom we have in our memory as one can say evil. But these mediocre and middling people, they have formed history.
The reference is to Eyal Sivan’s fascinating and controversial documentary about the Eichmann trial. You can watch short excerpt here.
What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one's elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.
In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such "soft" corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. "Our enemy," Lessig writes, "is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women." Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but "not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler's Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal."
Lessig is right to worry that Arendt's phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.
It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.
Lance Armstrong's web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time. Rumors of Armstrong's drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:
The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air - a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.
We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, "holes of oblivion do not exist." Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.
What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center's Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust's Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt's insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.
A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic. Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.
By his own account, Milton Hershey's life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.
So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children's home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a "better" class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.
Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust's incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad's Harvard Law School lecture "Hershey's Broken Trust" here.
In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:
The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence 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 that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.
As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.
You can read an excerpt of Lessig's Republic, Lost... here, at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his book.
“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.
“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,” her groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) was ready 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; it was written in several languages—often, like the entry above, in German.
According to Arendt, the fact that an entity designed to bear and present things can be called both “table” and “Tisch” suggests that something of the “true essence” escapes from that which we produce and name ourselves. The belief that we can positively comprehend the essence of a table with the word “table” would only function under the assumption of a “homogenous human collective.” This hypothesis is in Arendt’s eyes just as “absurd” as the idea of a universal “world language” or one “human condition.” Such conceptions imply the danger of an “artificial forcible disambiguation of the ambiguous,” the entry in the Denktagebuch continues. In political terms this would mean: the abolition of plurality.
Plurality is a fundamental concept in Arendt’s writing. The many and the various are for Arendt the starting point from which to think in new ways about the political, whose meaning is freedom, in the age of totalitarianism. Arendt’s theoretical project responds to the political circumstances of the time: in more than one language. This passage written in German in the Denktagebuch on the “plurality of languages,” for example, is framed by a note in French and one in English—the languages of Arendt’s exile (she left Berlin in 1933 in flight from the Nazis, spent the next eight years in Paris and fled further to New York when Hitler invaded France.).
Interestingly, one German word of the quoted entry is put in quotation marks and thereby emphasized: “Entsprechungen” (“counterparts”). Arendt draws a correspondence between the experience of the “wavering ambiguity of the world and the uncertainty of people within it” and the experience that (mediated by the learnability of other languages) there are “yet other ‘counterparts‘ for our mutual-identical world.” In the echo chamber of the bordering entries in French and English, what would be the counterpart of the German “Entsprechungen”? Pendants, adéquations, équivalents – equivalences, analogies, counterparts? Or perhaps correspondences – correspondences?
Arendt came to speak again of “correspondences” almost twenty years later in her essay on Walter Benjamin. “What fascinated him,” she wrote of Benjamin, “was that the spirit and its material manifestation were so intimately connected that it seemed permissible to discover everywhere Baudelaire’s correspondences, which clarified and illuminated one another if they were properly correlated, so that finally they would no longer require any interpretative or explanatory commentary.”
In the same context, Arendt characterizes Benjamin’s special mode of thinking as “poetic thinking.” Is this to be read also as a response to her fundamental question, noted in her Denktagebuch in December 1950, in close proximity to her entry on the plurality of languages: “Is there a mode of thinking that is not tyrannical?”
A considerable portion of Arendt’s books and essays is written not in one, but in two languages. Depending on the situation, for example, first in English and then later in German, when the same text was published on the other side of Atlantic. Particularly fascinating in this respect is a comparative reading of Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958) and the German version Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben (1960). Literally every page, every paragraph, and every sentence of both books shows how Arendt thinks and writes in two languages, “not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar.”
Take for example the presumably well-known division of human activity that Arendt deals with in The Human Condition: labor, work, action. As Patchen Markell has presented in his essay “On the Architecture of The Human Condition,” this conceptual triad is best understood “not as a single, functionally continuous three-part distinction,” but rather as “the fraught conjunction of two different pairs of concepts— labor and work, and work and action.” In a dense passage of §12 of The Human Condition, Arendt puts these distinctions into words in the following way:
Needed by our bodies and produced by its laboring, but without stability of their own, these things [consumer goods] for incessant consumption appear and disappear in an environment of things that are not consumed but used, and to which, as we use them, we become used and accustomed. As such, they give rise to the familiarity of the world, its customs and habits of intercourse between men and things [labor, work] as well as between men and men [action]. (p. 94)
In the placing together of “to use” and “to get used to,” Arendt’s systematic reflections on labor, work, and action as distinct and connected concepts verbally echo her thought. In the German version of the same passage in Vita Activa the scope and radicality of this thought is made clear in another way. Here Arendt works with the words “verbrauchen” (to consume) and “gebrauchen” (to use). While the first one refers to labor and the second to work, their conceptual proximity becomes visible in the shared stem: “brauchen.” In the same passage of Vita Activa, Arendt transforms the work-related activity into a noun, “Gebrauch” (use), which is a collective singular, while the plural form is “Gebräuche,” i.e. when the word enters the realm of plurality it opens up what the English version calls “customs and habits,” including manners and morals, i.e. phenomena belonging to the world of (political) practice and leaning towards action. All the terms in Arendt’s constellation of distinct yet related concepts share the word “brauchen.” Ironically or aptly, this German word means not only “to use” but also “to need” and in its reflexive form “to need each other.”
We need to read Hannah Arendt in the plurality of her languages, so that their differences can illuminate each other, if we want to grasp the political and poetic, poetic and political spectrum, legacy, and provocation of her thinking. Well, I might rather say: we need to begin.
-Thomas Wild, with Anne Posten
"We need to learn ‘simplicity’ and to unlearn ‘the simplification of abstract thinking’, to become fluent in the art and the language of ‘concrete’ thoughts and feelings, and thus to comprehend that both abstract notions and abstract emotions are not merely false to what actually happens but are viciously interconnected.”
-Hannah Arendt: Introduction to J. Glenn Gray: The Warriors. Reflections on Men in Battle, New York: Harcourt 1970, p. viii
This is not a declaration of intent: passions and emotions play an essential role in Arendt’s work.
In her book about totalitarianism Arendt described the “Eiseskälte”, the ice-cold reasoning (Hitler), of the totalitarian ideology withdrawing itself from each concrete earthly world into the self-motion of the logic of abstract ideas, where no concrete feelings towards others existed anymore but only abstract feeling towards the own people, the nation or the enemy.
When there still existed any concrete feelings, then they were feelings of impotence, loneliness and of fear not to conform oneself in the right way to the coercive force of logicality but to contradict it. This fear according to Arendt can be compared with the fear of death.
The totalitarian ice-cold reasoning was already germinating in the early part of the 20th century after the catastrophe of WWI by "behavioral theories of coldness" (Helmuth Lethen), noticeable in the "Neue Sachlichkeit" (the New Objectivity) and the writings of Ernst Jünger, Gottfried Benn and Carl Schmitt, but also of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin.
Hannah Arendt criticized the coldness and addressed the warmth. She spoke of the impartial but not indifferent spectator of our common world which only appears through interpersonal relationships, and of passions accompanying the right use of reason: the critical attitude to the world, laughter as an emotion of thinking and friendship being more important than truth. Reading the police interrogations of Eichmann, Arendt had to laugh several times, “but loud!”, because of the discrepancy between his words and deeds. At another occasion she highlighted Brecht’s remarks about Arturo Ui in 1948 portraying Hitler: “The great political criminals must certainly be exposed, and preferably through ridicule. Because above all, they are not great political criminals, but the perpetrators of great political crimes, which is something utterly different.” Very moved, in her book about the Eichmann trial, Arendt described the scene when the story of the rescuer Anton Schmidt was told: “A hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence … which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of the impenetrable, unfathomable darkness”.
In her sympathetic characterization of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Arendt shows that critical thinking can go along with passions.
Lessing “never made his peace with the world in which he lived. He enjoyed 'challenging prejudices’ and 'telling the truth to the court missions.’ Dearly though he paid for these pleasures, they were literally pleasures. Once when he was attempting to explain to himself the source of 'tragic pleasure’, he said that 'all passions, even the most unpleasant, are as passions pleasant’ because, they make us ... more conscious of our existence, they make us feel more real."
More real were also the feelings of the French resistance fighters during WWII, the insurgents in Budapest in 1956 and all those spontaneously acting persons, whom Arendt always mentioned. To act, to dare the risk of entering the public space means to feel the reality more intensively, to be more alive. Her book Men in Dark Times deals with examples of this liveliness. In her ‘Thought Diaries’ Arendt wrote down: “An excess of reason is indifference: the created space makes an unbridgeable distance; the relation breaks off. An excess of feeling is destructiveness, together with the in-between, the object is being destroyed, even and particularly the loved object’.“ (1968)
In 1967 during the Vietnam War, Arendt wrote the introduction cited above for the new edition of her friend’s book, The Warrior. Jesse Glenn Gray was a professor of philosophy at Colorado College and in 1957 published for the first time his memories of being a US agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps during WWII in Italy, France, and Germany. For Arendt it was a ”singularly earnest and beautiful book”, talking about “life and death, love, friendship, and comradeship, about courage and recklessness, about sensuality and the ‘surge of vitality’, about ‘inhuman cruelty’ and ‘superhuman kindness’, not as stereotypical opposites but as being simultaneously present in the same person.” Especially moving, also for Arendt, is the description of the friendly encounter J. Glenn Gray had with an illiterate hermit in the Italian mountains who did not even know that there was a war going on. Glenn Gray was dismayed with himself after the encounter, for though he held a PhD in philosophy, he was left wondering what he actually knew about life?
Whatever the source of moral knowledge might be—divine commandments or moral reason—every sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and this regardless of the law of the land and regardless of the voices of his fellowmen.
-Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Responsibility and Judgment, p. 61.
In a series of lectures she wrote for two courses she taught, one in 1965 at the New School and the second in 1966 at the University of Chicago, Arendt mapped out some of her complicated thinking about moral philosophy and the “perplexities inherent in the human faculty of willing.” In these lectures, she drew heavily on Kant and Nietzsche, but began her reflections by calling attention to the historical motivation for her concerns: “We—at least the older ones among us—have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and –forties, not only...in Hitler’s Germany but also in Stalin’s Russia.” (54). The distinction between right and wrong that it was assumed “every sane man” heard like a voice within him had not stood the test of time.
How easily, Arendt observed, ordinary people had changed their habits of mind, exchanging one set of values for another “with hardly more trouble than it [took] to change the table manners of an individual or a people.” (50). How had this happened? If acting morally, and not just legally, depended on the “thinking” conversation one had with oneself about what one should or shouldn’t do, then it was as if large sections of the population in every strata had simply stopped thinking, did what they were told to do, and then proceeded to forget.
Two weeks ago today, Anders Behring Breivik, the 33-year-old Norwegian man who admitted to killing 77 people last July in two separate attacks, entered a specially outfitted courtroom in Oslo to stand trial for criminal acts of terrorism and mass murder. After the charges against him were read, Mr. Breivik pleaded not guilty. "I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt - I claim I was doing it in self-defense." He would have preferred, he added, to appear before a military tribunal; he was, he contended, a political activist involved in a war in Europe.
Since he admitted his acts, the trial now turns on the question of Breivik’s sanity. Two psychiatric reports have produced contradictory conclusions; the first found him insane at the time of the killings, suffering from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, while the second declared him sane. “[E]very sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong.” In his own words, Breivik was no exception. Before he started shooting, Breivik explained at his trial last week, he heard “ ‘100 voices’ in his head telling him not to do it.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17789206) But that moment of hesitation passed; he had prepared himself for years through a process he described as a deliberate program of dehumanization. Steeling himself against the comprehension of what he had done was important, he added, because “he would break down mentally” if he allowed himself to empathize with his victims.
“The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, what ought I to do? depends in the last analysis neither on habits and customs, which I share with those around me, nor on a command of either divine or human origin, but what I decide with regard to myself,” Arendt observed in the same essay on moral philosophy. (97) What keeps a person from committing atrocities, or “evil” acts, is, for Arendt, the capacity to be a “thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself.” This same capacity produce “limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside, but will be self-set.” These same limits, she continued, “are absent when men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”
Breivik’s description of his yearlong “sabbatical” playing a video game, World of Warcraft, for up to 16 hours per day serves as an indication of the program of dehumanization to which he subjected himself. And his years’ long immersion in the ideology and methods of radical terrorism, with, ironically, his endorsement of Al Qaeda as “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world” serves as an example of the kinds of “thoughtlessness” that can become a willed experience, in individuals and in groups, and is a necessary prelude to despicable acts. But then, Breivik never imagined he would survive July 22; he envisioned his action as a suicide mission, perhaps the ultimate act of forgetfulness, the annihilation of the possibility of thought and judgment themselves.
-Kathleen B. Jones
What if the meaning of peaceful resistance had to be revisited for the 21st century? Where would you turn to then?
Though examples of civil disobedience, conscientious objectors and peaceful protests are by no means rare nowadays, it is necessary to turn to extraordinary events of the kind that attach new meanings to historical circumstances; the meanings are never new but what remains is the novelty of the event.
Revolution is of course the event par excellence in which history is interrupted and something is begun anew. In the 21st century even though the word revolution is constantly heard, there is no more salient example than the Egyptian revolution.
Inspired by Tunisia, on January 25, 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets and assembled at the now iconic Tahrir Square to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. On February 11 2011 the long-time president departed from office after the Egyptian army took the protesters’ side and apparently helped to complete the revolution.
A slogan – was coined then: “The Army and the People are one hand”. After weeks during which the same army brutalized the demonstrators and killed hundreds of them, the sudden change of heart was welcome and the power vacuum left by the regime was quickly filled by the army, with the promise implied that a transition to civilian rule would happen eventually.
The rest of the story of the Egyptian revolution is now known all over the world: Military trials, virginity tests, NGO raids, constant clashes – often violent – between demonstrators and the security apparatus, massacres, and more than anything a power vacuum that has left the country sliding into a fierce slope of violence and counter-violence, as it was aptly put by Egyptian businessman Hany Ghoraba in his article “Egypt: The Wild Wild East”.
What happened to the Egyptian revolution and to the peaceful protests that in theory overthrew a regime? The question here for political theory (an expression not free from irony) doesn’t have to do necessarily with the particulars of Egypt – the rise of Islamism, the weakness of liberalism and the fact that leftovers of the deposed regime remain intact in office.
One has to ask himself the question whether a revolution is possible nowadays and under which conditions. It is clear by now that the concept of revolution is challenged today by a variety of circumstances that should bring us to examine briefly two aspects of revolution: The distinction between power and violence and the nature of non-violent resistance.
In his reading of Kant, Foucault tells us what it is that Kant considers significant in revolution: “What is significant is the manner in which the Revolution turns into a spectacle, it is the way in which it is received all around by spectators who do not participate in it but who watch it, who attend the show and who, for better or worse, let themselves by dragged along by it.”
This might well lead us to a very basic insight of Hannah Arendt: “Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up”. What is then this power that Arendt is trying to grasp? There is almost unanimous agreement among her readers that the distinction between power and violence is the most crucial and yet difficult aspect of her political theory.
Power is the human ability to act not as an individual but in agreement within a group and this power remains alive only for as long as the group is bound together; it can disappear anytime and temporary as it might be, it is the only cure known to the fragility and meaninglessness of human affairs.
Violence is the opposite of power that has been for long glorified as its exact equivalent, turning power into an instrument that needs justification to pursue its own ends but is always at risk of outgrowing the means and remaining at the level of instrument only – means without an end. In her words: “And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything”.
Then we assume that power can become violent and violence but power can never grow out of violence and is in fact destroyed by it. Power – that unmediated action that grows out of common agreement in action between men – is the only thing that can destroy violence and tyranny as it is exemplified in Gandhi, but whatever the reality and success of this non-violent resistance as power is put to test in the modern world often with tragic results.
Arendt is no idealist at this point and she expresses herself with clarity about her reservation on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance after fascism: “In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi’s enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy –Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, even prewar Japan, instead of England, the outcome would not have been decolonization, but massacre and submission. However, England in India and France in Algeria had good reasons for their restraint.” Needless to say this has been the outcome of each and every Arab revolution where power hasn’t been enough to defeat violence.
What is required from non-violent resistance to generate the quantity and quality of power that can effectively defeat violence? Here it is obvious that an association with the military and with militarism in general can never be the answer, and while there are no definite answers to draw from tradition or otherwise, there are always singular examples one can meditate on.
On March 28, 2011 an Egyptian blogger, Maikel Nabil, was arrested by the military police and sentenced to three years imprisonment on charges of insulting the military in a long blog post from March 8 2011, titled “The Army and the People Were Never One Hand”.
In his blog, Maikel Nabil provided sound evidence of how activists had been tortured and killed by the army, during and after the revolution and expressed in different words an insight that was already known to Toynbee in his studies of world history: One of the patterns in the breakdown of civilizations is the suicidalness of militarism and its intoxication with victory, out of which periods of freedom have never emerged.
This simple insight proved very dangerous at a time when the power of the people had become a monolithic whole, aptly expressed by Maikel in one fragment written from prison: “Maybe there are many who don’t know the simple distinction between seeking unity and seeking tolerance, but we saw the core difference between the two things and how unity leads to failure while tolerance earns you strength and pushes you to succeed.”
Human action and power – its plural version – can only unfold in plurality and the fact that such was no longer the case attests to the extent to which the suicidalness and intoxication of militarism had already infinitely weakened the power of the revolution. In an entirely un-revolutionary fashion, the sentence delivered on the blogger was celebrated by many and at best met with indifference because of his rather unpopular ideas: Peace with the State of Israel and the end of compulsory military conscription.
Nevertheless, the consensus fostered by militarism and the price paid by the search for unity at the expense of plurality and tolerance was levied on Maikel Nabil not because of a failed analysis but by simple exclusion in a battle of opinions from which truth as a public power – to use the metaphor of Philip Goodchild – was absent; which of course places power in the status of refugee and violence as the supreme ruler.
Arendt insisted that the truths of any age must be always challenged for every generation and it is in this challenge that the power of non-violent struggle resides. It was she who popularized the Austrian adage “there’s no discussion as heated as that on a book no one had read” in reference to the controversy sparked by her book about the Eichmann Trial.
Maikel Nabil wrote from jail that people who supported him should support him for his thoughts and not for his personality because it was his thoughts what put him in jail. It was his thoughts that led him to a hunger strike that lasted over a hundred days. And even after he ultimately was released after a long legal battle of ten months with a clearly illegitimate authority, most of the people who supported him—and those who did not—still don't know much about his thoughts.
Thinking becomes the keyword here: Roger Berkowitz writes of Hannah Arendt that reasoning and thinking are not the same and that thinking for Arendt constitutes a form of action and the basis of all political life and experience – nothing to do with political philosophy or Realpolitik but with our appearance in the world among others.
Thinking and the ability to take responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts is the building block of our ability to appear in the world and as such is the most effective form of resistance under totalitarianism and forms of tyranny in which truth – the material out of which power is made – is absent from the common world.
In an interview of 1974 with Roger Errera, Arendt concluded by saying:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only a lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but yet get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please.
This cynicism is precisely the risk that unthinking unity poses – that thinking, plurality and truth might disappear altogether, and with them power as well. For Arendt, plurality demands the courage for plural individuals to enter the public sphere, which is why courage, she writes, is the first virtue of politics.
Was Maikel Nabil courageous? The answer to this question is obvious but I disagree with Arendt about the political nature of courage as a virtue.
Susan Sontag writes that courage and resistance have no intrinsic value in themselves unless they are coupled with an adjective – for there is amoral courage and resistance too – by means of which it is qualified. The value of courage and resistance depends on the specific content of whatever it is that is being defended. Heroism isn’t what is stake here, for it is something that always comes in hand with tragedy and pathos and it is precisely heroism what the political consequences of thinking mean to dispose of.
Sandra Lehmann writes: “If heroism is to overcome, it can also dispense pathos and vanity. It needs no reward, not even that of great importance and meaning. Probably only heroism without reward is true heroism. It is a matter of the moment and of a far off future.”
What Maikel Nabil was defending was the life of the mind, and in this crusade against those who want to terrorize the life of the mind lies the true nature of non-violent resistance and the potential of every action that might attain revolutionary power – it begins in the solitude of our thoughts one good day and yet, it can unmake the world. All thinking is dangerous.
- Arie Amaya-Akkermans
“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi's euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power, 2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.
As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.
To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.
It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.
When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.
What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)
Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:
The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that it has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility. (OT, p. 16.)
“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews. Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?
We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted. The Seminar will be held at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
-Kathleen B. Jones
“For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume responsibility for all crimes committed by men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility”
The twin themes of guilt and responsibility, and the differentiation between them, were key issues for Hannah Arendt in this essay. As Arendt notes, the leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was “neither a Bohemian like Goebbels, nor a sex criminal like Streicher, nor a perverted fanatic like Hitler, nor an adventurer like Goering.” Himmler was an outwardly “respectable” bourgeois who implemented a policy that compelled ordinary bourgeois paterfamilias to act as cogs in the infernal machinery of the “final solution.” While many Germans had strong ideological reasons to participate in the final solution, many a German husband did so without thinking, simply “for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children [and thus] was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.” By involving millions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, and by giving the fullest expression to the human capacity for barbarity, the German bureaucratic machine rendered questionable the traditional juridical differentiations between guilt and responsibility.
What struck Arendt in this early text was that the fact of bureaucratic involvement in the Holocaust did not automatically generate a feeling of guilt, or of responsibility in the participants. Arendt provides a snippet of an interview with an ordinary German, in which, after listing the types of activities he undertook and things he saw in his role as a paymaster at an extermination camp, the officer expresses shock when he learns that the Russians might put him to death. All he can do is break down and ask, “What have I done?”
What is it that allowed this officer to participate in and witness the most horrific crimes and yet remain free of any sense of guilt or responsibility? Arendt’s answer is that he lacked a feeling for the idea of humanity. Arendt is clear about what this idea of humanity is. “Purged of all sentimentality”, the idea of humanity is an awareness of the human capacity for evil. Without an awareness of one’s capacity for evil, a human being is incapable of experiencing shame. Shame, for Arendt, is an important indicator of human ethical awareness.
Rather than corrode the experience of politics, shame provides a model for post-Holocaust politics. Interestingly, Arendt invokes the Jewish prayer of atonement (“Our Father and King, we have sinned before you”) as an example of the kind of response that the Holocaust demands from us. Shame itself is not political – like religious sentiment, shame is non-political because it is the concern of an individual. A future politics, however, must be able to address at a political level – that is, in the space of plurality – what shame accomplishes in the individual. We need to develop a politics that fosters the collective awareness of our capacity for evil, just as shame inspires individuals to face their own responsibility. Politically, the development of shame can allow us to recognize that even if the guilt of a criminal act is limited to a particular individual, we must all be vigilant against our human propensity to participate in evil.
Arendt ‘s comments have resonance for the recently concluded war in Iraq. A New York Times correspondent recently discovered classified testimonies of U.S. soldiers under investigation for committing war crimes in Iraq. These testimonies confirm what critics of the wars in Iraq (and Afghanistan) have long alleged: that the real number of abuses committed by U.S. troops far exceeds those that were eventually disclosed to the public. Some of the (officially classified) images depicting these crimes have been leaked into the media – although they have not found a venue in the U.S. mainstream press. Many of these images are pornographic mementos celebrating the wanton destruction of human lives, much like the assortment of fingers and skulls of Iraqi and Afghani civilians discovered to have been collected as war trophies.
Given the existence of photographic records of these crimes, it seems that the guilty might be clearly identifiable. However, the guilt of those who actively participated in these crimes shades into the responsibility of those who abetted them or, at the very least, turned a blind eye to them. The willingness to equate the presence of these criminals to the statistically unavoidable appearance of “a few bad apples” was perhaps all too readily accepted by those unwilling to undermine their own economic security. Which is another way of saying that the responsibility of the crimes committed has been left unaddressed, even as the guilt of the criminal acts is still being established. “Shame at being a human being” might be for us today at the conclusion of the war in Iraq, as it seemed to Arendt upon the conclusion of the Second World War, both the affective record of an attempt to face the crimes of the war and the realization of “how great a burden mankind is for man- Manu Samnotra
“[O]ur newest experiences and our most recent fears…[are] a matter of thought and thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – [This] seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.”
-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Not thinking was, for Arendt, the increasingly dominant quality of the world in which we live. Thoughtlessness is the negative mirror image of what she called for as the only form of thinking appropriate to period of crisis (indeed, in a strict sense, perhaps to any time) – thinking “without a banister.”
Inherent in this conception is that in ages and at times like our own, when one must think without support, many, perhaps most, will not think, or rather will avoid thinking. They will thus be left without that voice of conscience – like Socrates' daimon who appears at moments of judgment and keeps Socrates from justifying, or even engaging in acts that are evil. Importantly, that something is “true,” means nothing by itself unless it is the subject of thinking.
One might consider here the thoughtlessness that reigned in the general reaction in the United States to the attacks of 9/11, 2001. The analogy was immediately drawn to Pearl Harbor. From this analogy it followed that our response should be analogous to that after Pearl Harbor, despite the fact that Al-Qaeda, unlike Japan, was not a nation-state. Furthermore this enemy was linked to an Axis of Evil against which one was to fight a “war on terror.” Osama Bin laden was Hitler or at least Tojo; Saddam Hussein another totalitarian, linked by an Axis of Evil to the other totalitarians. Yet one cannot fight against terror, only against an enemy – Carl Schmitt had warned of forgetting this.
The result of not thinking about what one has done – whether as a policy maker or a member of the population -- has been a war that has now gone on for ten years with neither goal nor end in sight. Thoughtlessness has consequences: people die as a result of thoughtlessness.
(I discovered similar thoughts in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters on pages 12-13 after writing this passage and modified my words, as hers are much better: I join others in mourning her passing).