Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.
Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.
Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:
The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.
Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”
The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.
Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.
If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.
And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:
Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?
As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.
[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”
Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:
It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.
Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.
[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,
that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.
Ziv responds angrily and honestly:
“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”
Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”
Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read. You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.
“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”
--Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda”
Who could forget the story of the Emperor’s new clothes? A pair of scheming tailors promise the ruler of a rich kingdom a suit of clothes woven with a magical property: only truly worthy individuals can see them. The Emperor accepts, but when the enchanted robes arrive he finds he cannot see them. Neither can his advisers. Neither can any member of his court.
Secretly ashamed, the Emperor and his retinue proceed to parade through the streets. The many subjects who have assembled there in order to catch a glimpse of the robes find their own proud hopes embarrassed. The farce reaches its peak when an uninhibited youth finally points out the obvious: the Emperor is wearing nothing.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fable skewers social pretension, not political domination. It cautions against face-saving falsehoods, not forced untruths. Nevertheless, the story of the Emperor’s new clothes highlights political hazards quite similar to those discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1950 lecture, “Ideology and Propaganda.” In particular, both texts focus attention on the threat of pluralistic ignorance that arises whenever free public discourse is throttled by convention, or prohibited by law.
Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.
States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.
Arendt did not think that loneliness was exclusively a product of totalitarian modes of government. She believed this estranged state of mind could also be non-coercively induced by long exposure to commercial standards and patterns of life in liberal societies. To understand this view, we should distinguish loneliness from a similar concept to which Arendt assigned very different meaning, namely, solitude.
Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.
Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions.
If loneliness aligns with pluralistic ignorance by signifying a gap between belief and action, solitude provides a check on pluralistic ignorance by enabling individuals to revise their beliefs and prepare their judgments in isolation from forces that might repress or distort them. But solitude only fulfills this purpose when the isolated individual returns to political life and expresses a judgment or performs an action in which the connection between private belief and public undertaking is manifest. In this way the forces that sustain pluralistic ignorance are undermined, or overcome.
We might ask what the predominant causes of loneliness and pluralistic ignorance are today, seven decades after Arendt’s lecture. Recent revelations concerning the operations of the National Security Administration show that active, systematic surveillance of citizens’ personal communications is no Cold War relic, but rather a present reality. Within some communities, at least, awareness or suspicion of direct government surveillance will likely inhibit free expression, and bar open discourse.
At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows. Additionally, the tendency of participants in digital communications to cluster amongst like-minded peers, and to expose themselves only to opinions likely to match their own, limits the chances of encountering checks or dissensions from one’s judgments that could effectively alter one’s beliefs, or expose a gap between conviction and action. In light of such facts, we might alter Arendt’s phrase to speak loneliness and certainty as states of mind characteristic of our present age.
It would be a mistake to end on such a gloomy note, however. Digital technologies have also created powerful new means of expressing judgments, or organizing actions that are truly political, in the sense that their conclusion is not pre-determined, their progress not fixed in any one direction. Although the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the last several years have disappointed the hopes of many of their proponents, their unanticipated paths of development have helped to make vivid the risks imposed by action, and the radical openness of politics. These are topics worthy of contemplation; they are also topics that demand debate.
Have you seen "Hannah Arendt," the critically acclaimed film by Margarethe von Trotta? It has spurred a storm of commentary, including my recent essays in the New York Times and the Paris Review. The best reaction to the film is to re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem itself, the powerful book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann that first unleashed the controversy fifty years ago.
With the movie being seen by hundreds of thousands of people, this is an exciting time for the Arendt Center. I have been speaking around the country at Q&A sessions after the movie. Audiences are hungry to confront the questions Arendt highlighted: the dangers of thoughtlessness and loneliness that together can lead to ideological conformism and unthinking evil.
We have a unique opportunity in the wake of this cultural interest in Hannah Arendt to bring the power of Arendt's thinking to a wider and politically engaged audience. I founded the Hannah Arendt Center to forge a middle ground between partisan think tanks churning out white papers and universities living in a bubble. All my experience since the founding sustains the truth that there is a yearning for passionate thinking about the major questions and challenges of our age.
I turned to Hannah Arendt as a symbol and the embodiment of humanistic thought grounded in thorough understanding. No other American thinker so engages (and, yes, sometimes enrages) citizens and students from all political persuasions, resisting all attempts at categorization on the right or the left, and all the while insisting on human dignity. Arendt's writings attract the minds and hearts of individuals who wish to think for themselves. She is that rare writer who compels her readers to think and re-think their most fundamental ethical and political convictions.
The Arendt Center engages citizens everywhere in Arendt-like thinking: relentless examination of issues from multiple points of view, with an emphasis on unimagined and unintended consequences --"thinking without banisters" is the phrase most closely associated with Arendt's methods; "the banality of evil" is the sound bite by which she is best known. We are continually striving to nurture engaging and thought provoking lectures, discussions, and events. And the next few months will be truly exciting.
- Our sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast: The Crisis of the Educated Citizen" will be happening at Bard College on October 3-4 and will bring together such luminaries as Richard Rodriguez (Hunger of Memory), Matthew Crawford (Shop Craft as Soul Craft), Danielle Allen (Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education), Bard President Leon Botstein (Jefferson's Children), and many more.
- 2013 will see the publication of the second annual edition of the HA Journal which revisits the best talks, essays, and lectures of the previous year.
- "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual"-- our New York City Lecture Series-will continue this fall, beginning with a discussion between Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead with Media Critic Jay Rosen on Sunday, Oct. 27 at 5pm at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC.
- The great American theatre director Robert Woodruff will be a senior fellow at the Arendt Center in the Fall and teach a course "Performing Arendt," designed to work with students to develop a multi-disciplinary performance piece inspired by Arendt's thinking.
- We will welcome back Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason and three new post-doctoral fellows who will teach courses at the Bard Prison Initiative as well as on Bard's Annandale campus.
- We are editing a volume of essays "Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch," based on a week-long working group we hosted last summer to read and discuss Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, the book of thoughts she kept for over 30 years.
- We will hold our second annual Berlin conference in May of 2014 in conjunction with ECLA of Bard.
- This fall we will launch a new annual series on Bard's campus teaching historical consciousness by focusing on a single fascinating year in history. The first event on September 19-20 features short talks by a dozen scholars about events from the fateful year 1933 as well as a Cabaret featuring songs and food from the period.
- Supported by a grant from the NY Council for the Humanities, the Arendt Center will host a series of public conversations in low-income neighborhoods throughout New York State in conjunction with our fall conference and centered on discussions of Richard Rodriguez's book, Hunger of Memory.
- We expect the NEH Seminar at Bard to continue in 2014 for the third year, directed by Kathy Jones, and bringing 17 high school teachers to the Arendt Center for five weeks to learn how to teach Hannah Arendt's political thinking to high school students.
- The Arendt Center and the Hannah Arendt Library recently acquired the complete transcript of the Trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem—one of only three copies in the United States—and plan on digitizing the transcript as pat of our continuing effort to make the material of the Arendt Library widely available and useful for Arendt scholars around the world.
- As part of a new initiative to encourage scholarship on and explore the enduring question of hate in human civilization, the Arendt Center will sponsor a syllabus competition to spur development of liberal arts courses on human hatred that will be taught in the fall semester 2014.
- If you missed it, take a look at my recently published essay on Hannah Arendt in the New York Times.
- We will continue to bring you thoughtful and timely commentary and content on our blog and website.
All of this and much, much more is in the works. But, we need your help and your support. The Arendt Center nurtures the foundational thinking that encourages the active citizenship that can humanize an often-inhuman world. But this programming comes at a cost.
Today we launch a 10 day/100 member challenge. Please click here and become a member of the Hannah Arendt Center. If you are already a member, we would ask you to renew your membership now. The Arendt Center needs the help of supporters like you, those that understand that we must "think what we are doing."
Learn more about membership here. One exciting new benefit of membership will be our virtual reading group. Members will be able to log on monthly to a live discussion about an essay or chapter by Arendt with members of the Arendt Center community.
We thank you in advance and look forward to seeing you at future real and virtual Hannah Arendt Center events.
“One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
- Hannah Arendt to Gershom Scholem, November 4, 1943
Hannah Arendt had lived for a year and a half in the United States when she noted in a letter to her friend Gershom Scholem: “One feels very lonely in this country; this has to do in particular with the fact that everyone is very busy and that for most people the need for leisure simply ceases to exist after a certain amount of time.”
This entails, Arendt continues, a certain attitude of “permanent absence (by which I mean ‘absent-mindedness’), rendering human contact between people to be very difficult.” Scholem, who received Arendt’s letter from New York in Jerusalem, was familiar with this phenomenon. “All my friends in the U.S. are muted by this ‘public isolation’,” hence communicating with them became very difficult, he writes in December 1943, “unfortunately you are not an exception in that regard.”
Scholem’s response is noteworthy, for he addresses the political implication of Arendt’s (self-) observation. In general, being busy and leading a public life is not a contradiction. “One can be occupied by his daily work, and when this period of work in the private realm of a factory or an office space has ended, one can enter the public sphere by being a citizen – or a friend” (Jerome Kohn). Arendt had a political understanding of friendship; for her, friendship consists of the world that appears between friends who are diverse and embody plurality rather than an imagined or imposed ‘unity’. In a state of “absent-mindedness” though, one cannot be in public, nor political, nor with friends in a meaningful way.
The problem starts with the absent need for “leisure,” Arendt states. In her letter to Scholem she uses a particular (untranslatable) German term for leisure: “Musse,” which is the German version of the Latin concept of otium. It denotes the free time I have for contemplation when I’m not busy (opposed to neg-otium, the time when I’m not free for contemplation, i.e. when I’m busy).
The term “Musse” that Arendt uses also appears in the title “Musse und Müssiggang” (Leisure and Idleness) of section no. 329 in Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Nietzsche, who is not known for having great interest in the New World, in this very passage talks explicitly about America, and in particular about the Americans’ “distinctive vice”: “the breathless haste with which they work,” so that “one no longer has time or energy […] for otium at all.” Arendt read this passage thoroughly: her private (German) copy of Nietzsche’s Gay Science has marked up not only this sentence, but shows underlinings and marginalia throughout the entire entry on “Leisure and Idleness.”
One would think with a watch in one’s hand, Nietzsche continues in his depiction of America’s oblivious take on “Musse,” and the common principle "Rather do anything rather than nothing," would throttle all culture and good taste. In effect, all forms and “the feeling for form itself, the ear and eye for the melody of movements” were visibly perishing because of the haste of the busy people. Before the takeover of the protestant work ethic, it actually was ‘busy action’ that suffered from a bad consciousness, Nietzsche recalls, and Arendt underlined the related sentence: “the desire for enjoyment already calls itself ‘need of recreation,’ and even begins to be ashamed of itself.”
Arendt’s underlining, with regard to her letter to Scholem, outlines – at a very early stage – her larger political and theoretical project: the modern problem of world-alienation and its threat to the human faculty of judgment.
Thinking needs solitude, according to Arendt, not loneliness or isolation (another distinction inspired by Nietzsche).
World-alienated loneliness or isolation precludes the thinker from the common world; yet, out of the state of solitude he can reenter it once he has ended his act of thinking. Judging relates abstract thoughts back to the world by giving them a concrete form perceivable and disputable in public, in company with others. Absent-mindedness is oblivious of this company. That’s why the perished “feeling for form itself,” deriving from a common lack of “Musse,” may entail a crisis of political judgment: in other words, a disconnection between vita contemplative and the public sphere. Nietzsche, in the passage intensely marked by Arendt, offers a form of counteracting this disconnect: “to take a stroll with thoughts and friends.”
“In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.”
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch
In the back of a volume of letters between Louise von Salome and Rainer Maria Rilke, Hannah Arendt wrote in pencil: “253, 256, Einsamkeit.” On the corresponding pages, she marked out two passages from a letter from Rilke to Salome from January 10th, 1912. The first:
Can I, despite everything, move on through all this? If people happen to be present they offer me the relief of being able to be more or less the person they take me for, without being too particular about my actual existence. How often do I step out of my room as, so to speak, some chaos, and outside, perceived by someone else’s mind, assume a composure that is actually his and in the next moment, to my astonishment, find myself expressing well-formed things, while just before everything in my entire consciousness was utterly amorphous.
When he wrote this letter, Rilke had been alone for several days after the departure of a guest. He thanks Salome for her letter, and describes the comfort and enrichment he got from it. (He uses a strange and vivid simile about a single ant that has lost the anthill.) He only knows himself through others, and when left alone, he feels völlig amorph, completely formless. Arendt may be able to create two out of her own one, but Rilke makes Salome into a dummy “second,” to whom he addresses his private thoughts for the purpose of ordering himself in a way that only happens in the presence of others.
What I find interesting is the use of the word Einsamkeit by both Arendt and Rilke, who explains in the second marked passage:
I merely want you to know what I meant by “people”: not any forfeiting of my [Einsamkeit, here translated as “solitude”]; only that if it were a little less suspended in mid-air, if it were to find itself in good hands, it would lose all its suggestions of morbidity (that is bound to happen eventually), and I would finally achieve some sort of continuity within it instead of carrying it around like a pilfered bone from one bush to the next amid loud hallos.
Einsamkeit could mean the deeply personal and negative feeling of the English “loneliness,” the more neutral, artistic state of “solitude,” the intentional “reclusion” or (often externally) imposed “isolation.” Each of these options would give a different taste to Rilke’s letter. It is interesting and slightly odd that Arendt chose to bracket these two passages in her book, since they illustrate an instance of Einsamkeit which seems to contradict her ideas on that subject.
She makes a great deal of entries in her “Thinking Diary” about Einsamkeit (in these cases she clearly means “solitude” as a tool for thought), especially in the early nineteen-fifties. Arendt argues that we live our whole lives in plurality, either in public, in private, or in solitude. She defines Einsamkeit as “Alone with myself: thinking,” and writes, “In solitude a dialogue always arises, because even in solitude there are always two.” But even in the case of Verlassenheit, her preferred word for “loneliness,” she sees a positive: “Thinking or thought is the only positive side of Verlassenheit.”
In the case of Rilke’s solitude specifically, Arendt writes in her essay on his Duino Elegies that solitude is necessary for Rilke, given the transient nature of the world. We simultaneously are abandoned by things and abandon them ourselves, and this double act, active and passive, is known as solitude.
She argues that love is an exceptional emotion because it does not attach itself to only one person or thing, thus abandoning and being abandoned. In fact, according to Arendt, “love lies in this abandonment alone.”
However, given the way Rilke discusses his Einsamkeit in the letter, it seems that he cannot always put his solitude to good intellectual use as Arendt would like; rather, it owns him. It morphs into a loneliness he cannot control.
Rilke usually treasures his solitude; he wrote a dark yet reverent poem titled “Einsamkeit” in 1902, and the final stanza of his poem “Herbsttag” (also from 1902) is similarly comfortable in its loneliness:
Whoever has no house now, will never have one,
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restless, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Rilke, in his earlier poems, is able to relish his Einsamkeit, but in his letter to Salome of January 10th, 1912, he is not just alone; he is lonely.
- Louise Brinkerhoff