“Politics arises between men, and so quite outside of man. There is therefore no real political substance. Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”
-- The Promise of Politics 95, emphasis in original
What is politics? Ask around, and you may get answers such as government, the state, political parties, corruption, “something I don’t care about” and “something that is a threat to my privacy and my freedom.” Hannah Arendt probably wouldn’t be surprised. Arendt notes: “Both the mistrust of politics and the question as to the meaning of politics are very old, as old as the tradition of political philosophy.” Moreover, she continues,
Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal, and, linked with this fear, the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics.
In The Promise of Politics, we see Arendt wrestling with questions on the meaning of politics, particularly as it has been inherited in our modern world.
Tuesday, March 15th, 2011: Lunchtime Talk
Featured Speaker: Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Literature at Stanford University
Robert Pogue Harrison’s Lunchtime Talk at the Arendt Center focuses on a particular aspect of Arendt’s concept of thinking, which is thinking’s relation to phenomena not traditionally associated with it, such as friendship, and the role of thinking “in these domains where it has different registers, motivations, and outcomes” than what one might assume.
"Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence...for as long as we use the word 'politics.'"
-Hannah Arendt, "Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940"
Some years ago a mentor told me a story from his days as a graduate student at a prestigious political science department. There was a professor there specializing in Russian politics and Sovietology, an older professor who loved teaching and taught well past the standard age of retirement. His enthusiasm was palpable, and he was well-liked by his students. His most popular course was on Russian politics, and towards the end of one semester, a precocious undergraduate visited during office hours: “How hard is it to learn Russian,” the student asked, “because I’d really like to start.” “Pretty hard,” he said, “but that’s great to hear. What has you so excited about it?” “Well,” said the student, “after taking your course, I’m very inspired to read Marx in the original.” At the next class the professor told this story to all of his students, and none of them laughed. He paused for a moment, then somewhat despondently said: “It has only now become clear to me….that none of you know the first thing about Karl Marx.”
The story has several morals. As a professor, it reminds me to be careful about assuming what students know. As a student, it reminds me of an undergraduate paper I wrote which spelled Marx’s first name with a “C.” My professor kindly marked the mistake, but today I can better imagine her frustration. And if the story works as a joke, it is because we accept its basic premise, that knowledge of foreign languages is important, not only for our engagement with texts but with the world at large. After all, the course in question was not about Marx.
The fast approach of the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2013 Conference on “The Educated Citizen in Crisis” offers a fitting backdrop to consider the place of language education in the education of the citizen. The problem has long been salient in America, a land of immigrants and a country of rich cultural diversity; and debates about the relation between the embrace of English and American assimilation continue to draw attention. Samuel Huntington, for example, recently interpreted challenges to English preeminence as a threat to American political culture: “There is no Americano dream,” he writes in “The Hispanic Challenge,” “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.” For Huntington English is an element of national citizenship, not only as a language learned, but as an essential component of American identity.
This might be juxtaposed with Tracy Strong’s support of learning (at least a) second language, including Latin, as an element of democratic citizenship. A second language, writes Strong (see his “Language Learning and the Social Sciences”) helps one acquire “what I might call an anthropological perspective on one’s own society,” for “An important achievement of learning a foreign language is learning a perspective on one’s world that is not one’s own. In turn, the acquisition of another perspective or even the recognition of the legitimacy of another perspective is, to my understanding, a very important component of a democratic political understanding.” Strong illustrates his point with a passage from Hannah Arendt’s “Truth and Politics”: “I form an opinion,” says Arendt, “by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent: that is, I represent them.”
Hannah Arendt’s deep respect for the American Constitution and American political culture, manifest no less (perhaps even more!) in her criticism than her praise, is well known. After fleeing Nazi Germany and German-occupied France, Arendt moved to the United States where she became a naturalized citizen in 1951. And her views on the relation between the English language and American citizenship are rich and complex.
In “The Crisis in Education” Arendt highlights how education plays a unique political role in America, where “it is obvious that the enormously difficult melting together of the most diverse ethnic groups…can only be accomplished through the schooling, education, and Americanization of the immigrants’ children.” Education prepares citizens to enter a common world, of which English in America is a key component: “Since for most of these children English is not their mother tongue but has to be learned in school, schools must obviously assume functions which in a nation-state would be performed as a matter of course in the home.”
At the same time, Arendt’s own embrace of English is hardly straightforward. In a famous 1964 interview with she says: “The Europe of the pre-Hitler period? I do not long for that, I can tell you. What remains? The language remains. […] I have always consciously refused to lose my mother tongue. I have always maintained a certain distance from French, which I then spoke very well, as well as from English, which I write today […] I write in English, but I have never lost a feeling of distance from it. There is a tremendous difference between your mother tongue and another language…The German language is the essential thing that has remained and that I have always consciously preserved.”
Here Arendt seems both with and against Huntington. On one hand, learning and embracing English—the public language of the country—is what enables diverse Americans to share a common political world. And in this respect, her decision to write and publish in English represents one of her most important acts of American democratic citizenship. By writing in English, Arendt “assumes responsibility for the world,” the same responsibility that education requires from its educators if they are to give the younger generation a common world, but which she finds sorely lacking in “The Crisis of Education.”
At the same time, though, Arendt rejects the idea that American citizenship requires treating English as if it were a mother tongue. Arendt consciously preserves her German mother tongue as both an element of her identity and a grounding of her understanding of the world, and in 1967 she even accepted the Sigmund Freud Award of the German Academy of Language and Poetry that “lauded her efforts to keep the German language alive although she had been living and writing in the United States for more than three decades” (I quote from Frank Mehring’s 2011 article “‘All for the Sake of Freedom’: Hannah Arendt’s Democratic Dissent, Trauma, and American Citizenship”). For Arendt, it seems, it is precisely this potentiality in America—for citizens to share and assume responsibility for a common world approached in its own terms, while also bringing to bear a separate understanding grounded by very different terms—that offers America’s greatest democratic possibilities. One might suggest that Arendt’s engagement with language, in her combination of English responsibility and German self-understanding, offers a powerful and thought-provoking model of American democratic citizenship.
What about the teaching of language? In the “The Crisis in Education” Arendt is critical of the way language, especially foreign language, is taught in American schools. In a passage worth quoting at length she says:
“The close connection between these two things—the substitution of doing for learning and of playing for working—is directly illustrated by the teaching of languages; the child is to learn by speaking, that is by doing, not by studying grammar and syntax; in other words he is to learn a foreign language in the same way that as an infant he learned his own language: as though at play and in the uninterrupted continuity of simple existence. Quite apart from the question of whether this is possible or not…it is perfectly clear that this procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level.”
Arendt writes that such “pragmatist” methods intend “not to teach knowledge but to inculcate a skill.” Pragmatic instruction helps one to get by in the real world; but it does not allow one to love or understand the world. It renders language useful, but reduces language to an instrument, something easily discarded when no longer needed. It precludes philosophical engagement and representative thinking. The latest smartphone translation apps render it superfluous.
But how would one approach language differently? And what does this have to do with grammar and syntax? Perhaps there are clues in the passage selected as our quote of the week, culled from Arendt’s 1968 biographical essay about her friend Walter Benjamin. There, Arendt appreciates that Benjamin's study of language abandons any “utilitarian” or “communicative” goals, but approaches language as a “poetic phenomenon.” The focused study of grammar develops different habits than pragmatist pedagogy. In the process of translation, for example, it facilitates an engagement with language that is divorced from practical use and focused squarely on meaning. To wrestle with grammar means to wrestle with language in the pursuit of truth, in a manner that inspires love for language—that it exists—and cross-cultural understanding. Arendt was famous for flexing her Greek and Latin muscles—in part, I think, as a reflection of her love for the world. The study of Greek and Latin is especially amenable to a relationship of love, because these languages are hardly “practical.” One studies them principally to understand, to shed light on the obscure; and through their investigation one discovers the sunken meanings that remain hidden and embedded in our modern languages, in words we speak regularly without realizing all that is contained within them. By engaging these “dead” languages, we more richly and seriously understand ourselves. And these same disinterested habits, when applied to the study of modern foreign languages, can enrich not only our understanding of different worldviews, but our participation in the world as democratic citizens.
"Heidegger is wrong: man is not “thrown” “in the world;” if we are thrown, then – no differently from animals – onto the earth. Man is precisely guided, not thrown, precisely for that reason his continuity arises and the way he belongs appears. Poor us, if we are thrown into the world!"
"Heidegger hat unrecht: “in die Welt” ist der Mensch nicht “geworfen;” wenn wir geworfen sind, so – nicht anders als die Tiere – auf die Erde. In die Welt gerade wird der Mensch geleitet, nicht geworfen, da gerade stellt sich seine Kontinuität her und offenbart seine Zugehörigkeit. Wehe uns, wenn wir in die Welt geworfen werden!"
-Hannah Arendt, Denktagebuch, Notebook 21, Section 68, August, 1955
Hannah Arendt follows her teacher Martin Heidegger in casting the classical philosophical question of the relation of the one and the many as the relationship between the individual and the world. Like the early Heidegger, she emphasizes the future, but she more frequently combines conceptual and narrative explication. For Arendt, freedom is at stake, the freedom of plural humanity that can call on, but cannot be reduced to, guiding ideas of tradition or authority. Yet while she consistently defends freedom through action that cannot be tied to the logic of the past or an assumed goal in the future, her thinking has both a moment of freedom and concern with connection to the past.
In Being and Time, Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness” (Geworfenheit) offers a conceptual hinge between a limitation and expansion of freedom. On the one hand, the thrown “Dasein” cannot choose to come into the world, much less into a particular world. On the other hand, once situated in a field of relations, possibilities open that allow Dasein to fashion a sense of the future and self-knowledge.
Arendt can be seen to ask how exactly we are to recognize the original condition of being thrown in such a way that new possibilities open up. Her objection to Heidegger in the passage above takes a subtle linguistic path that shows how her method of reading inflects her philosophical ideas. Rather than holding exclusively to the conceptual development of “thrownness,” she offers a terminological challenge. She says that man is only thrown into the natural “earth,” not the humanly-made “world.” In inserting this distinction between the earth and the world, she reads “geworfen” not abstractly as “thrown,” but concretely, implying that she has in mind a second use of the German verb "werfen:" to refer to animals giving birth.
Arendt wants to leave the merely animal behind. The German verb “leiten” that I have translated here as “guided” could also mean to direct, to conduct, to lead, to govern. Thinking ahead to Arendt’s writing on education, I hear a connection to “begleiten,” which means to accompany. The guiding that one receives gives a sense of continuing and belonging to a greater world. Heidegger insists that Dasein does not choose to be thrown into a specific world, we are born without our choice or input. For Arendt, this is our earthliness and she emphasizes the difference between the human world and the given earth. With respect to the world, she highlights the connection to others from the start. Since others exist before the entrance of the newcomer, we also assume responsibility for their entry to the world. One must be educated into the world, which is not simply the earth, but the humanly constructed edifice that includes history and memory and the polis.
Dana Villa and Peg Birmingham suggest that Arendt replaces Heidegger’s “geworfen” with “geboren” (“thrown” with “born”). The passage from the Thought Diary above shows the complexity of this substitution and that it only works by changing the context to the world rather than earth. However, while the quote shows that Arendt relegates Heidegger’s thrownness to the realm of the earth and body, her own idea of “natality” brings the body back to her thinking of freedom. Being born is very important for Arendt, but not in Heidegger’s sense. If "werfen" can refer to animals giving birth, Arendt works out a specific way in which humans are born, one that emphasizes a liberating break from the earth. Humans, as Arendt will say in The Human Condition, are born with the ability to start something completely new.
I think Arendt would say that we are always guided in a certain way. This leads us to ask if today we are making a choice as a society to abdicate explicit reflection and responsibility regarding the terms of guidance, either by “outsourcing” these decisions to experts or assuming that individuals can still make rational choices in the face of corporations and institutions that carefully take advantage of cognitive limitations. In other words: In what ways are people guided into the world that we do not think about, and how could reflection help us here?
On the other hand, the note ends with an existential lament that reminds us of the Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin’s “weh mir” (“poor me”). After noting how she thinks Heidegger is wrong to see us thrown into the world, Arendt returns us to his despair; but the despair she imagines arises insofar as we are thrown into the world—which would mean that we lose the world as a humanly built home.
“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”
—Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?
This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference "Does the President Matter?", we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter? The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.
This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.
If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.
And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?
On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. -- That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. -- Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.
This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.
Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief. In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.
No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.
Every President comes to Washington promising reform! And they all fail. According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government's End:
If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.
On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: "The most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside."
A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:
The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.
The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible. All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.
For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.
The question "Does the President Matter?" is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt's maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d'etre of politics. In "What is Freedom?", Arendt writes:
“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”
So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: "Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”
What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.
The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.
When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.
Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is "the political virtue par excellence." To act in public is leave the security of one's home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt's favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.
Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one's ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.
One fascinating corollary of Arendt's understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.
This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:
Let's say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.
All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.
Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:
"Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. ... No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that."
My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.
What Ashcroft doesn't quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.
But only the leader's act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law. Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.
In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush's decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.
In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush's overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.
These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.
Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn't seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.
Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: "Does the President Matter?" is to ask: might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.
At the end of her essay, "What is Freedom?", Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.
Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.
It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.
I don't know if the president matters.
But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.
In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action--that is up to you. If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.
Watch Roger's opening talk from the conference, "Does the President Matter?" here.
What precisely do we mean when we use the term “genocide”? Has the word always been associated with the mass killing of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation? Or have there been alternative conceptions of genocide of which we should be aware?
These questions were at the heart of the Hannah Arendt Center’s latest Lunchtime Talk, which occurred amid picturesque snowfall on Wednesday, February 29th. The presenter was Douglas Irvin, a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers’ Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Irving's talk revolved around the work of the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959).
After escaping from Nazi-occupied Poland and lecturing at the University of Stockholm, Lemkin emigrated to the U.S., served as an advisor at the Nuremberg Trials, and played a central role in the passage of the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention. Indeed, Lemkin was the first public figure to use the term “genocide,” which he derived from the Greek root genus (family, race, or tribe) and the Latin root, cide (killing).
Lemkin and Arendt were contemporaries with overlapping experiences and interests, but they engaged very little with one another in print (aside, perhaps, from a few allusions and anonymous criticisms). Irvin contends that there are good reasons for this lack of dialogue, since the two differed significantly in their views of genocide and humanity more broadly.
On the one hand, Arendt regarded genocide as a historically recent outgrowth of modern totalitarianism. According to Irvin, this understanding was in keeping with her more general conception of the human cosmos, which ultimately emerged through, and was grounded in, individual interactions within the arena of the polis.
Lemkin, by contrast, regarded genocide as a much older phenomenon, one that was premised not on the destruction of individuals on the basis of their group affiliation, but rather on the annihilation of entire cultural traditions and collective identities. Drawing eclectically on the work of seventeenth-century Spanish theologians, romantic thinkers like Johann Gottfried von Herder, and anthropological understandings of cultures as integrated wholes, Lemkin ultimately defined genocide as a coordinated attack on the conditions that make the lives of nations and other collectivities possible.
In this conception, genocide does not necessarily or inevitably entail the mass killing of a group’s members, but rather turns on concerted efforts to obliterate that group’s institutions, language, religious observance, and economic livelihood. In Irvin’s argument, this approach resonated with the broadly communitarian nature of Lemkin’s thought: human existence was in his estimation defined by interactions between culture-bearing groups, and human freedom could ultimately be secured through the benevolent recognition and protection of cultural pluralism.
Significantly, the U.N. Genocide Convention that Lemkin championed did not incorporate many aspects of his thinking. His ideas encountered strong resistance from the U.S., U.K., and other imperial powers, many of which feared that their treatment of indigenous and colonial populations would qualify as genocide under the standards that Lemkin (and his collaborators) proposed. As a result, our current understanding of genocide is in no small part a byproduct of a diplomatic battle to redefine this legal category in a fashion that would encompass the Nazi Holocaust but not implicate other states (including several of the Allied powers that fought against Germany in World War II). This wrangling has also contributed to the minimal attention that has since been paid to Lemkin’s ideas, which were only rediscovered in a significant way in the early 1990s.
Douglas Irvin’s stimulating talk suggested that such inattention is unfortunate. Whatever one thinks of Lemkin’s effort to inscribe a form of cultural relativity into liberal international law, a more thoughtful understanding of his life and thought can only enrich our understanding of genocide’s career as a concept.
Click here to watch the Douglas Irvin lunchtime talk.
Last week I discussed Part One of Hannah Arendt's The Crisis in Culture, and the social importance of the crisis. As promised, this weeks Weekend Read offers you Part Two of Arendt's incredible reflections on politics and art.
The connection between politics and art is that artworks, if not the activity of the artist, always appear in public. Like words and deeds that appear on the political stage, artworks "can fulfill their own being, which is appearance, only in a world which is common to all." The public realm offers a space of appearance—an opportunity for display—to artworks that must, as works of art, appear and show themselves to others.
Culture, from the Latin colere—to cultivate, to dwell, to take care, to tend and preserve—is that political and aesthetic judgment that judges what political words and deeds and what works of art will be preserved, cared for, and cultivated in public. Politically understood, culture is an activity of judgment, so that "cultural things" can only be loved and preserved "within the limits set by the institution of the polis." In other words, the cultural critics and gatekeepers of culture must know which cultural products to cultivate in the political sphere.
Enjoy Part II of The Crisis in Culture which begins on page 211.
“I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, truly to love the world ... Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theories [the book that would become The Human Condition] Amor Mundi’”—Hannah Arendt
I am writing this in a tiny room in Brooklyn, sitting on a red leather chair at my desk next to a window which looks onto a garden. Above me, and across the entire wall I am facing, are shelves of books: each section of which I’ve assembled in accordance with a theme. Part of one shelf contains a history of the battle at Stalingrad, translations of Rilke, Cavafy and Rene Char, RB Onans’s The Origins of European Thought, Said’s Orientalism, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution each of which is relevant to, or footnoted by, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which I read during a business trip in Europe. In this room I do not allow food, television, music or clocks—anything that might divert my attention from writing—but I inadvertently had my phone in my pocket yesterday, and so the news reached me about the death of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.
We called each other Elisabeth and Steven whenever we met, but in my head and in conversation, first with fellow students of hers and later with professors and scholars, she was never Elisabeth or Young-Bruehl, but always the entire name Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in keeping with a certain gravitas, which surrounded her like an invisible fence. You could not cross that barrier without a special permit, a permit that, despite my many efforts, I was never able to obtain.
The grief I feel at Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s death is clearer because we were not friends, though, especially recently, we did travel in some of the same circles. We first met 29 years ago at Wesleyan University, at the College of Letters, where I was her student in a course on technology and philosophy. Her lectures displayed a penetrating understanding of what we might today call the Net Delusion: the dark side of freedom unleashed by technology. She was certainly the first person I ever heard speak about thinking global (she always pronounced the word with the stress on the second syllable to emphasize its importance); yet she was constantly flummoxed by the operation of her tape recorder. I once pointed what I thought was the humor in this situation, but Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did not find it even remotely funny. She was a formidable professor, projecting both a coldness (especially towards men) and a muscular intellectualism. It would not have been safe to “think aloud” or “free associate around an idea” in her class for she would cross-examine you without mercy. On the other hand, if you were prepared with notes and quoted sources precisely, she would suddenly remember your name and thank you for your contribution.
It was in her classes that I first read (first heard of) Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, whose work arrested my respect as no author had before or has done since. My admiration grew into awe as I read her works and as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl told us about Arendt’s life: her principled stance against Jewish fascism (in a letter she co-signed with Albert Einstein); her affair as a student with her married professor, and despite the fact that her husband was a communist, her love of fine dining.
It was about this time that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl became famous. Her biography of Hannah Arendt was published to near-universal acclaim, and I can still remember Peter Berger’s cover review in the New York Times Book Review featuring Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World proudly displayed in the entryway to the College of Letters.
Often when EYB walked on campus, she was surrounded (guarded?) by five or six women whose appearance and decibel levels of Sprechstimme I can only describe as “fierce.” But my desire to know more about Arendt was strong, and when EYB lectured on Hannah Arendt at Yale and NYC, I travelled to hear her. I went, in part, to slake my thirst for more information on Arendt but also to tell EYB how much her biography meant to me and how immersed I had become in her subject. But despite the fact that I was the only one of her students who attended the lectures away from Wesleyan, she rebuffed me and I retreated. One day, however, in New Haven, I’d forgotten to put gas in the car and was forced to ask her to lend me $10 so I could get back to school. I returned the money to her the next day with a thank you note and a pack of LifeSavers. She smiled, said nothing. My friends said she really didn’t like men, though I saw she made room for a few. I became a model student of hers, reading assigned books and even commentaries on them; I wrote tough, straightforward papers, in dense academic prose, with footnotes and translations; and I received high marks, but the admittance to her circle that I craved never arrived.
A few months later, I went to her office to discuss a paper, but she did not wish to discuss papers. Some elitist in the Academy had rejected an essay or book proposal she had proposed. “I don’t send them out if they’re not good anymore,” she said and then told me how she had toiled for five years writing Arendt’s biography and about the file cabinets of correspondence she had sorted through in doing so. The irony that she was complaining to me that she was not getting the recognition she deserved was not lost on me. Feeling she had opened the door onto exchanging confidences, I shared with her my recent decision to come out of the closet. She withdrew instantly, and said only, “Honey, it’s 1983, where have you been?” Another student was waiting to speak with her and I swallowed my feelings and left.
The intense pleasure I felt at being her student, at having studied philosophy at the hem of the garment of Arendt’s student, who was Heidegger’s student, who was Husserl’s student, was forever undercut by the frustration I felt whenever I actually found myself in the same room with her, and had to confront my inability to make friends with her. Not only were we not friends, but also I came to dislike her for the principal reason that I felt she did not like me. How petty and utterly formal that dislike was, I always knew. I thought my devotion would eventually win her over; I was wrong.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was an exceptional professor and I was not surprised when she became famous, though I was shocked by those who ascribed her fame to her exclusive access to Hannah Arendt’s archives, rather than the magisterial display of intelligence, sensitivity and restraint she brought to bear on her topic. Those of us familiar with Arendt’s life knew Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was much smarter than she was lucky: she was chosen by Hannah Arendt herself as her research assistant. EYB was the only one of Hannah Arendt’s students to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy under her tutelage, and had to write two theses because Arendt rejected her first work (on Heraclitus) and ‘suggested’ she write a second one (on Jaspers.) And at the time of Arendt’s death, Mary McCarthy-- the best friend, famous author and Arendt’s literary executrix—could easily have taken on the biography project, or given it to an experienced biographer, but she did not. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once told me, she had three strikes going in against her candidacy: unlike Arendt, she wasn’t Jewish, German was not her Muttersprach and she was not one of Hannah’s intimate friends. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was chosen for the promise of her brilliance, a promise she fulfilled magnificently.
When Hannah Arendt died, EYB was in her mid-thirties, and she wrote a biography that not only illuminated many of the most important ideas behind Arendt’s books, but one in which the intensely private Hannah Arendt seemed to leap from the pages: sending her housekeeper’s son to college with the proceeds of one of her books, debating with Hans Morgenthau on the editorial pages of the New York Times, and refusing Auden’s marriage proposal after a visit to his apartment during which Arendt blanched when witnessing a group of Auden’s friends share a single spoon while tasting and stirring their cups of coffee. But what I also admired most about Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book was the way she remained quietly in the background, so as not to distract her readers. EYB never names herself in the biography, though those of us who were her students discerned that many of the anecdotes illustrating Arendt’s intensely nurturing relationships with her students were, in fact, about the two of them.
It has been faithfully reported to me by the son of the former concertmaster of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, that during rehearsals the great maestro would wave his arms and gesticulate emphatically, often pantomiming his musical ideas, the better to illustrate them to his musicians. But during performances, Toscanini was entirely restrained, used miniscule gestures, and quipped that audiences should sweat, not conductors.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was the Toscanini of biographers, whose mastery of her subject included privileging graciousness over self-promotion, and she turned out a bravura performance. Such was the demand for her writing afterwards, Louisiana State University Press republished her novel Vigil later that same year.
Susan Sontag pointed out that there is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things. I will always wonder if, on some level, her colleagues’ resentment at her learning a second field motivated EYB to leave Wesleyan, where she was a revered and tenured professor. A few years after I graduated; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl took on the project of writing a biography of Anna Freud, and she enrolled at Yale, and became a clinical psychologist. You might not think this was such revolutionary choice for a woman of EYB’s extraordinary intelligence and accomplishments, but it was for Hannah Arendt’s student and biographer. In EYB’s words, Hannah Arendt “rejected psychological categories altogether” which meant that she held psychology with the same degree of barely concealed contempt as she did “the social,” “statistics,” and “economics”; phenomena which Arendt regarded more as symptoms of the breakdown of the polis, and the triumph of charm over greatness. It is widely reported by Hannah Arendt’s students that she “ate talk of psychology for breakfast.” Nevertheless, in the last years, I attended many of EYB’s lectures where she never failed say things like “as a clinician we say…” or “in the field of psychology this is termed…” as though she were still dealing with objections to her succeeding in yet a second career. David Schorr, who did the cover illustration for the Arendt biography, told me EYB was disappointed by what she learned about Anna Freud: hoping to write about a pioneer in the emerging field of psychology who was also a lesbian, EYB discovered that Anna Freud was not and, in fact, was even less tolerant than her father had been about same-sex love. The Anna Freud book, like the Arendt book before it, won awards and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl added psychology to her philosophy, and did it so well that she was recently appointed the editor of Donald Winnicott’s complete papers, a task that will now have to be completed by another.
As a professor, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had continuously astonished us with her ability to recognize the patterns of thought in the great philosophers. She could instantly identify the author of unattributed passages, and was at her most fascinating when pointing out why a given philosopher was incapable of conceptualizing this or that thought. I can only imagine the power of such a mind attuned to listening to her patients, and the patterns of their thoughts. She must have seemed uncommonly gifted and insightful, because she was uncommonly gifted and insightful.
By 1996, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had written An Anatomy of Prejudices, a book that, I believe, in time, will be seen as a seminal work, not in the least because of its Arendtian methods of drawing distinctions and bringing literally clinical thinking to the task of classifying prejudices. Prior to her work, all prejudice (singular) was regarded as a uniform mass of unexamined negative emotions as though they were all alike and shared a common point of origin. I can only imagine how furious she must have been when her work was extensively utilized by Andrew Sullivan in a major newspaper article, which sought to justify the removal of some section of the social net from underneath the underprivileged.
All the while, she continued to turn out books of breathtaking originality (Cherishment, Where Do We Fall When We Fall in Love, and Why Arendt Matters among her 11 books) and became increasingly preoccupied with the only topic I sensed was more dear to her than politics: love. I continued to follow her career, read her books, and eventually her blog. From her most recent writings I could tell she was deeply in love with her wife, Christine Dunbar and from our mutual friend Jerome Kohn I learned she was, at last, very happy. At this moment, the thought of her happiness is great solace to me. Once I sent her a letter acknowledging her profound influence, thanking her for teaching me to think, and enumerating all of the many ways I felt, and still feel, indebted to her. She wrote back, pointing out to me that my letter named my dog but not my Better Half, and made clear to me, in terms that were only fair, that I was to remain on the other side of her “gravitas.”
In choosing to become an analyst, and writing psychoanalytic books, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl showed her profound intellectual courage: recently, she even addressed Hannah Arendt’s disdain for her chosen field on her blog , postulating that it was understandable that Arendt, whose father died of syphilis when she was a child, and who famously guarded her private sphere, might have strong resistance to a field which focused so intently on early childhood experiences. And in a conference at Bard College in 2006, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt’s birth, she pointed out that recent historical research had revealed that “Eichmann was even more guilty than Arendt knew” with not-so-subtle reference to Arendt’s half-psychological, half-philosophical characterization of the Nazi logistics expert as “banal.”
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s public challenges to her very famous professor at first irked me, then made me think about the patterns of her life and thought and then finally confirmed for me what I had learned from her, first in her lectures and later through her many books: in order to be an Arendtian, she had to face up to and reveal the truth as she knew it, or else she would be sucked into mediocrity. When her truth led her into conflict with a small portion of Hannah Arendt’s thought, she did not run away; she analyzed the facts and stood her ground.
Her mentor often quoted the Ancient Roman saying fiat iusticia et pereat mundi, Let justice be done though the whole world may perish. In time I came to understand how Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, mutatis mutandis, came to embody the very ideals of her beloved and revered teacher, Hannah Arendt.
Even though I grieve that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has died, she will go on influencing me; here, in this tiny room where I am writing, and through the rest of my life, I will go on grieving that she is no longer with us to write more books, to illuminate the world and share the truth, in her courageous yet understated style. She was a bright and shining example of the life well-examined.
Steven Maslow is the Chairman of the Hannah Arendt Center Board, and a former student of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.