Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Apr/137

Imagine You Are a Nazi

ArendtWeekendReading

Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.

Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.

But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.

Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.

thinki desk

I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.

“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.

New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."

The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:

However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.

Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?

The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.

gun

At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.

What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.

Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?

For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.

When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment.  Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power.  Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.

It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.

origins

Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:

First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?

Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.

-RB

19Feb/130

The Great Divide

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that "being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever." Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.

Here is Kahlenberg:

Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.

This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.

Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.

In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.

Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.

 Read the whole article here.

Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:

Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.

It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.

This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:

While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.

Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.

-RB

 

23Jul/120

The Intimate World

“What in thinking only occasionally and quasi-metaphorically happens, to retreat from the world of appearances, takes place in aging and dying as an appearance… in this sense thinking is an anticipation of dying (ceasing, ‘to cease to be among men’) just as action in the sense of ‘to make a beginning’ is a repetition of birth.”

-Hannah Arendt, -Denktagebuch, p. 792

One of the wonderful aspects of reading the Denktagebuch is its peculiar intimacy.  As with so much of Arendt’s way of thinking about the world, it is a kind of intimacy which is familiar, but unique and strange enough to make us rethink the place of that category in our lives, how we sense it and find it meaningful.  The sense of intimacy is present from the very first entry – a long, fluid contemplation of responsiveness and evil written in the wake of her first visit to Germany (and Heidegger) after the war – to the last, when the notebooks trail off into a bare succession of dates and places.

It infuses each echo of her published work with a sense of its interconnection with a hundred fragmentary thoughts, occasions, meditations, and struggles.  The Denktagebuch helps renew the liveliness of Arendt’s work as not just a set of arguments, but a profound, rich sensibility, a sensibility in the double sense of a way of sensing what is going on in the world around us, and the dense world-experience of a human, a thinker, a woman, a writer who set herself the gravid task of thinking what we are doing.

Of course, the intimacy found in Arendt’s notebooks was never going to be quite what we usually think of when we use the term.  In general, Arendt’s is not a thought that we associate with intimacy.  On the contrary, what distinguishes Arendt’s writing, even on the most personal topics, is its resolute publicity, its unwavering concern for what is common, what is shared, and what is political in writing: its specific capacity to make things appear to others.  This resolutely public (or perhaps simply political) character to her analysis was a commitment that got her into trouble repeatedly when she moved into topics which were, for her American audience and beyond, violently emotionally charged.  A consistent refrain, in the hostile reception of both the Eichmann essays for The New Yorker and “Reflections on Little Rock” in Dissent, was the apparent coldness or withdrawal with which her critics saw her as treating desperately dear subjects.  So perhaps it is unsurprising that the peculiar intimacy of the Denktagebuch, even in the time when it was a quasi-private record for her own uses, was what might be called by the paradoxical name of political intimacy, the intimacy specific to what she calls here a “world of appearances.”  What can intimacy even mean in a sensibility staunchly committed to rejecting our historical prioritization of the internal (the soul, the mind, the self) over our external lives of appearing to and acting with others?

This passage comes from a section of the Denktagebuch that not only provides an idea of what that form of intimacy might be, but does so in a way that brings out the intimacy already present throughout her work.  The 27th notebook is the last substantive one, and it is saturated with thoughts about ends.  The two senses of the word in English and German weave in and out of her entries: both purposes – the purposes of thought, of philosophy, of acting, of being in the world – and finality, conclusions, ultimately death itself.  At times, there is a deep, almost bitter sadness to the omnipresence of the end in this notebook.  She concludes in one entry with Kant’s thoughts in Critique of Judgment about the ends of human life that “no one would go through life again of their own free will.”  At other times, there is an old contentment with the prospect of the end, as when she writes that “death is the price we the living pay for having lived.  To not want to pay this price, is miserable.”  Birth, natality, the human capacity to bring something new into the world was always central to Arendt’s idea of a public and action.  Here, death and thought appear together for the first time as the inverse, a retreat initially in mind and then in body from the world in which we write the stories of our lives with others.  And the idea of thought as death’s companion, and our companion in the end, gives the first hint of what this uniquely Arendtian intimacy-in-publicity holds.

The Life of the Mind, Arendt’s un-ended work, gives us glimpses of something that comes out even more strongly in the Denktagebuch.  In the life-process of Arendt’s thought there seems to be a constant attempt to return to what was put aside, to reckon with, and to a certain extent, redeem the things that at first glance in the earlier works seemed like ideas and practices that were supposed to be the problem or the threat.  Her stunning elegies for Heidegger and Brecht – both neither pardon nor disavowal – reflect this process of problematization and partial redemption, turned from the analysis of concepts to telling the stories of lives lost.  We should all be so lucky.  And so it is here, in the Denktagebuch, in the case of endfulness and end-orientation.  In a whole series of the earlier works, this end-orientation was the thing that most threatened what was supposed to be the Arendtian good, whether it was action or culture or the public itself.  It was always the baunism of workers (The Human Condition) or philistines (“The Crisis in Culture”) that was the thing that threatened to remove from action and the political life what was peculiar to it.  But in this section Arendt returns to the scene to do something like right by ends, to think about whether or not there is a place for endfulness and what that place might be.

In this notebook, thought is the dominion of ends, and the spontaneous, undetermined originality of action and the titanic worldly power of understanding find their end in thought’s retreat from the world’s appearances.  Even in her darkest moments of facing the end this is not a tragedy to be mourned: it is simply the price of doing and being and living with others, the inescapable departure point of a world that we enter “confronted with what appears only once, with the sensuously perceptible” (780).  After all, as Arendt cautions, action would disappear from the world in the moment of its enactment without being taken up and made a part of our collective story by a process of end-making.  This necessary grave of the end gives the Human Condition in particular a different kind of normative bent than we might otherwise read in it – almost an odd kind of Platonism – in which it no longer appears that the natural instrumentality of work threatens everything around it, at least not simply so.  Endfulness too has its place, indeed all of these familiar categories (labor, action, the social, the private) in their place are both necessary and productive.  It is only those places where the messily amalgamated categories of our living in the world inevitably cross and mix that dangers, but perhaps also possibilities, are produced: every untidy palisade and nook of the shared world in which we can appear to each other.

This is, in the end, the sole place where that uniquely Arendtian sense of intimacy, a political intimacy, can exist.  The intimacy of the Denktagebuch, which is no less present in Arendt’s confrontation with totalitarianism and is beautifully echoed in the struggles of those on this site with issues like the punishment of George Zimmerman and the decimations wrought by homophobic schooling systems, is not an intimacy of distilled selves but an intimacy of our selves with our world, an intimacy with what is shared and what forms, for good or for terrible ill, the fabric of what we can experience together.  Arendt shows us what it means to be unblinkingly, meaningfully, at times painfully intimate with the human world.  To engage in Arendtian politics is to enter into a relationship of intimacy, an intimacy with the terrible and the evil as much as with the beautiful and the good, and to find through that intimacy what we can do and who we can be with each other.  And that intimacy, for Arendt, is what makes it possible for us to bear our ends.

-Ian Storey