By Richard Barrett
“We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence. For memory and depth are the same, or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”
--Hannah Arendt, “What is Authority?”
Toward the beginning of her essay on “What is Authority?,” Arendt warns of the danger of forgetting. She cautions not out of fear that if we forget the meaning of authority, we hazard being enslaved by an authoritarian government. To the contrary, she reminds us just how authoritarian regimes preserve freedom when compared to a tyranny or a totalitarian government. The peril is that of becoming shallow--perhaps a fate worse than enslavement, or at least so it is portrayed by Aldous Huxley, a fellow author devoted to considering and preventing totalitarianism. Yet what is the connection between authority and depth? And does Arendt seek to resuscitate authority to save us from shallowness, or is she up to something else?
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.
Hannah Arendt first argued that concentration and extermination camps were "the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power" and were "the laboratories in which the fundamental belief of totalitarianism that everything is possible [was] being verified." A new series of books exploring the Nazi camps has emerged offering what Richard J. Evans calls "An Anatomy of Hell." Writing in the New York Review of Books, Evans argues: "In the popular imagination, the Nazi concentration camp now features mainly as a place where Jews were taken to be gassed. In a recent German opinion poll, most respondents associated the camps with the persecution and murder of Jews; under 10 percent mentioned other categories of camp prisoners, such as Communists, criminals, or homosexuals. The power of the 'Holocaust' as a concept has all but obliterated other aspects of the crimes of the Nazis and the sufferings of their victims and driven the history of the camps from cultural memory. No crime in human history outdoes the genocidal extermination of six million European Jews on the orders of the leader of Germany's self-styled 'Third Reich.' Yet the majority of the Jewish victims of Nazi mass murder were not killed in the camps; they were shot, starved to death, or left to die of diseases that could easily have been prevented or treated but were not. The concentration camp was in no way synonymous with the Holocaust."
Arianne Di Nardo writes about Mónika Sziládi's photography, which explores the way we express ourselves online: "Working by composite allows Sziládi to juxtapose multiple sharp moments in a single frame, to play with scale, and to create focal points that compete for our attention. She includes perturbing elements that, as she said in her speech, 'belong, and don't belong, at the same time.' The result is an uncanny, noisy circus, one with a dress code and that encourages visual transience. Take her rendition of the Three Graces, 'Untitled (Grapes and Graces)' (2010/2014). When photographed, the subjects posed for a 'selfie'; Sziládi took a spontaneous shot. She added the background four years later, after capturing the screen image of a Tuscan grapevine from inside a convention center. Nothing looks quite normal, but it feels okay. Not just because we relate to this innocuous gesture, but because the absurdity of the final image is offset by a cheeky wit...Despite its contemporaneity, Sziládi's work suggests a deep primordiality: connection. Displays of mimicry and repetition are not modern phenomena, and they appear frequently in Sziládi's work. People gesticulate, mirroring one other in posture and dress, and with devices omnipresent, scenes of surveillance--narcissistic and otherwise--are a reasonable afterthought. When asked if screens and devices are a part of her morning routine, Sziládi responded via email: 'Yes :(. But I try to check them at least half an hour after I wake up, and only briefly to make sure there are no emergencies. And then later attend to whatever needs to be done.' Whatever it is that needs doing, one hopes that in the constant and immediate culture of connectivity--that ever-expanding, immersive virtual web--Sziládi, as with the rest of us, can make greater space for the organic, breathing world."
How does one find room for Arianne Di Nardo's organic world amidst the ever-growing intrusion of governmental, corporate, and social surveillance? Hannah Arendt saw the private realm as the essential refuge for human uniqueness. In daily life, she writes, we "return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls." These walls of the private "enclose a secure place, without which no living thing can thrive." For Arendt, "Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all." Privacy guards the dark recesses of the human heart. So what is lost when these chambers are exposed to the light of public censure? Love grows in secret and loyalty trumps formal rules of fairness. We all transgress taboos and even a few laws. Yet, when we are forced to police private urges and actions by public standards, our belief in public morality appears hypocritical. Distrusting ourselves, we trust no one, which is the source of cynicism of political life. It is amidst a sense that privacy is being lost and we are powerless to resist such loss that the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College will host our 8th Annual Conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" Registration is now open.
Every year in July, we ask our Amor Mundi readership to join the Hannah Arendt Center community as part of our 100/10 Membership Challenge. It's worth remembering that the Hannah Arendt Center is a membership organization. As such, our members are an integral part of our mission: to be the world's most expansive home for bold and risky humanities thinking about our political world inspired by the spirit of Hannah Arendt, the leading thinker of politics and active citizenship in the modern era. Those who join receive free admission to our annual conferences, yearly subscriptions to HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, entry into our virtual reading group, and a Hannah Arendt Center tote bag, among other gifts. Membership dues support our fellowships, conferences, videos, and publications. They also go towards our National Endowment for the Humanities matching challenge grant, so all gifts are matched by the NEH. Please support us in our mission going forward. Please join the Arendt Center today and help us fulfill our 100/10 Membership Challenge.
Chris Lebron asks about Ta-Nehisi Coates's apology in his new book. Written as a letter to his son, Coates apologizes for not being able to make the world safe for him as a future black man. "In what really needs to be accepted as one of the book's most important passages, Coates says with respect to the unsatisfactory level of security he feels Samori is sure to inherit by way of his blackness: 'I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you--but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it.' (107) One can only imagine the tough pill this is to swallow for a boy aging into manhood, which raises the question as to why Coates feeds it to Samori? To say that it is part of the widely relied upon ethic in the black community of tough love is too facile. It is one thing to ready a belt; it is another to tell a son that the most reliable signifier of his existence is the delicate nature of that existence. A welt from the whack of belt clears up in day or two. The inheritance of existential precariousness lasts a lifetime. To see just how dangerous this kind of message is we can turn directly to Baldwin's opening salvo to his nephew regarding Baldwin's own father: 'Well, [your grandfather] is dead, he never saw you, and he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.' Baldwin is clear in his message. The only way to a black life of meaning is to be aware of one's vulnerabilities but to simultaneously resist being defined by them, to deny the insistence that one frame one's life in terms of those vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities at issue for both writers ought, for Baldwin, be taken as markers for resistance and personal radicalism broadly understood and not as reference points."
Jeet Heer eulogizes writer E. L. Doctorow, who died this week at 84: "Doctorow's fiction enjoyed its greatest vogue in the 1970s when his novel Ragtime (1975) was an enormous bestseller. It's tempting but wrong to see Doctorow as an example of the nostalgia boom that overtook America during the 1960s and '70s. This was a period when you could go see Grease on Broadway, American Graffiti in the movie theatre, and 'Happy Days' on television. Dismayed by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, Americans increasingly turned to pastoral celebrations of seemingly simpler times. Doctorow actually had a role to play in the rise of the nostalgia industry. In the early 1960s, as editor at The Dial Press, he commissioned the publication of Jules Feiffer's The Comic Book Heroes (1965), the first hardcover reprinting of such 1930s and 1940s caped crusaders as Superman, Batman, and The Spirit. The text of Feiffer's book indulged in no good-old-days falsifications: It was clear-eyed in linking superheroes to the trauma of the Depression and World War II. Still, the success of Feiffer's book inspired countless imitators, which robbed the artifacts of the past of their historical context. Despite his role in sparking the nostalgia boom, Doctorow was in fact an anti-nostalgist in a nostalgic period. His books never shirked from describing the primordial conflicts over race and class that were the very foundations of history. It's instructive to compare the movie The Sting (1973) with Ragtime. A sprightly caper film starting Paul Newman and Robert Redford, The Sting captures the look and feel of the Ragtime era, and helped spark a revival of popularity in the music of Scott Joplin, but has no ambitions to be more than entertainment. Everything that is forgotten in The Sting is remembered in Doctorow's Ragtime. Among other things, the roots of Ragtime music in African-American culture aren't forgotten in Doctorow's novel, which includes one of the most harrowing accounts of racist humiliation in American fiction in the form of the story of Coalhouse Walker."
Elizabeth Weil tries to get a good bagel in San Francisco: "The New York bagel, as everybody knows, is an institution. No bagel definition will satisfy all, but for starters, let's just say: A good one requires a chewy interior with blisters, called fisheyes, on a shiny, crispy crust. Making a bagel requires several steps: Hand-roll enriched dough; let it rise, or proof; retard the rising in a refrigerator; boil briefly in malted water; then bake. Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation--a man who is currently living in Milan and who almost came to tears one recent Sunday morning at the thought of his husband back home in Gramercy Park, reading the wedding announcements and eating an everything from Brooklyn Bagel--believes that the secret to a good bagel is technique, the length of time, say, for proofing and boiling, more than the type of water or flour. Achieving the right crust is foremost. 'That's the hardest thing, that outer crunch,' Davis told me. He recalled that his father described the bagel as 'a doughnut dipped in cement.' 'So he wasn't a fan?' I asked 'No!' Davis said. 'He loved them.' The obvious saviors in San Francisco's bagel situation should have been Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman--occasional chefs at the Hillel chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, and the owners of San Francisco's relatively new and much beloved Jewish deli, Wise Sons, which opened in 2012. Many already believed Wise Sons made the best deli rye west of the Hudson River. The restaurant sold so much house-made pastrami that, after several years of Bloom's transporting the smoky, fatty meat to catering events, his girlfriend could no longer stand the smell and insisted he buy a new car. A disclaimer on the menu reads NOT A NEW YORK DELI. Bloom and Beckerman added the notice just a few months after opening because even though the place was packed, customers groused that Wise Sons' offerings didn't taste like the food they grew up eating on the East Coast. 'Our kugel is definitely not as good as your bubbe's kugel,' Beckerman told me, sitting on the bench where he used to sleep after working 20-hour shifts. 'The actual food we serve is better,' he said. 'I'm very proud of our food. But it's never going to match the memory of what your grandmother made you between the ages of 5 and 15.'"
Johannes Lichtman notes that troubles with translation caused Milan Kundera to choose a new linguistic home, just as troubles with Czech politics caused him to move to France: "Early translations of his works tended to lose what made them most interesting. Foreign publishers wanted to market Kundera's biography rather than his style, and he has never quite been able to shed the early portrayal of himself as a dissident writer of protest novels. As the translation scholar and astute Kundera reader Michelle Woods pointed out, in the first British edition of The Joke, 'many of the experimental devices included by Kundera, such as the non-linear narrative and Jaroslav's discourse on polyphony, were seen as clouding the real message.' This resulted in 'a complete rearrangement of the novel into a semi-linear chronology and the removal of 300 sentences.' When he learned of this unauthorized editing, Kundera sent an angry letter to The Times Literary Supplement, in which he compared his editors and translators to communist censors, and said that he'd rather not publish at all than have his work rewritten without his consent. It was the first of many times he would assert his right to absolute control over his words--often to the detriment of his career. While the English translators of The Joke took a hatchet to the text, the French translator puffed up the style. The translator, Marcel Aymonin, had a very different aesthetic from Kundera, who has always written in language that's easy on the metaphors. As Caleb Crain noted, 'Where Kundera had written "The sky was blue," Aymonin had translated "Under a sky of periwinkle, October hoisted its showy shield."' Aymonin did not translate the book, but rather rewrote it: 'He found my style too simple!' Kundera told Jordan Elgrably. 'Into my manuscript he inserted hundreds (yes!) of embellishing metaphors; he used synonyms where I repeat the same word; he wanted to create a "beautiful style"!'... It was in part the horror of these experiences that led Kundera to embark on a linguistic emigration from Czech to French. Starting in the mid-1980s, he began writing first his essays, then his novels, in French, and he also rewrote his Czech novels into 'definitive' French versions from which his translators were to work. Notably, he did not feel the need to translate his new French texts into Czech, nor did he allow anyone else to do so. This perceived shunning of his Czech roots made him a target both in the Czech Republic and in France. Since the fall of communism, the Czech media has fostered an atmosphere where, as Crain put it, 'Any downturn in Kundera's post-Czech career is headline worthy.' While he is still a major figure in French literature, it's safe to say that he was more interesting to the French as a Czech exile than as a Parisian intellectual. After the release of Immortality (1990), Kundera's first novel more concerned with French characters than Czech characters, a French paper implored Kundera to return to Czech themes. The article ran under the headline: 'Kundera, Go Home!'"
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.
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Friday, July 31, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
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 open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Roger Berkowitz discusses how the Nobel Prize celebrates those like Aung San Suu Kyi who dedicate their lives to the conviction that truth will win out over the holes of oblivion in the Quote of the Week. Abraham Lincoln provides his thoughts on thinking and speaking to people in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we come across a collection of books in Arendt's library that exemplifies her interest in trying to understand religion and its political influence in this week's Library feature.
On Wednesday of last week, we announced our 100/10 Membership Challenge, in which we work to gain 100 new members in 10 days. Our Challenge this year includes a number of exciting drawings and contests, the terms of which can be read here. Please support all of the activities the Hannah Arendt Center has planned over the next year and become a member today!
"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "
-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"
I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to. I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties. To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:
There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:
And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:
If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education. In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.
A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching? It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game. These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented. In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education. Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?
Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism). There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers? It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.
The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible. For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive. The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content. Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.
The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism. Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process. Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action. The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground. And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.
Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment. But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?
Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect. On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist. And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse? In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'" Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:
Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)
It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment. Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture. For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance. For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:
An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty. Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.
Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative. The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment. We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds. She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts. Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?
One central feature of totalitarianism is the desire of those at the top of the movement to retain full—that is, total—control of their people. Total control requires, at times, the ability to lie, especially when facts on the ground fail to conform with past and present pronouncements. The strength of any totalitarian system can, in part, be measured by how successfully lies can be maintained and how effectively the movement can lie in spite of the facts.
A story out of China this week offers great insight into the totalitarian ambitions of some in China’s government, but also the fissures in that façade. As is now well known, Chinese President Hu Jintao is resigning, leaving office voluntarily when he had been expected to seek another term in power. Moreover, Hu is not maintaining any significant position of power in the new Chinese leadership, something quite unusual. And now the reasons have surfaced.
It seems that Hu was brought down by the emergence of a cover-up orchestrated by his most trusted deputy, Ling Jihua. The facts are such:
Mr. Ling’s son crashed his black Ferrari, killing himself and injuring two young women he was driving with. One of the women later died. Even though the crash and the son’s death were reported in the press, Mr. Ling set about erasing that news and denying it. He admitted the crash, but insisted his son was still alive, even creating false social media posts from his son to “prove” that he had survived. In addition, a major Chinese bank with connections to President Hu paid hush money to the families of the two women.
What is surprising is not so much the cover-up, but that it failed. As the New York Times reports,
Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be a routine matter. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, maneuvering to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.
Against Ling’s heavy-handed efforts, Chinese bureaucrats fought back. Intentionally or not, the police recorded the name of Ling’s son as Jia, a word that sounds like the word in Chinese for fake, and also a word similar to a retired party leader. That leader was furious about reports of his ignoble death. This and other accidents led to increasing pressure on Ling, and eventually the cover-up unraveled, leaving Hu embarrassed and eventually allowing him to be pushed out of power.
The fascinating story is yet another reminder of one of the most optimistic of Hannah Arendt’s repeated claims, that “The holes of oblivion do not exist.” In other words, no totalitarian system is perfect and no matter how sophisticated the lie, if the lie is big and important enough, the truth will eventually come out. As Arendt writes:
Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.
It is always good to be reminded of this basic fact of the human world, that as artful as humans may be at lying, truth is stronger than the lie.