“It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past. No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been."
--Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
Wednesday, February 29th, 2012: The Origins of Genocide: Tracing the Lemkin-Arendt debate in Lemkin's Archives
Lecturer: Douglas Irvin, Ph.D. candidate at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University.
In this Lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center, Douglas Irvin explores the connections between Arendt and Raphael Lemkin.
Shirley Jackson published her story The Lottery in the New Yorker this week 66 years ago, on June 26, 1948. It is a powerful and disturbing story about a small and happy New England town where once every year the residents select lots to choose one person who will be stoned, presumably to death. Jackson unfolds the story gradually, and the atmosphere of celebration on lottery day helps hide the dark turn The Lottery ultimately takes in its final paragraphs. The shift amongst the townspeople from the lighthearted conviviality to cold-blooded stoning is shocking and deeply unsettling.
“It is obvious: if you do not accept something that assumes the form of ‘destiny,’ you not only change its ‘natural laws’ but also the laws of the enemy playing the role of fate.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings (223)
In 1944, as the Allied armies liberated areas under Nazi control, news about the horrors of the extermination camps inevitably wound its way to the United States. In her interview with Günter Gaus many years later, Hannah Arendt would recount these months as full of devastating shocks that unveiled the fullest extent of what was transpiring in Europe. It was in the midst of the delivery of the news of this carnage, this knowledge of the “fabrication of corpses,” that Arendt continued to perform her role as “something between a historian and political journalist.” This delicate terrain – somewhere “between silence and speechlessness” – is what Arendt had to traverse as she informed and provoked her audience into action.
"Thinking in its non-cognitive, non-specialized sense as a natural need of human life, the actualization of the difference given in consciousness, is not a prerogative of the few but an everpresent faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the “prerogative” of those many who lack brain power but the everpresent possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered."
--Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture” (1971)
Published eight years after Eichmann in Jerusalem, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is Arendt’s elaboration of her argument in that book that Adolf Eichmann’s criminal role in the Holocaust did not originate from any “base motives” or even from any motives at all, but from his “thoughtlessness” or “inability to think.” If, she asks, Eichmann’s crimes, which he committed over the course of years, resulted from the fact that he never paused to think, what exactly does it mean to think, and what is the relation between thinking and morality?
In the above quote, which appears on the penultimate page of the lecture, Arendt defines thinking—or the kind of thinking that she argues is necessary for morality—as “the actualization of the difference given in consciousness,” as “that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered.” She describes this “non-cognitive, non-specialized” kind of thinking both as “a natural need of human life” and as “an everpresent faculty of everybody.” By contrast, she defines “inability to think” as the everpresent possibility for everybody to shun thinking.
We might wonder at this point why Arendt does not simply speak of an “ability not to think,” an ability to (actively) shun thinking, rather than an “inability to think.” Is this because she wants to maintain a hierarchy between something that is natural and human (thinking) and something that is unnatural and inhuman (not thinking)? What would be the justification for such a hierarchy? Or does she want to suggest that Eichmann has become unable to think (through barbarous “nurture”), losing touch with his (nevertheless everpresent) faculty of thinking, which everybody has from birth (“nature”) or from the moment they learn to speak? Thinking and language are intrinsically connected from the first page of Arendt’s lecture, where the primary evidence of Eichmann’s inability to think is that he speaks in clichés. (Also, the lecture is dedicated to a poet, W.H. Auden.) Finally, how does Arendt’s description of thinking as a “natural need of human life” relate to her suggestion that Socrates did not merely discover the importance but the very possibility of thinking?
Arendt casts Socrates as “a model, (…) an example that, unlike the ‘professional’ thinkers, could be representative for our ‘everybody,’ (…) a man who counted himself neither among the many nor among the few (…).” She takes Socrates not as “a personified abstraction with some allegorical meaning ascribed to it,” but as an “ideal type” who “was chosen out of the crowd of living beings, in the past or the present, because he possessed a representative significance in reality which only needed some purification in order to reveal its full meaning.” What, then, is this representative significance?
Arendt bases her conception of thinking and its relation to morality primarily on two famous propositions that Socrates puts forward in the Gorgias: “It is better to be wronged than to do wrong,” and “It would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me” (Arendt’s emphases). According to Arendt, these propositions are not primarily “cogitations about morality” but “insights of experience,” of the experience of the process of thinking. Arendt claims that Socrates means by the first proposition that it is better for him to be wronged than to do wrong if he is thinking, because in thinking you are carrying on a dialogue with yourself, which presupposes some friendship between the partners in the thinking dialogue. You would not want to be friends and enter into a dialogue with someone who does wrong, and since Socrates presupposes that the unexamined life is not worth living, doing wrong leads to a life that is not worth living because examining it in thinking is no longer possible.
Arendt argues that conscience is a “by-product” of consciousness, of the actualization of the difference of me and myself in thinking, because: “What makes a man fear his conscience is the anticipation of the presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home” (Arendt’s emphasis). However, this formulation suggests that there is no reason to fear your conscience if you never go “home,” that is, if you never engage in the activity of thinking, which, according to Arendt, was precisely Eichmann’s problem. What, then, determines whether someone uses her faculty of thinking or realizes the everpresent possibility of not thinking?
Arendt’s lecture does not contain a strong answer to this question. But although the relation between phenomenological description and normative argument in this lecture remains somewhat unclear, the lecture seems to contain a defense of thinking and a “demand” that everybody think, that everybody aspire to some extent to the ideal-type represented by Socrates, because only thinking can provide an antidote to the “banality of evil.” Arendt acknowledges that thinking can lead to license, cynicism, and nihilism through the relativizing of existing values, because “all critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and ‘values’ by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions.” However, Arendt’s anti-elitist suggestion is that the problem of nihilism is never that too many people think or that people think too much, but rather that people do not think enough.
Yet Arendt does not tell us what would promote thinking. She does not propose, for instance, to generalize the teaching of thinking through educational institutions, the way that Adorno proposed to create “mobile educational groups” of volunteers to teach “critical (…) self-reflection” to everybody, in his 1966 radio talk, “Education After Auschwitz.” A Habermasian model where people become critical through participation in democratic politics is unavailable for Arendt given her strong opposition of thinking to politics, which belongs to the realm of action. What Arendt does tell us is what is conducive to actualizing the everpresent possibility of not thinking: “(…) general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits that can be replaced by other habits and rules,” the way that Eichmann, as Arendt argues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, simply substituted the duty to do the Führer’s will for Kant’s categorical imperative.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Jonathan Schell has died. I first read "The Fate of the Earth" as a college freshman in Introduction to Political Theory and it was and is one of those books that forever impacts the young mind. Jim Sleeper, writing in the Yale Daily News, gets to the heart of Schell’s power: “From his work as a correspondent for The New Yorker in the Vietnam War through his rigorous manifesto for nuclear disarmament in "The Fate of the Earth", his magisterial re-thinking of state power and people’s power in “The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People,” and his wry, rigorous assessments of politics for The Nation, Jonathan showed how varied peoples’ democratic aspirations might lead them to address shared global challenges.” The Obituary in the New York Times adds: “With “The Fate of the Earth” Mr. Schell was widely credited with helping rally ordinary citizens around the world to the cause of nuclear disarmament. The book, based on his extensive interviews with members of the scientific community, outlines the likely aftermath of a nuclear war and deconstructs the United States’ long-held rationale for nuclear buildup as a deterrent. “Usually, people wait for things to occur before trying to describe them,” Mr. Schell wrote in the book’s opening section. “But since we cannot afford under any circumstances to let a holocaust occur, we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future — to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.””
In an interview, Simon Schama, author of the forthcoming book and public television miniseries "The Story of the Jews," uses early Jewish settlement in America as a way into why he thinks that Jews have often been cast as outsiders: "You know, Jews come to Newport, they come to New Amsterdam, where they run into Dutch anti-Semites immediately. One of them, at least — Peter Stuyvesant, the governor. But they also come to Newport in the middle of the 17th century. And Newport is significant in Rhode Island because Providence colony is founded by Roger Williams. And Roger Williams is a kind of fierce Christian of the kind of radical — in 17th-century terms — left. But his view is that there is no church that is not corrupt and imperfect. Therefore, no good Christian is ever entitled to form a government [or] entitled to bar anybody else’s worship. That includes American Indians, and it certainly includes the Jews. And there’s an incredible spark of fire of toleration that begins in New England. And Roger Williams is himself a refugee from persecution, from Puritan Massachusetts. But the crucial big point to make is that Jews have had a hard time when nations and nation-states have founded themselves on myths about soil, blood and tribe."
Noam Scheiber describes the “wakeful nightmare for the lower-middle-aged” that has taken over the world of technology. The desire for the new, new thing has led to disdain for age; “famed V.C. Vinod Khosla told a conference that “people over forty-five basically die in terms of new ideas.” The value of experience and the wisdom of age or even of middle are scorned when everyone walks around with encyclopedias and instruction manuals in our pockets. The result: “Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.””
Kenan Malik wonders how non-believers can appreciate sacred art. Perhaps, he says, the godless can understand it as "an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry. Transcendence does not, however, necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion, solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project, to project onto the world, and onto human life, a meaning or purpose that exists only because we as human beings create it."
The Niemen Journalism lab has the straight scoop about the algorithm, written by Ken Scwhenke, that wrote the first story about last week's West Coast earthquake. Although computer programs like Schwenke's may be able to take over journalism's function as a source of initial news (that is, a notice that something is happening,) it seems unlikely that they will be able to take over one of its more sophisticated functions, which is to help people situate themselves in the world rather than merely know what's going on in it.
In an interview, Kate Beaton, the cartoonist responsible for the history and literature web comic Hark A Vagrant!, talks about how her comics, perhaps best described as academic parody, can be useful for teachers and students: "Oh yes, all the time! That’s the best! It’s so flattering—but I get it, the comics are a good icebreaker. If you are laughing at something, you already like it, and want to know more. If they’re laughing, they’re learning, who doesn’t want to be in on the joke? You can’t take my comics at face value, but you can ask, ‘What’s going on here? What’s this all about?’ Then your teacher gets down to brass tacks."
From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog
This week on the blog, our Quote of the Week comes from Arendt Center Research Associate, Thomas Wild, who looks at the close friendship between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin who bonded over literature, writers, and the power of the written word.
The first of the three volumes of the Gesammtausgabe of Martin Heidegger’s work, titled Überlegenungen or Reflections arrived in the mail. Somehow I’ll read the over 1,000 pages in these three volumes. And on April 8 in New York City I’ll be moderating a discussion on these volumes at the Goethe Institute in New York City, with Peter Trawny, the editor, as well as Babette Babich and Andrew Mitchell. But these volumes, even before they are published, have preemptively elicited dozens upon dozens of reviews and scandalized-yelps of outrage, nearly all by people who haven’t read them. What is more, most of these commentators also have never seriously read Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. The occasion for the outrage is that these so-called Schwarzen Hefte (The Black Notebooks) include statements that clearly trade in Jewish stereotypes and anti-Semitic tropes.
No one should be surprised that Heidegger had certain opinions about Jews that are anti-Semitic. Heidegger may be the most important philosopher of the 20th century. Be wary of anyone who denies his importance. But that does not mean he was a good person or without prejudices. The fact that his published work had never previously included anti-Semitic remarks is hardly evidence of his tolerance.
Amongst the most salacious of the literati pronouncing “Heidegger’s Hitler Problem is Worse Than We Thought” is Rebecca Schumann at Slate. Slightly better is the horrifically titled “Heidegger's 'black notebooks' reveal antisemitism at core of his philosophy,” by Philip Oltermann in The Guardian. On the other side, Jonathan Rée writes in defense of Heidegger. Rée makes an excellent point about the confusion of the charge of antisemitism and philosophy:
I think that those who say that because he was anti-Semitic we should not read his philosophy show a deep ignorance about the whole tradition of writing and reading philosophy. The point about philosophy is not that it offers an anthology of opinions congenial to us, which we can dip into to find illustrations of what you might call greeting card sentiments. Philosophy is about learning to be aware of problems in your own thinking where you might not have suspected them. It offers its readers an intellectual boot camp, where every sentence is a challenge, to be negotiated with care. The greatest philosophers may well be wrong: the point of recognising them as great is not to subordinate yourself to them, but to challenge yourself to work out exactly where they go wrong.
But the charge of many of Heidegger’s critics is not simply that he is an antisemite, but that his philosophy is founded upon antisemitism. As someone who has read Heidegger closely for decades, I can say confidently that such an opinion is based on fundamental misunderstandings. There is no need to deny Heidegger’s antisemitism. And yet, that is not at all an indictment of his philosophy. But Rée goes further, and concludes:
As for the hullaballoo over the Schwarzen Hefte. In the first place it seems to me a remarkable piece of publicity-seeking on the part of the publisher, who hints that we may at last find the black heart of anti-Semitism that beats in every sentence Heidegger wrote. That would of course be very gratifying to people who want an excuse for not taking Heidegger seriously, but it seems to me—from the few leaked passages I have seen, dating from 1938-9—that if Heidegger is on trial for vicious anti-Semitism, then the newly published notebooks make a case for the defence rather than the prosecution.
While I agree with Rée that this is largely a case of insane overreaction, one cannot say that the notebooks offer a defense of Heidegger, certainly not before reading them. What is more, only three of the planned four volumes of these notebooks are being published. The final notebook, covering the years 1941-1945, is apparently being held back and not even Peter Trawny, the editor of the first three volumes, is permitted to read the final one. We are left to imagine how much more damaging that final volume may be. What is undeniable, it seems, is that Heidegger certainly adopted and reflected upon some vulgur examples of antisemitism.
It is no small irony that the Schwarzen Hefte are being published in Germany at the same moment as a new biography of Paul de Man (The Double Life of Paul de Man by Evelyn Barish) is being released and reviewed in the U.S. De Man, like Heidegger, stands accused of Nazi writing and opinions during the war. Peter Brooks has an excellent essay on the controversy in the New York Review of Books. He writes:
Judging the extent and the gravity of de Man’s collaboration is difficult. At the war’s end, he was summoned for questioning in Brussels by the auditeur-général in charge of denazification, who decided not to bring any charges against him (whereas the editors of Le Soir were condemned to severe punishments). One could leave it at that: if not guiltless, not sufficiently guilty to merit sanction. Yet both those to whom de Man was an intellectual hero and those to whom he was akin to an academic Satan have wanted to know more.
Brooks is at his best when he takes seriously the charges against de Man but also reminds us of the context as well as the lost nuance in our backward looking judgments:
The most useful pieces in Responses come from the Belgians Ortwin de Graef, who as a young scholar discovered the wartime pieces, and Els de Bens. They help us to understand the nuances of collaboration in the occupied country, the different degrees of complicity with an enemy whom some saw as a liberator, and the evolution of a situation in which an apparent grant of at least limited freedom of speech and opinion gradually revealed itself to be an illusion. They do not conduce to excusing de Man—he clearly made wrong choices at a time when some others made right, and heroic, choices. They give us rather grounds for thought about life under occupation (which most Americans have not known) and the daily compromises of survival. They suggest that in our hindsight we need to be careful of unnuanced judgment. To try to understand is not in this case to excuse, but rather to hold ourselves, as judges, to an ethical standard.
On that ethical standard, Brooks finds Barish lacking. Her assertions are unsupported. And footnotes lead nowhere, as, for example, “I shared this information, and it has since been previously published in Belgian sources not now available to me.” And also, “This writer understands that an essay (citation unavailable) was produced by a student in Belgium.” As Brooks comments, “That does not pass any sort of muster. One could do a review of Barish’s footnotes that would cast many doubts on her scholarship.”
Brooks’ review is an important reminder of the way that charges of antisemitism are crude weapons. Barish, he writes,” goes on to conclude that de Man was not a pronounced anti-Semite but rather “one of the lukewarm, whom Dante condemned to sit eternally at the gates of Hell, men without principles or convictions who compromised with evil.”” I am left to wonder what it means to condemn lukewarm antisemites or racists to purgatory.
As the Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, I confront all kinds of misinformation on behalf of those who insist that Hannah Arendt defended Adolf Eichmann (on the contrary she called for him to be killed and erased from the face of the earth), that she blamed the Jews for the Holocaust (she never equates Jewish cooperation with the crimes of the Nazis), and that she opposed the state of Israel (she thought the existence of Israel important and necessary). No matter how often it is corrected, such misinformation has the tendency to spread and choke off meaningful thought and consideration.
The propagandists and vultures are circling the new Heidegger affair with open mouths. It is important at such moments to recall how easily such feeding frenzies can devour the good and the middling along with the bad and horrifically evil. It is helpful, therefore, to read a few sober cautions about the current Paul de Man controversy. Susan Rubin Suleiman has an excellent account in the NY Times Book Review. And then there is Brooks' essay in the NYRB. They are your weekend reads.
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews? “[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.” The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.
Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?
[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.
The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”
The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:
Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.
The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.
As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”
The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:
His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”
The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”
Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.
If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.
Amidst charges of implanted memories and celebrity arrogance, I have no insight into what occurred between Mr. Allen and the younger Ms. Farrow. One side seems to think that our “rape culture” induces people to disbelieve victims. The other side believes that accusations in the court of public opinion open the door to character assassination. Both are right, which does little to satisfy those seeking a clear path to certainty and moral outrage.
The truth the avalanche of accusations on all sides has brought to light is that factual truth is always contingent and never certain. The drive for certainty leads quickly to ideological simplifications that deny inconvenient facts in the name of coherent narratives. Over and over the facts are being made to fit the theory; such ideological certainty at the expense of reality is the root of fascism and all totalitarian impulses.
This indeed is the point of a wonderful essay mercifully unrelated to the Allen affair and written by Simon Critchley in The New York Times. Critchley is ostensibly writing about the 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Specifically, Critchley focuses on one episode titled “Knowledge or Certainty.” Touching on physics and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the show begins with the premise that while science aims to provide an objectively accurate picture of the world, modern science has proven that such objectivity is impossible. In Critchley’s summation, there is “no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it—whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer—opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility.”
The lesson of modern science is that “There is no God’s eye view.” Anyone who claims to know the truth about the material world (and even more so about the moral or spiritual worlds) is “not just wrong, they are morally pernicious.” The point is that “[e]rrors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible.” And the result of this is that,
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
At this point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode on “Knowledge or Creativity,” a clip that suddenly shifts the scene “to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered.” We see Dr. Bronowski walking in Auschwitz. He says:
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of Gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell, ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.’
In other words, fascism, fundamentalism, and the holocaust are caused by a poor understanding of science, a confusion of necessarily hypothetical scientific knowledge with a push-button philosophy of certainty.
Even as Critchley and Bronowski beseech us to think we may be mistaken, I detect no suggestion that we should harbor doubts about the fact or the evil of the holocaust. Born in arrogance and certainty, the evil of the holocaust stands as an exception, something we all understand and know to be horrifically wrong. It may be true that “[w]e always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.” At the same time, there are times when to equivocate in our judgment is to refuse to do justice and even to be complicit in the justifications of wrong.
It may be true that science counsels humility and tolerance, but justice in the end requires making judgments. One of the great challenges of our time is the need to judge absent the solace of absolute knowledge or the illusions of certitude. We must at once admit to the uncertainty of the scientific age and insist that certain truths and certain judgments are beyond meaningful dispute. There are facts—that the holocaust happened and that it was a tragedy—that simply must not be denied. In other words, it matters that the Nazis did not win.
It is, of course, possible that had the Nazis won, our view of antisemitism today would be horrifically different. There is no cosmological truth to Nazi evil; but we humans don’t live disembodied in the cosmos. We live here, on this earth. And on this earth in this world that we have made, certain facts like the evil of the Nazi Final Solution are true. This does not mean that they are written in the stars or revealed by a God or carried by the wind. It does mean that such facts are the foundation of the common world in which we live as humans amidst plurality. In Hannah Arendt’s poetic language, these basic truths are told in stories and they are the basic building blocks of the world we share. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In the common world, certain facts matter; the victory of common truths is not trivial if we are to live together in a shared world.
That it matters who wins, which facts we embrace, and which stories we tell to our children brings to mind an interview given by Woody Allen and discussed in a thoughtful essay by Damon Linker. Discussing Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen explicitly defends the main character who kills his lover when she threatens to expose the affair. As Linker elaborates on Allen’s point: “The viewer [of Crimes and Misdemeanors] is left to conclude that Judah got away with his crime scot-free—and that such an outcome is possible for anyone courageous enough to violate accepted moral customs and lucky or clever enough to avoid getting caught by the legal authorities.” Linker then cites this quote from Allen’s interview:
On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things.... People by the thousands watch it, thinking it's very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it's utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It's meaningless.
The meaninglessness of the world, Allen suggests, means that it doesn’t matter who wins. But that is sports, right? On the cosmic level and as a question of justice, it doesn’t matter if the Seahawks or the Broncos win the Super Bowl. It matters for the players and fans and corporate sponsors, but not in the grand scheme of things.
The problem is that Allen sees the triviality of sports as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of the human world. Here is Allen speaking in another interview in Commonweal Magazine, also cited by Linker:
Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems.
It is worth asking how sincere we should take Allen to be here. If he really thought the world were meaningless, why would he write about its meaninglessness? Is it simply that he writes for the relief of unbearable urges? Couldn’t he then write about pretty much anything? It does seem that Allen writes not simply to relieve himself but also because he has something to say. That he thinks what he writes matters.
What matters, Allen’s films suggest, is truth. Here is what Allen says later in the same Commonweal interview when asked about the apparent amorality of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others.
For Allen, his film is about truth, namely the truth that the world has no meaning and that evil can prevail and often does.
Linker labels Allen a nihilist, by which he means the conviction that “There is no justice.” And that seems right insofar as Allen does reject and moral or spiritual meaning.
What is missing in Linker’s analysis is an appreciation of the moral significance of nihilism. Part of the problem is that nihilism signifies two related but different ideas. First, nihilism is a rejection of all certainty; nihilism comes from nihil, meaning nothing. It is the philosophy of nothing. Second, nihilism as it is associated with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche also takes on the sense of re-valuation of all values. It is thus not merely a negative philosophy but also a call for the creation of new and immoral values. In Linker’s essay, nihilism is understood in the first and strict sense to be a negation of what is. In this sense, however, nihilism is inherent in all critical thinking and in thinking itself.
All thinking must negate what is to free itself for the new. Negation, or nihilism, “is but the other side of conventionalism.” That is why Hannah Arendt saw that “what we commonly call ‘nihilism’ is actually a danger in the thinking activity itself.” What nihilism agitates against is certainty, the “desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary.” Thinking, Arendt argues, is “equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.” It is opposed to common sense and all ideologies. Because thinking sets up obstacles truths and opposes settled certainties, thinking is dangerous: “There are no dangerous thoughts,” Arendt writes, “Thinking itself is dangerous.”
In a scientific age that, as Critchley reminds us, is allergic to certainty, nihilism understood as a rejection of dogmas and certainties is not an immoral doctrine so much as it is the truthful insistence that we oppose what Critchley calls the “monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism.” Critchley’s essay touches on the human need for tolerance of meaningful plurality and difference. It is your weekend read.
Thanks to @sarohdez for tweeting us this photo.
“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”
-Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship"
It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.
Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.
Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”
In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ " And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.
It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.
Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:
Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.
“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied...that this new type of criminal...commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.
The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight...What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?
Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of...moral collapse...in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.
But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?
“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.
[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead...This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.
Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues...compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”
-Kathleen B. Jones