Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 9/27/15


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.


Taking Antisemitism Seriously

nazi antisemitismJonathan Derbyshire interviews Timothy Snyder about his new book Black Earth, in which Snyder makes the decidedly Arendtian claim that Nazi antisemitism was not simply the most recent version of traditional hatred against the Jews. Derbyshire notes that many critics have argued that Snyder downplays the connection to traditional anti-Semitism. "'We can't pretend,' [Adam] Gopnik argues, 'that the Hitlerian crimes can be released from an anti-Semitism rooted in European Christianity.' When I met Snyder in London last week, I began by asking him what he made of that charge. TS: Anti-Semitism becomes a way in which one short-circuits an argument about why the Holocaust actually happened. If it were just anti-Semitism--for example, just popular anti-Semitism--then we're left trying to understand why it happened then rather than at some other time. Hitler's anti-Semitism was not just a more radical hatred of the Jews than other people had. His anti-Semitism was a way of making the whole world make sense. It was a response to globalisation. Hitler was saying that in a world of finite resources what really should be happening is that races should be competing for land and therefore for food; and that this is our natural condition, this is a law of nature. And if we're not doing that, or if we're prevented from doing that, it's the fault of Jews." Arendt writes "antisemitism" instead of "anti-Semitism" to emphasize that Nazi antisemitism was a "secular nineteenth century ideology" and not the same as traditional hatred of the Jews. As an ideology, antisemitism articulated a truth that was the key to the world: namely, the Jews were the source of German suffering. Antisemitism made sense of the world and offered a solution: the extermination of the Jews. This radical ideological movement was a far cry from traditional anti-Semitism.

Liberty By Post

land officeMike Konczal turns to a series of recent books on legal history to land a glancing blow at those who worry that modern bureaucracy and administrative government is endangering American freedom. Legal historians have shown that well back into the 19th century, Americans turned to administrative rules and agencies to maintain safety and govern wisely. Unacknowledged in Konczal's essay is that many--but not all--of these bureaucracies were local, as most government was in the 19th century. But aside from a politicized history, Konczal wants to make a larger political point: that bureaucracy actually secures liberty. "The administrative state was not only built on the basis of American legal norms, but it also helped to create them, and, in the process, American conceptions of liberty itself. What sort of bureaucracy could do that? One of the strongest examples is also one of the most prosaic: the Post Office. The Post Office was, at one time, a massive federal state-building enterprise. Spanning and keeping pace with a rapidly expanding frontier, the Post Office was one of the most impressive features of the early state. But not just that. As legal scholar Anuj Desai argues, it is also via the Post Office that our notion of privacy gained shape." The early post office wanted to encourage literacy and struggled to convince a skeptical public that letters would not be subject to surveillance. It may have ultimately adopted norms preventing prying postal workers, but the post office is a governmental entity, and its record of protecting personal correspondence from government surveillance is hardly stellar. To credit the post office with the invention of privacy and the securing of liberty is more than a stretch.

Powerpoint Thinking

powerpointAndrew Smith thinks that the imperatives of Powerpoint are a contributor to a dearth of nuanced thinking: "Let's stay with teaching a moment. PP's enthusiasts claim that it emboldens nervous speakers and forces everyone to present information in an ordered way. To an extent, both contentions are true. But the price of this is that the speaker dominates the audience absolutely. Where the space around and between points on a blackboard is alive with possibility, the equivalent space on a PP screen is dead. Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one--least of all the speaker--is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.... The presentational precursor to PowerPoint was the overhead projector, which is why PP screens are still called 'slides'. The program owes most to Whitfield Diffie, one of the time lords of online cryptography, but it was quickly snapped up by Microsoft. Its coding/marketing roots are intrinsic to its cognitive style, being relentlessly linear and encouraging short, affirmative, jargonesque assertions: arguments that are resolved, untroubled by shades of grey."

amor_mundi_sign-upSomewhere Else

iphoneSusan Dominus considers the way the cell phone isolates us from each other: "My mother's address book is one of the small visual details of my childhood that I can perfectly conjure, although I am sure no photograph of it exists. Fake-leather-bound, filled with her formal, spidery script, it was, to me, barely legible, with addresses crossed out and replaced with new ones as friends' lives shifted. I often was dispatched to grab it for her from a kitchen drawer. I knew when she was looking for someone's phone number, which seems unremarkable, except that my own children do not know when I am searching for a phone number, because all they see is me, on my iPhone, intently focused on something mysterious and decidedly not them. It is that loss of transparency, more than anything, that makes me nostalgic for the pre-iPhone life. When my mother was curious about the weather, I saw her pick up the front page of the newspaper and scan for the information. The same, of course, could be said of how she apprised herself of the news. I always knew to whom she was talking because, before caller ID, all conversations started with what now seems like elaborate explicitness ('Hi, Toby, this is Flora'). And when my mother spent her obligatory 20 minutes a day on the phone with her own aging mother, it played out, always, in the kitchen, where I was usually half-listening as I did my homework, waiting impatiently for her to finish. All was overt: There was much shared experience and little uncertainty. Now, by contrast, among our closest friends and family members, we operate furtively without even trying to, for no reason other than that we are using a nearly omnipresent, highly convenient tool, the specific use of which is almost never apparent."

On the Margins

aliceEvan Kindley considers the past and future of literary annotation: "Annotation is a form of literary lingering: It allows us to prolong our experience with a favorite book, to hang around the world of a beloved text a bit longer. But it can also serve as a gateway, for younger readers, to the pleasures of scholarship, by pointing to a larger universe of knowledge beyond. I first read The Annotated Alice at the age of eleven, and I was fascinated by its wealth of recondite information. I'm not quite sure why, at that stage of my life, I was interested in the fact that, say, the man in the folded paper hat in one of John Tenniel's Alice illustrations resembles British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; I'm sure I'd never even heard of Disraeli. And yet I was interested; the book taught me how to be curious about such things. Leafing through Norton's new anniversary edition, I was surprised at how many of Gardner's notes I remembered vividly, like his reflection on Carroll's fondness for the number 42, or Humpty Dumpty's aristocratic habit of offering his inferiors a single finger to shake."

Higher Education in the Marketplace

universitySiva Vaidhyanathan turns to Thorstein Veblen to consider the paradoxical state of college education now that it's coming to be considered a service with students as its customers: "If more than one out of three American adults now has a bachelor's degree, the only way to maintain a premium value on some degrees is to attach artificial prestige to them. The markers of prestige include a premium price tag. Tuition and fees at selective and private Bennington College in Vermont amount to more than $48,000 per year. Tuition and fees at public Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, just twenty-three miles away from Bennington and with just as good access to skiing and Phish bootlegs, are only $9,065 per year for Massachusetts residents. So why would someone pay $39,000 more per year--almost $156,000 over four years--to attend Bennington? There are certainly differences between the institutions. Bennington is notoriously eccentric, and students there are forced to make up their own educational programs--something that more than a few of them aren't equipped to handle. But what justifies the premium? Prestige is part of the answer. Attending the school that produced Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt might inspire a young person in ways that sharing a degree with urban fantasy novelist Anton Strout or former Major League pitcher Ken Hill, the most notable alumni of MCLA, does not. Parents might boast of a child attending Bennington (and their own ability to foot the bill) with stickers on their Audis; an MCLA sticker, meanwhile, would look much more at home on the back of a Kia Rio. Is the quality of instruction better at premium private schools? Are the facilities better? Is the weed better? Is one school more queer-friendly than the other? Perhaps. But to understand how the good becomes all Vebleny, we must acknowledge that few students who attend expensive-looking private institutions actually pay the sticker price." Of course, Vaidhyanathan doesn't answer his rhetorical questions. People may be paying for prestige. But prestige is also a marker for something else--intellectual seriousness and the life of the mind. Elite colleges promise entry into an elite that is not determined by only economics. Whether elite colleges are delivering on their promise is another question.

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

yogi berraMichael Carlson recalls the inimitable Yogi Berra in The Guardian. "Yogi Berra, who has died aged 90, was one of baseball's greatest catchers: he played on 14 American League championship teams and won 10 World Series titles, totals unmatched in the game's history. But while his sporting fame matched that of his fellow New York Yankees Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, he also achieved a much wider celebrity--first because he served as the model for the popular cartoon character Yogi Bear, and second because his pursuit of a highly personal logic created such 'Yogisms' as 'it ain't over till it's over' and 'it's like deja vu all over again', which have long since passed into everyday currency. A stocky 5ft 8in with a jug-eared gnomish face, Berra hardly looked like a sportsman. The baseball writer Bill James once quipped: 'If he were a piece of furniture, you'd sand him.' But, as his longtime manager Casey Stengel, explained: 'He isn't much to look at, he looks like he's doing everything wrong, but he can hit.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #13

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



marcus llanqueOn Hannah Arendt's Republican Criticism of Liberal Conceptions of Human Rights

Marcus Llanque engages with Arendt's original intention, which was not to criticize the idea of human rights as such but the specific concept of that idea that prevailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which dominates human rights discourse in our times. In Arendt's view, human rights can only guide actions, but they cannot replace them. Historically, human rights were most successful when they were linked to the foundation of a polity guided by the principles that human rights stand for. Her argument reflects a classical republican position by emphasizing that norms are nothing without actors and that it is the purpose of human beings, not just to enjoy as many rights as possible but to also be able to act in the first place.

Marcus Llanque is Professor for Political Theory at University of Augsburg/ Germany. He's published several books on the theory of democracy, republicanism, and the history of political ideas. He is the editor of Hannah Arendt's "What is Politics?" within the upcoming critical edition of Arendt's complete works.

Free and Open to the Public

Monday, October 5, 2015

Room 203, Olin Hall, Bard College, 5:00 pm

clinton hillary debateDemocratic Debate Screening

Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.

Light refreshments will be served.

Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to shill@bard.edu

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA

Privacy debate bannerBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "National security is more important than the individual right to privacy."

Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year's Hannah Arendt Center Conference, "Why Privacy Matters." The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Free and Open to the Public

Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm

why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

hannah arendt poetryNo Word Breaks Into the Dark - The Poetry of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.

The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt's poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt's political and philosophical works.

Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to cstanton@bard.edu

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm

david brinDoes Literature Become More Relevant When We Incorporate History, Science, and Other Elements of Change?

National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of  The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? 

Free and Open to the Public

Thursday, October 22, 2015 

Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA

albert knollAlbert Knoll, of the Dachau Archives, Will Be Honored as Archivist of the Year

The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.  The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.

Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997.  In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world - including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann.  Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service's first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.

Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact sconefoundation@yahoo.com.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kathleen B. Jones notes how observing the reactions of European countries to the ongoing migrant crisis is cause for feelings of possibility followed by despair in the Quote of the Week. Peter Baehr explains why the People's Republic of China is fertile territory for Arendt scholars and wonders where they are as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the United States. Charles William Eliot provides his comments on how an efficient man is capable of thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate some marginalia Arendt made in her copy of "Lectures on the French Revolution" in relation to America, revolution theory, and liberty in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Bearing the Burden of the Past



"If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice...Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon..."

—Hannah Arendt

Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, fell on the 27th day of the month of Nisan or in April this year. It begins at sundown and continues into the next day. A memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, it is a time to call these events to mind and consider their continued resonance and relevance in our own dark times. How shall we, in the words of Hannah Arendt, bear the burden of such a past? With what attitude should such events be commemorated?

Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1964, a televised conversation between the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, and the well-known German journalist, Günter Gaus, was broadcast in West Germany. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her controversial analysis of the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, had just been published in German in the Federal Republic and Gaus used the occasion to generate a “portrait of Hannah Arendt.” The interview ranged across a wide field of topics, including the difference between philosophy and politics, the situation in Germany before and after the war, the state of Israel, and even Arendt’s personal experiences as a detainee in Germany and France during the Second World War.


Arendt-Gaus interview

Already a cause célèbre in the United States the book had brought Arendt lavish praise and no small amount of damnation. What Gaus especially wanted to know was what Arendt thought about criticism levied against her by Jews angered by her portrait of Eichmann and her comments about Jewish leaders and other Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Above all,” said Gaus, “people were offended by the question you raised of the extent to which Jews are to blame for their passive acceptance of the German mass murders, or to what extent the collaboration of certain Jewish councils almost constitutes a kind of guilt of their own.”

Gaus acknowledged that Arendt had already addressed these critics, by saying that such comments were, in some cases, based on a misunderstanding and, in others, part of a political campaign against her, but he had already crossed a contested border. Without hesitation, she corrected Gaus:

First of all, I must, in all friendliness, state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance. Someone else did that in the Eichmann trial, namely Mr. Hausner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. I called such questions directed to the witnesses in Jerusalem both foolish and cruel.

True, Gaus admitted. He had read the book and agreed that Arendt had not made that point exactly. But, he continued, some criticism had been levied against her because of “the tone in which many passages are written.”

“Well,” Arendt replied, “that is another matter...That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.”

What did she mean by ironic? “If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice.... Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon...” To convey the shock she experienced when, contrary to her own expectations, Eichmann “in the flesh” appeared to be more a clown than a monster, Arendt countered with a reverse shock, adopting a sardonic, unsentimental voice to unmask what she later termed “the banality of evil.” It could be read as her way to diminish the self-aggrandizement of the architects of the Final Solution to middling size. The trouble was she used this voice rather undiplomatically to describe not only Eichmann’s actions but also the complicity of others, including some members of the Jewish community she judged harshly for cooperating with Nazis. “When people reproach me with accusing the Jewish people, that is a malignant lie and propaganda and nothing else. The tone of voice is, however, an objection against me personally. And I cannot do anything about that.”

Eichmann trial, 1961

Eichmann trial, 1961

“You are prepared to bear that?” asked Gaus. “Yes, willingly,” Arendt claimed. What she had not anticipated was how unprepared many who read her were to take on this new shock of the “banality of evil” on top of the horrifying accounts of Jewish suffering conveyed at the trial.

In fact, “bearing the burden of the past,” thinking about the past in its morally perplexing and disconcerting entirety, was the focus of Arendt’s writing, from her earliest essays to her last. And in no case did this burden bearing affect her more personally than when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem. When she returned from a European trip taken for a needed rest soon after the book’s release, she found stacks of letters waiting for her. Some correspondents praised the bravery of her truth-telling, but the lion’s share found her book detestable. A few included death threats.

Was her refusal to concede that her “tone” had anything to do with the hostility the book generated merely a matter of sheer stubbornness? Or was the ironic tone itself emblematic of Arendt’s ideas about the danger implicit in thinking and the burden of responsibility that lay at the heart of judgment?

In the introduction to The Life of the Mind, Arendt offered this account of the generation of her controversial and still frequently misunderstood concept of “the banality of evil”:

In my report of [the Eichmann trial] I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil...However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous...Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?...Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?

But, Arendt insisted, thinking’s ability to condition people against evil-doing did not mean “that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though ‘virtue could be taught and learned’—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior.” What cold comfort, then, this thinking business seemed to be, offering no guarantee that evil will be avoided and good prevail.


Arendt had removed the guarantee of absolute innocence and automatic guilt from the question of moral responsibility. What did she put in its place? The capacity to exercise an “independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” And who evidenced this capacity? They were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “dared to judge for themselves.” Deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “live with themselves,” sometimes they even chose to die rather than become complicit. “The dividing line between those who think and therefore have to judge for themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”

Nonetheless, Arendt’s tone made it seem as if she knew she would have acted more valiantly than those who cooperated with the Nazis. Outraged by her moral judgment of Jewish leaders many asked: Who is she to judge those who were forced to make difficult decisions and, in the interests of saving the many sacrificed the few? Arendt answered this question in a 1964 essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” “Since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled by the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”

—Kathleen B. Jones

This Quote of the Week is adapted from an essay originally appearing in Humanities Magazine, March/April 2014.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi 12/15/13



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.


dasaniReaders around the world have been introduced to Dasani this week. Not the water, but the girl from the decrepit Auburn homeless shelter. Dasani is a force of nature as she struggles to raise her siblings, deal with her well-meaning but overwhelmed parents, and make a life for herself from out of the shadows of homelessness and dysfunction. Andrea Elliott’s five-part series in the NY Times follows Dasani over a year; it is expansive journalism, one of the best essays exploring the horrors and hopes of the poor and forgotten. Read all five parts, and you’ll understand what Elliott is after: “Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction. While nearly one-third of New York’s homeless children are supported by a working adult, her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction. Yet Dasani’s trials are not solely of her parents’ making. They are also the result of decisions made a world away, in the marble confines of City Hall. With the economy growing in 2004, the Bloomberg administration adopted sweeping new policies intended to push the homeless to become more self-reliant. They would no longer get priority access to public housing and other programs, but would receive short-term help with rent. Poor people would be empowered, the mayor argued, and homelessness would decline. But the opposite happened. As rents steadily rose and low-income wages stagnated, chronically poor families like Dasani’s found themselves stuck in a shelter system with fewer exits. Families are now languishing there longer than ever — a development that Mr. Bloomberg explained by saying shelters offered “a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before.””

Decay of American Political Institutions

flagFrancis Fukuyama has a new essay up on “The Decay of American Political Institutions.” Fukuyama begins with a basic point that is undeniable, and is artfully made manifest in George Packer’s National Book Award Winning The Unwinding: “Many political institutions in the United States are decaying.” “The decay in the quality of American government has to do directly with the American penchant for a state of “courts and parties”, which has returned to center stage in the past fifty years. The courts and legislature have increasingly usurped many of the proper functions of the executive, making the operation of the government as a whole both incoherent and inefficient. The steadily increasing judicialization of functions that in other developed democracies are handled by administrative bureaucracies has led to an explosion of costly litigation, slow decision-making and highly inconsistent enforcement of laws. The courts, instead of being constraints on government, have become alternative instruments for the expansion of government. Ironically, out of a fear of empowering “big government”, the United States has ended up with a government that is very large, but that is actually less accountable because it is largely in the hands of unelected courts.” What Arendt saw in a way Fukuyama ignores is that Americans don’t distrust power so much as they distrust the concentration and centralization of power. It his been quintessentially American for citizens to engage in government, especially local government, and to take active part in public debates about political questions. From their arrival in the New World, Americans formed councils, engaged in public affairs, and empowered democratic institutions. The federalist elements of the Constitution provide ample support for vibrant democratic and local institutions. Beyond the judicializaiton of politics and the rise of a corruption by lobbyists, another cause of the present decay of American politics is the increasingly national approach to government and the hollowing out of local institutions.

If You Haven't Gotten Anything At All To Say...

smarmIn a defense of criticism, Tom Scocca takes on the public demand for a kind virulent niceness, a culture force that he calls smarm. Smarm, from Scocca's point of view, is a kind of "ethical misdirection," ruining the discourse with its nominal crusade for "civility", which distracts from the issues at hand by making the debate about the commentator rather than the comment. It is, in other words, an insidious, acceptable kind of ad hominem attack. Why has the discourse retreated to smarm? Scocca has a theory: "Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely."

The Art in the Error

scanKenneth Goldsmith examines the growing subculture of individuals who find digital glitches and turn them into art. These finds, he says, are imperfections in the seemingly perfect and timeless digital world: "The obsession with digital errors in Google Books arises from the sense that these mistakes are permanent, on the record. Earlier this month, Judge Denny Chin ruled that Google’s scanning, en masse, of millions of books to make them searchable is legal. In the future, more and more people will consult Google’s scans. Because of the speed and volume with which Google is executing the project, the company can’t possibly identify and correct all of the disturbances in what is supposed to be a seamless interface. There’s little doubt that generations to come will be stuck with both these antique stains and workers’ hands."

The Forgotten Sister

jillIn an interview, talking about why she almost gave up on her book about Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jill Lepore describes the challenge of writing narrative history: "You have Jane and Benjamin and they start down here. And then, Franklin’s life is like a straight rise. His world gets bigger. He gets wealthier. Love and success. And Jane’s life is out of The Prince and the Pauper or Tale of Two Cities. And at some point, narratively, we need them to switch places. The reader wants them to switch places. And they’re not going to. And so, I just quit. I didn’t know how to satisfy the reader that needs the story to go in another direction, because the story is going nowhere for Jane."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Kathleen B. Jones responds to Richard Brody. And, if you haven't had a chance, check out Roger Berkowitz's weekend read from last week, on Arendt, Nelson Mandela, and violence. Finally, the current weekend read: American politics has elevated the judiciary to a position of power, and this has led to to the decay of our political institutions.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Thinking and Moral Considerations



“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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Remembrance and Gratitude


“We are wont to see friendship solely as a phenomenon of intimacy in which the friends open their hearts to each other unmolested by the world and its demands...Thus it is hard for us to understand the political relevance of friendship...But for the Greeks the essence of friendship consisted in discourse...The converse (in contrast to the intimate talk in which individuals speak about themselves), permeated though it may be by pleasure in the friend’s presence, is concerned with the common world.”

-Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, p. 24

As the year comes to an end, in many English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Arendt’s adopted country, friends and neighbors may gather to sing Auld Lang Syne, the song adapted from the verse of Scottish poet, Robert Burns and traditionally sung at the stroke of midnight, as one year fades into the next. An evocation of memory, and times long ago, it resonates also with an image of a long-lasting friendship. So, in tune with the season, I chose for commentary an image of friendship Arendt crafted in her essay on Lessing, the opening piece in Men in Dark Times. “The essence of friendship consisted in discourse…concerned with the common world.”

Both memory and friendship are important themes in Arendt’s writing. “We can no more master the past than we can undo it. But we can reconcile ourselves to it. The form for this is the lament, which arises out of all recollection.” (Men in Dark Times, p. 21) Recollection, or remembrance, becomes, in Arendt’s view, a pathway to reconcile ourselves to what has happened. Bearing the burden of the past and the responsibility past events places on us meant, for Arendt, facing up to reality, no matter what it might have been.

When Arendt wrote about bearing the burden of the past she had in mind the terrible weight that the most momentous events of the twentieth century—the emergence of totalitarianism and the catastrophe of the Holocaust—had put upon the shoulders of modern humanity. In the aftermath of these events, we face new difficulties: “the bitter realization that nothing has been promised to us, no Messianic Age, no classless society, no paradise after death.” (Origins of Totalitarianism) Referring to this as humanity’s “coming of age,” she recognized that its first “disastrous result...is that modern man has come to resent everything given, even his own existence—to resent the very fact that he is not the creator of the universe and himself. In this fundamental resentment he refuses to see rhyme or reason in the given world.”

But remembrance does not so much dwell in the past as allow the possibility of action in the future through the cultivation of gratitude. The opposite of passivity, which is the unconscious reception of everything that happens, has happened or might happen, gratitude might be said to be the  active acceptance of the chance I have been given to make some mark in the world within the endowment of time, however brief or long, I have to live in it. As Arendt wrote in Origins, “[S]uch gratitude expects nothing except, in the worlds of Faulkner--‘one’s own one anonymous chance to perform something passionate and brave and austere not just in but into man’s enduring chronicle...in gratitude for the gift of [one’s] time in it.’ ” And, in many ways, these words echo sentiments Arendt expressed in her doctoral dissertation: “[G]ratitude for life having been given at all is the spring of remembrance, for a life is cherished even in misery: ‘Now you are miserable and still you do not want to die for no other reason but that you want to be.’ What ultimately stills the fear of death is not hope or desire, but remembrance and gratitude.” The kind of friendship Arendt calls “political” (because of its concern with the common world) is the model for those relationships that facilitate remembrance and cultivate gratitude.

There were, in fact, two types of friendship in Arendt’s life--those that were most like her characterization of friendship in her portrait of Lessing in Men in Dark Times (quoted above), which she called “friendship among citizens,” and those she called “intimate.” Sometimes, but only rarely, the two types were interwoven in the same friend. Besides her relationship with her husband, Heinrich Blucher, Arendt’s friendship with Mary McCarthy provides another glimpse into the practice of these two types of friendship with the same person.

Though an unlikely partnership, and one that got off to a rocky start, the improbable friendship between Hannah and Mary McCarthy found a way to begin and lasted nearly three decades, nourished by several streams of intellectual and emotional sustenance each offered the other. Littered throughout the McCarthy/Arendt correspondence are recommendations for books to read and write, places to visit, and ways to think about current issues. But the undertone of dialogue between them is one of growing intimacy and fervor, whether engaging topics worldly or personal.

When McCarthy read Men in Dark Times she thought the centrality of friendship as a theme in Men in Dark Times came through so strongly she told Arendt she thought the book to be “very maternal...mutterlich, if that is a word. You’ve made me think a lot about the Germans and how you/they are different from us. It’s the only work of yours I would call ‘German,’ and this may have something to do with the role friendship plays in it, workmanly friendship, of apprentices starting out with their bundle on a pole and doing a piece of the road together.” Hannah replied that she was not sure why McCarthy thought the book was ‘German.’ But she heartily embraced the idea of friendship that McCarthy had characterized: “And of course friendship in the sense of ‘doing a piece of the road together’--as distinguished from intimacy. Thanks!”

Hannah Arendt & Mary McCarthy

A year after Heinrich Blücher’s death, Arendt traveled with McCarthy and her husband, Jim West, to Greece, visiting many places Hannah had been with her Blücher, on an earlier trip. “I know it was painful for you to revisit so many of the places you had been with Heinrich,” McCarthy wrote to Hannah after she’d returned to New York. “That has never happened to me, to repeat an experience, with different people, that I’d shared with someone now lost...I can only hope the good outweighed the disagreeable or discordant.” Arendt replied indirectly to McCarthy’s worries. “During the last months I have often thought of myself--free like a leaf in the wind...And all the time I also thought: Don’t do anything against this, that is the way it is, let no ‘autocratic will’ interfere...Let me come back once more to the ‘leaf in the wind.’ It is of course only half true. For there is, on the other hand, the whole weight of the past (gravitas). And what Hölderlin once said in a beautiful line: ‘Und vieles/Wie auf den Schultern eine/Last von Scheitern ist/Zu behalten--And much/ as on your shoulders/ a burden of logs/ is to bear and keep.’--In short: remembrance. Much, much love. Yours, Hannah.”

“What ultimately stills the fear of death….is remembrance and gratitude.”

-Kathleen B. Jones


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Withered Public, Disappearing Private


“What is necessary for the pubic realm is to shield it from the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.”

-Hannah Arendt

In 1973, Hannah Arendt was invited to participate in a series of conferences on the Humanities and Public Policy issues funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to be held at Columbia University. The first, scheduled for February 1974, was on the topic of “Private Rights and the Public Good,” and Arendt gave a speech in response to a paper on the subject given by Charles Frankel, a Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at Columbia University. (The original note cards of her presentation are available to researchers at the Library of Congress and can be viewed digitally online.)

Part of the grant’s requirements included taping the sessions and providing the Endowment with a transcript of all proceedings. Arendt objected to being taped and indicated she could do no more than present her oral commentaries; she had no time to develop a fuller paper. The organizers of the conference and Arendt reached a compromise: they would prepare a transcript of her comments from the tape; the tape would stay in the possession of Columbia University and no use would be made of the transcript, other than filing it with the Endowment as required, without Arendt’s express permission.

Some months after the conference, the coordinator of the conference sent Arendt the edited transcript, along with his wishes for her speedy recovery: while Arendt was in Scotland for the second of the Gifford Lectures, she had suffered a major heart attack. Unhappy with the transcription, Arendt indicated she still had her notes and would prepare something from them, adding that she thought this would present her thoughts more clearly, “even though these notes are written down in a rather apodictic style.” She had her secretary type up a version of the notes and then made a few additional minor changes and sent them to Columbia University.

“Notes on the Discussion of Professor Charles Frankel’s Paper...” provides several succinct insights into Arendt’s critical distinctions between public and private, which are especially germane to today’s political situation.

“Every individual by virtue of his citizenship receives a sort of second life in addition to his private life. He belongs to two orders of existence. Throughout his life he moves within what is his own, and what is common to him and his fellow man.” Public happiness was something that could only be attained “in public, independent of...private happiness.”

Today, Arendt bemoaned, the opportunities for experiencing this public happiness by participating in public life had shrunk, adding, “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” It was better represented in the activities of a jury. But the paradigmatic “public right” for Arendt was the right to peaceable assembly provided by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Its exercise was still evident in “voluntary association”, she remarked, “of which the civil disobedience groups were an outstanding examples.” Arguably, it has been more recently evident in dimensions of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its iterations. (Though, for interesting commentary and documentary materials on this see Cindy Weber’s recent essay in Open Democracy). But what was definitely not an example of the exercise of public rights was the degeneration of peaceable assembly into “lobbying,” which Arendt saw as “the organization of private interest for the purpose of public political influence.

Evidence from the current campaign suggests that the bipartisan perversion of public into private interests continues at an obscene pace. A recent article in The New Yorker provided some frightening facts:  The impact of the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has meant that “very wealthy Americans have begun wielding increasingly disproportionate power in U.S. politics...A pool of only 2100 people has given a total of 200 million dollars to the 2012 campaigns and their Super PACs—fifty-two million dollars more than the combined donations of the two and a half million voters who have given two hundred dollars or less. In other words, the top .07 per cent of donors are exerting greater influence on the 2012 race than the bottom 86%.” (August 27, 2012)

What this means, using Arendt’s terminology, is that only a tiny portion of private interests will exert tremendous political influence. Not only has the public realm shrunk; the private realm of influencing politics has all but disappeared for everyone except the very few. Entering the voting booth in 2012 will mean exercising your private right to choose between one form of oligarchy or another. What then of public life? How can it be restored?

Arendt was typically vague about what to do about the influence of oligarchies on public and private life. “Neither the capitalist system [nor] the socialist system respects ownership any more—inflation and devaluation of currency are capitalist modes of appropriation—although both, in different ways, respect acquisition,” she wrote in the same speech. As to the consequences of enshrining acquisition as a principle of social organization, Arendt had nothing but criticism—see The Human Condition for this. To protect private life, we must “restore ownership to private individuals under conditions of modern production.” And what is necessary for public life to be restored is “to shield it against the private interests which have intruded upon it in the most brutal and aggressive form.” Yet all recent legislation that would have restored “ownership” or secured the public realm against brutalization by private interests seem to disappeared from the legislative agenda.

Is it time to call upon the 99% to boycott the election entirely? What other act of civil disobedience would be adequate to the task of renewing public life and salvaging it from its bastardization at the hands of greedy private interests?

-Kathleen B. Jones

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Voice of Right and Wrong


Whatever the source of moral knowledge might be—divine commandments or moral reason—every sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and this regardless of the law of the land and regardless of the voices of his fellowmen.

-Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Responsibility and Judgment, p. 61.

In a series of lectures she wrote for two courses she taught, one in 1965 at the New School and the second in 1966 at the University of Chicago, Arendt mapped out some of her complicated thinking about moral philosophy and the “perplexities inherent in the human faculty of willing.” In these lectures, she drew heavily on Kant and Nietzsche, but began her reflections by calling attention to the historical motivation for her concerns: “We—at least the older ones among us—have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and –forties, not only...in Hitler’s Germany but also in Stalin’s Russia.” (54). The distinction between right and wrong that it was assumed “every sane man” heard like a voice within him had not stood the test of time.

How easily, Arendt observed, ordinary people had changed their habits of mind, exchanging one set of values for another “with hardly more trouble than it [took] to change the table manners of an individual or a people.” (50). How had this happened? If acting morally, and not just legally, depended on the “thinking” conversation one had with oneself about what one should or shouldn’t do, then it was as if large sections of the population in every strata had simply stopped thinking, did what they were told to do, and then proceeded to forget.

Two weeks ago today, Anders Behring Breivik, the 33-year-old Norwegian man who admitted to killing 77 people last July in two separate attacks, entered a specially outfitted courtroom in Oslo to stand trial for criminal acts of terrorism and mass murder. After the charges against him were read, Mr. Breivik pleaded not guilty. "I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt - I claim I was doing it in self-defense." He would have preferred, he added, to appear before a military tribunal; he was, he contended, a political activist involved in a war in Europe.

Since he admitted his acts, the trial now turns on the question of Breivik’s sanity.  Two psychiatric reports have produced contradictory conclusions; the first found him insane at the time of the killings, suffering from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, while the second declared him sane. “[E]very sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong.” In his own words, Breivik was no exception. Before he started shooting, Breivik explained at his trial last week, he heard “ ‘100 voices’ in his head telling him not to do it.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17789206) But that moment of hesitation passed; he had prepared himself for years through a process he described as a deliberate program of dehumanization. Steeling himself against the comprehension of what he had done was important, he added, because “he would break down mentally” if he allowed himself to empathize with his victims.

“The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, what ought I to do? depends in the last analysis neither on habits and customs, which I share with those around me, nor on a command of either divine or human origin, but what I decide with regard to myself,” Arendt observed in the same essay on moral philosophy. (97) What keeps a person from committing atrocities, or “evil” acts, is, for Arendt, the capacity to be a “thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself.” This same capacity produce “limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside, but will be self-set.” These same limits, she continued, “are absent when men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”

Breivik’s description of his yearlong “sabbatical” playing a video game, World of Warcraft, for up to 16 hours per day serves as an indication of the program of dehumanization to which he subjected himself. And his years’ long immersion in the ideology and methods of radical terrorism, with, ironically, his endorsement of Al Qaeda as “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world” serves as an example of the kinds of “thoughtlessness” that can become a willed experience, in individuals and in groups, and is a necessary prelude to despicable acts. But then, Breivik never imagined he would survive July 22; he envisioned his action as a suicide mission, perhaps the ultimate act of forgetfulness, the annihilation of the possibility of thought and judgment themselves.

-Kathleen B. Jones


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

“Eternal Antisemitism” – Kathleen Jones


“There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Seventy years ago, on January 20, 1942, a group of leading Nazi officials met at a conference in a posh residence in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to discuss the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” the Nazi's euphemism for their planned physical extermination of the Jews. What was perhaps most startling about the meeting is that there was no real deliberation about whether such a policy should be carried out, but only how. No one objected to the program of mass extermination, which S.S. General Reinhard Heydrich announced as the Fuhrer’s command.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, her masterful exploration of the rise of Nazism, Hannah Arendt outlined the social and political factors that drove “the Jewish people into the storm center of events” and made “the Jewish question and antisemitism…the catalytic agent..for the rise of the Nazi movement,…for a World War of unparalleled ferocity, and finally for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide in the midst of Occidental civilization.” (OT, with a new introduction by Samantha Power,  2004, p. 7) That “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem…had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion” was, in her words, an “outrage [to] our common sense.” (OT, p. 11) Despite the outrage, Arendt took seriously the fact that antisemitism formed the core of Nazi ideology. She thought its widespread acceptance set the stage for the extermination of the Jews becoming the legitimated purpose of Nazi policy.

As she sought ways to understand the rise of antisemitism and its enshrinement at the core of Nazi ideology, Arendt rejected certain explanations, including the scapegoat theory. Not only refusing to accept the idea that the choice of victims was accidental or arbitrary, she also resisted explanations, such as “eternal antisemitism,” that absolved the Jewish people of any responsibility for the development of those disastrous circumstances in which they found themselves in the middle of Europe in the 1930s.

To Arendt, the idea of “eternal antisemitism” as an unbroken continuity of persecution of Jews beginning at the end of the Roman Empire and continuing into the twentieth century was a dangerous fallacy. To the question of why the Jews of all people were the target of such genocidal enmity the idea of eternal antisemitism offered what Arendt labeled the “question begging reply: Eternal hostility.” She would have none of it. “Comprehension,” Arendt wrote, “does not mean…deducing the unprecedented from precedents.” (OT, p. xxvi ) To interpret the virulent form of antisemitism at the core of Nazi ideology as only a more modern variant of “eternal antisemitism” would, she contended, inherently negate “the significance of human behavior” and “bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the very possibility of human activity.” (OT, p. 18.) Instead, she argued, we must bear consciously the burden that the horrific events of the twentieth century placed on us and examine the behavior of both the perpetrators and their chosen victims in historical perspective. (OT, p. 7.) And for the next several hundred pages of Origins, that is exactly what she set out to do.

It’s not so difficult to imagine that perpetrators of murderous crimes have the choice to behave differently and are responsible for their actions. In fact, we are used to accepting the reasoning that if someone’s actions cause another harm the one who did the harming is fully responsible for the damage done. So used to this logic, in fact, that we become reluctant to excuse the perpetrator simply because her life’s circumstances gave her few options, and especially not just because everyone around her was behaving equally badly. What’s harder to swallow is the notion that the actions or attitudes of the chosen victim might have contributed in any way to their initial selection. So if someone contests the victim’s absolute innocence we are likely to recoil in horror and accuse the person putting forth such an idea of blaming the victim.

When Arendt turned to Jewish history she found there “certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries” that, for her, contained “elementary clues to the growing hostility between certain groups of society and the Jews,” (OT, p. 19.) clues she thought Jews had ignored or misread to their increasing peril.

What actually happened was that great parts of the Jewish people were at the same time threatened with physical extinction from without and dissolution from within. In this situation, Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemitism would even imply an eternal guarantee of Jewish existence. (OT, p. 16-17)

Not stopping at this biting observation, Arendt carried her indictment of the concept of “eternal antisemitism” even further:

The more surprising aspect of this explanation…is that it has been adopted by a great many unbiased historians and by an even greater number of Jews. It is this odd coincidence which makes the theory so very dangerous and confusing. Its escapist bias is in both instances the same: just as antisemites understandably desire to escape responsibility for their deeds, so Jews, attacked and on the defensive, even more understandably do not wish under any circumstances to discuss their share of responsibility. (OT, p. 16.)

“Modern anti-Semitism,” she wrote, “must be seen in the more general framework of the development of the nation-state, and at the same time its source must be found in certain aspects of Jewish history and specifically Jewish functions during the last centuries.” (OT, p. 17.) To put it bluntly, Arendt criticized the actions and inactions of specific groups of Jews in the centuries preceding the twentieth for contributing to the development of the constellation of events that crystallized in the rise of Nazism and the extermination of six million Jews. Was her theory, then, nothing more than a textbook case of blaming the victim? Or were  her ideas about individual and collective responsibility bound to a theory of human agency and action necessary features of her anti-fatalistic view of history?

We’ll discuss these and other questions in the 2012 NEH Summer Seminar on Arendt’s political theory. Applications now being accepted.  The Seminar will be held at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.

-Kathleen B. Jones

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Resisting Violence-Kathleen B. Jones


“It is the function…of all action…to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.”

   -Hannah Arendt, On Violence

Writing at a time when she perceived and worried about an increase in support for violence as a means to right wrongs on behalf of the dispossessed, Arendt wrote On Violence. In it, she argued for a clear distinction between violence and power. To Arendt, power was the “human ability to act in concert” and “it belongs to a group” and continues to exist “only as long as the group keeps together.” Rule by violence signals the absence of power. In its fullest expression such rule is sustained by terror, which depends upon social atomization, or the isolation of people from one another, to achieve domination. How can such rule be undone? Will violence be required to undo violence?

After fourteen years of civil war in her native Liberia, Leymah Gbowee had had enough conflict and violence. Helping mobilize a group of women across ethnic and religious divides, she rallied them to participate in actions of civil disobedience aimed to bring the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor to an end. Thousands of women descended on the capital city of Monravia, putting themselves between the Taylor government and rebel leaders. When peace talks stalled they barricaded the site of negotiations until a deal was settled. The tactics the women deployed are a clear illustration of Arendt’s concept of power. Fasting, praying, and protesting together, they demonstrated that power grows not out of the barrel of a gun but through concerted action.

In her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee described the moment when the women appeared at city hall to bring their demands for peace to the warring sides:  “In the past, we were silent,” I told the crowd. “But after being killed, raped, dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails!” The women erupted. “Peace! Peace!”

Where the rebels had failed to oust Taylor, Gbowee’s protests succeeded. Because she brought an end to the long war in Liberia and helped secure women’s participation in open elections that brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor she shared with Sirleaf, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel committee recognized the non-violent actions of all three women, who struggled for women’s rights and demonstrated the importance of women’s involvement in peace movements. Gbowee’s actions were featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the second of five films in the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace.

Arendt did not take an absolutist stand against violence. She acknowledged that sometimes violence was needed to “dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” But she cautioned that even the use of violence to achieve short term goals was dangerous. The danger lay in the ever-present possibility that the means of violence would “overwhelm the end” and become the end itself. Gbowee’s statement that her experience of war had taught her that a future was possible only by saying no to violence expresses the Arendtian principle that only action can interrupt “what otherwise would have proceeded automatically.” And even if Arendt’s worry that the capacity for action was fragile and threatened in particular by the conditions of the modern age, we need to keep such stories as those of the women of Liberia central in our imagination as reminders that power is the opposite of violence.



The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.