“It is this duality of myself with myself that makes thinking a true activity, in which I am both the one who asks and the one who answers.”
-- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
How can teachers encourage thinking in school?
Arendt’s The Life of the Mind influences my answer. As an educator, my job is to prompt students to think—to have them become two-in-one (in Socratic terms) or to have soundless dialogues within themselves (in the Platonic sense). One way to accomplish that is to structure courses as a conversation between philosophers. In my American political thought course, for instance, I teach lessons on the liberal John Rawls and the conservative Leo Strauss. An integral part of that particular unit is for students to enact a conversation between those two figures in their own minds.
“[W]henever I transcend the limits of my own life span and begin to reflect on this past, judging it, and this future, forming projects of the will, thinking ceases to be a politically marginal activity. And such reflections will inevitably arise in political emergencies.”
---Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind (Thinking)
There have been several new studies on and discussions about Adolf Eichmann lately. In them, Arendt’s name is frequently mentioned for fairly obvious reasons. Her remarks on Eichmann’s “thoughtlessness,” including her “banality of evil” and its relevance in assessing modern day atrocities, have forewarned against the consequences of totalitarianism for more than a half-century now. But some scholars, including Bettina Stangneth in her new book Eichmann Before Jerusalem, are challenging Arendt’s ideas. This gives us an opportunity to look back on Arendt’s theories and reevaluate their logic ourselves.
“It is 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
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.
Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But the case of Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is more important than the scandal. It raises fundamental questions about the democracy, race and the constitution. Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, writes: "And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man's view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman's sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'" John Roberts, in his concurring opinion, responds: "The dissent states that "[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race." And it urges that "[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'" But it is not "out of touch with reality" to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and-if so-that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent's views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to "wish away, rather than confront" racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate. Both opinions are worth reading. And read more about them in The Weekend Read.
Pope Francis I has declared two prior popes Saints. One is well known, Pope John Paul II. But Pope John XXIII is perhaps forgotten by many. As NPR reports, "John XXIII, also known as 'Good Pope John,' was nearly 77 at his coronation and, because of his advanced age, was widely regarded as a 'stopgap' pope who wasn't going to make waves. Instead, he called the Vatican II Council, which promulgated one of the most far-reaching and controversial reforms in the Roman Catholic Church's history." John XXIII also published a little book Journal of a Soul, which Hannah Arendt reviewed for the New York Review of Books. For the Jewish thinker, Good Pope John is a Christian Pope, one of the few. Arendt tells of a "Roman chambermaid" in a hotel who asked her, in all innocence: "Madam," she said, "this Pope was a real Christian. How could that be? And how could it happen that a true Christian would sit on St. Peter's chair? Didn't he first have to be appointed Bishop, and Archbishop, and Cardinal, until he finally was elected to be Pope? Had nobody been aware of who he was?" Arendt had a simple answer for the maid. "No." She writes that Pope John was largely unknown upon his selection and arrived as an outsider. He was, in the words of her title, a true Christian living in the spirit of Jesus Christ. In a sense, this was so surprising in the midst of the 20th century that no one had imagined it to be possible, and the Good Pope John was selected without anyone knowing who he was. On the day of Pope John XXIII's Sainthood, it is worth revisiting Arendt's full review.
Taking Hannah Arendt's quote, "There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous," as its starting point, the Canadian Public Radio show Ideas with Paul Kennedy explores Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem. The program features Roger Berkowitz, Adam Gopnik, Adam Kirsch, and Rivka Galchen. The conversation was heated at times, but overall offers a good account of Arendt's book, her thoughts on thinking, and the reason her thought matters. Take some time to listen to program.
Patricia Lockwood, at the Poetry Foundation blog, seems to be tired of being asked if poetry is work: "IS it work, though? The question persists. Is a single muscle exerted during the process? Do you sweat at all, besides the weird thing that sometimes happens under your right arm because you haven't lifted it up for 8 hours? Do you get to retire after you work at it faithfully for 50 years? The answers are no, no, and no. Can anyone fire a poet? Only Death can fire a poet." She is, of course, making a joke. For Arendt, though, poetry, and art more generally, is in fact work. Indeed, making art may be the last vestige of work in a world where the primary activity of life has become the repetitive, never ending, activity of consumption, in which nothing is left behind and all labor seeks only to further the process of consumption. Poetry, and painting, and art are outliers in the modern world to the extent they leave something behind and resist the process of consumption.
"So far, the year 2014 has been a tumultuous one, as geopolitical rivalries have stormed back to center stage. Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China making aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan responding with an increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use its alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations." Walter Russell Mead believes that geopolitics, never really gone, is back for good: "Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it. That process will not be peaceful, and whether or not the revisionists succeed, their efforts have already shaken the balance of power and changed the dynamics of international politics.
On the occasion of the publication of a biography of the author, Hermione Lee describes what John Updike was up to: "As he said of himself... he is the artist of middleness, ordinariness, in-betweenness, who famously wanted 'to give the mundane its beautiful due.' For over half a century-even though his own life moved far away from 'middleness';-he transformed everyday America into lavishly eloquent and observant language. This-even more than his virtuoso writing about sex, his close readings of adultery and husbandly guilt, his tracking of American social politics, his philosophizing on time and the universe-is his great signature tune. No wonder that some of the narrators in his stories are archaeologists, or that he's so interested in vanished cities, ancient civilizations, and extinct species."
On the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, Bob Duggan remembers that what are understood as his great contributions now were not his most well known plays during his life: "During Shakespeare's own lifetime he was known best as the "honey-tongued" poet of such works as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in which he used classical and ancient characters to his own artistic purposes as well as practical purposes of making money during the plague-forced theater closures of 1593-1594. Readers literally read published copies of these works to pieces, making surviving copies extremely rare today. People went to see the plays, of course, but the emphasis of the theaters was on making money as much as making art."
Eric Hoover, in an essay about the ways that colleges and universities may begin to evaluate students, describes one measure designed to quantify the information in a recommendation: "Motivated by such findings, the Educational Training Service developed an online rating tool called the Personal Potential Index. Designed to quantify what's conveyed in a recommendation, it asks past instructors to rate students on a five-point scale in six categories: communication skills, ethics and integrity, knowledge and creativity, planning and organization, resilience, and teamwork. To gauge resilience, for instance, respondents are asked to what extent a student 'accepts feedback without getting defensive; works well under stress; can overcome challenges and setbacks; works extremely hard'. Recommenders can type in comments to elaborate on their ratings, if they choose." Adding comments, of course, is not the same thing as real qualitative assessment; perhaps, instead of attempting to replace the tests, institutions of higher education should abandon that requirement altogether, and instead evaluate students as students, rather than as data.
This week on the blog we revisit Tracy Strong’s Quote of the Week on “Thinking Without Bannisters.” And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the relation of race, democracy, and the constitution in Schuette decision.
Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The controversy began seven years ago before Sotomayor was on the Court, when Roberts wrote, in a decision invalidating a race-based busing program in Seattle, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This week, in a dissent Sotomayor chose to read aloud from the Supreme Court bench, she scolded Roberts:
"In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."
Sotomayor’s point is that race matters in ways that her colleagues, including Roberts, apparently do not understand. She is right; race does matter, and it matters in ways that are difficult to perceive and comprehend. Among the pages of historical, legal, and everyday examples she offers, there are these reflections on the small but persistent present reality of race in America:
“And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'”
Roberts responded in a separate concurring opinion, defending himself against the charge of racial insensitivity. It is not and he is not out of touch with reality, he argues, to disagree about the use of racial preferences in responding to the reality of race in 21st century America. He too is right.
"The dissent states that '[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' And it urges that '[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: "I do not belong here.'" But it is not 'out of touch with reality' to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and—if so—that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to 'wish away, rather than confront' racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate."
The background of these supremely intemperate contretemps is a decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in which the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, upheld a Michigan Constitutional provision (recently amended through a ballot initiative) prohibiting race-based affirmative action in public universities.
As both Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion and Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion make clear, the decision does not at all address the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action programs themselves. While in recent years the Supreme Court has shown skepticism about race-based affirmative action, it has consistently allowed such programs as long as they are tailored to achieve a legitimate state purpose understood as diversity in educational institutions. Nothing in Schuette changes that.
At the same time, Schuette does give constitutional blessing to states that democratically choose not to use race-based affirmative action. Already a number of states (including Blue states like California and swing states like Florida) have passed voter initiatives banning such race-based preferences. Racial preferences are not popular. In Michigan, a state that has voted democratic in the last five presidential elections, the anti-affirmative action ballot proposal passed by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. For this reason, Schuette is rightly seen as another nail in the coffin of race-based affirmative action programs.
Support for race-based affirmative action is dwindling, hence the impassioned and at times angry dissent by Justice Sotomayor. Even if the Court does not further limit the ability of states to practice race-based affirmative action, more and more states—which means the people of the United States—are choosing not to.
This, by the way, does not mean a return to segregated education although it will likely mean, at least in the short term, fewer African Americans at public universities in Michigan. To choose not to allow race-based preferences opens the door to other experiments with promoting diversity in education. For example, universities in Michigan and California can seek to give preference to students from poor and socio-economically disadvantaged zip codes. Depending on the connection between race and poverty in a given state, such an approach to diversity may or may not lead to racial diversity on campus, but it will very likely lead to increased and meaningful diversity insofar as students from meaningfully different pasts and with uniquely divergent life experiences would be in school together. It is at least arguable that such an approach would lead to greater diversity than many race-based preference programs that end up recruiting a small group of upper class minorities.
As a legal matter, Schuette concerned two different understandings of freedom. On the one hand, as Justice Kennedy writes, “The freedom secured by the Constitution consists, in one of its essential dimensions, of the right of the individual not to be injured by the unlawful exercise of governmental power.” Understood as individual rights, freedom means the right to attend desegregated schools, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to meaningful dissent.
But freedom, Kennedy continues, “does not stop with individual rights.” There is another understanding of freedom, which may be called the freedom to participate in self-government:
"Our constitutional system embraces, too, the right of citizens to debate so they can learn and decide and then, through the political process, act in concert to try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure. Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process."
Both individual freedom and political freedom are important. Both are at the core of American understandings of free, democratic, constitutional government. The point is that these freedoms must be balanced. In this case, the balance swung in favor of political freedom. Here is Justice Breyer’s argument from his concurring opinion:
“The Constitution allows local, state, and national communities to adopt narrowly tailored race-conscious programs designed to bring about greater inclusion and diversity. But the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs. In short, the 'Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers' to disagreements of this kind.”
For Sotomayor and those who agree with her, the claim is that the reality of racism historically and presently threatens the integrity of the political process. The problem with Sotomayor’s argument is that it is not at all clear that racial inequality today is the primary factor threatening the integrity of our political system. On the contrary, while it is incontrovertible that race matters, other facts, like class or income, may matter more.
To think seriously about race in American is hard. Very hard. As Walter Russell Mead writes, in discussing these questions,
“There’s a basic point that should not be forgotten in dealing with anything touching on race: The place of African Americans in the United States is a uniquely difficult and charged question. The history of slavery, segregation and entrenched racism in the United States cannot be denied and should not be minimized. The effects of this history are still very much with us today, and while the overwhelming majority of Americans repudiate racist ideologies and beliefs, the continuing presence of racist ideas, prejudices and emotions in this country is a reality that policy makers and people of good will cannot and should not ignore. It is naive to think otherwise, and any look at how our system works and any thoughts about whether it works fairly have to include a serious and honest reflection on the fading but real potency of race.”
Mead raises a difficult question, which is whether race is really the best way to think about inequality in 21st century America. He argues for status based public policy programs to replace race-based programs:
“Ultimately, this is why status-based forms of affirmative action seem better than race based ones. President Obama’s kids don’t need any special help in getting into college, but there are many kids of all races and ethnic groups who have demonstrated unusual talent and grit by achieving in difficult circumstances. Kids who go to terrible schools, who overcome economic disadvantages, who are the first in their family to complete high school, or who grow up in neighborhoods that are socially distressed can and should be treated with the respect their achievements warrant.”
Should President Obama’s children benefit from race-based preference programs? Clearly the answer is no. But note, this does not mean that his children will not suffer from racism. Mead knows this and says so. Indeed, it is likely they will, over the course of their lives, find themselves in situations where they are looked at askance, avoided, singled out, discriminated against, and also privileged on account of their races. Race matters, undoubtedly, in complicated but overwhelmingly in damaging and at times degrading ways. Responding to the reality of race in our society is absolutely necessary.
It is not at all clear that race-based preferences in college admission are the best way to respond to the reality of race in the 21st century. Some states believe such race-based preferences are necessary. Other states, including Michigan, California, and Florida, have concluded they are not. Deciding that preferential admissions to universities on the basis of race is impermissible is not unconstitutional. That is the correct decision the Court made this week.
That does not mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to address both racial and class discrimination in higher education. There are many ways to address the damaging impact of racial as well as economic inequality in our society—some maybe better than race-based preferences. For one, schools could institute truly need-blind admissions and decide to give preference to applicants who come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. While many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our society are white and from rural backgrounds, many others are racial minorities. Both would benefit from such an approach, which would be infinitely more just than a simple preference based on skin color.
Even better would be a serious commitment to affirmatively act to improve our shamefully underfunded and under-achieving high schools. Especially in poorer areas where rural and urban poverty crush the hopes and dreams of young people, our public schools are too-often disastrous. These schools, however, are free and the four years students spend in them are frequently wasted. If we could somehow figure out how to make high school a meaningful experience for millions of low-income children, that would be the single best way to help disadvantaged children around the country, both minority and white. That would be a truly meaningful form of affirmative action.
Over the last 50 years race has replaced class as the primary way that people on the left have perceived the injustices of the world. During that time poverty did not disappear as a problem, but it was hidden behind concerns of race and at times of gender. A whole generation of activists and politicians have grown up and worked in an era in which the problems of the nation were seen through a racial lens. There were good reasons for this shift and the results have been important and phenomenal. Yes, race still matters today, but nowhere to the extent it did 50 years ago.
Poverty, on the other end, matters ever more. With rising inequality and with the welldocumented problems of the middle classes (let alone the overlooked lower classes), we are slowly seeing a shift away from race and towards class as the dominant lens for thinking about equality and inequality in the country. This is as it should be. It is time to begin thinking more about advocating for real class diversity in colleges and public institutions; that doesn’t mean race as a problem has gone away, but it does mean that in the early 21st century, poverty trumps race as the true scourge of our public life.
The opinions in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action are well worth reading in full, especially those by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. They are your weekend read. You can download a PDF of the opinion here.
'Never think that you're not good enough. A man should never think that. People will take you very much at your own reckoning.'
"Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules. Gonna put my good foot forward and stop being influenced by fools."
Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.
-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem
Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.
The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.
In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.
According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking. This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.
The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.
The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.
Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.
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.
There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.
Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”
Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:
…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.
As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.
There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.
-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)
“Being prepared to receive what thought is not prepared to think is what deserves the name of thinking.”
- Jean-Francois Lyotard