Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
26Apr/137

Imagine You Are a Nazi

ArendtWeekendReading

Werner Feig was a gifted teacher at my high school from whom I learned European History and Constitutional Law. Along with his colleague—the astounding and inspirational Eric Rothschild—Mr. Feig made sure that me and my fellow students loved history, not simply that we knew it. He also made us uncomfortable.

Feig lived history—fleeing Germany as a boy and growing up in the Hongkew Jewish ghetto of Shanghai, China. He later made his way to the U.S. where he earned Masters degrees in both education and political science, before settling down to teach high school social studies. He was a passionate teacher, and is rightly memorialized by his former student Aaron Sorkin, who has one "West Wing" character cite Feig as his inspiration for going into public service.

But Feig had an unusual way about teaching us to think and question authority. In my Constitutional Law class, he used to call me “Little Hitler.” Sometimes, along with other Jewish students, I was called versions of Berko-kyke. A Chinese colleague of mine was referred to as "no tick-ee no washee.” When another Asian student went to the chalkboard, we could hear our esteemed teacher mutter: "I need some Coolie labor now." A Jewish friend was “Shlomo.” And my sister, two years behind me, was “Little Hitler’s sister.” There were worse names as well.

Hearing these epithets at the time was bracing. But it was also provocative—in the best sense. Mr. Feig got us thinking. He was teaching us Constitutional Law and Free Speech, and forcing us above all to think about the power of words as well as the right, his right, to use them. It was a powerful lesson, one that has never left me. I can safely say that Mr. Feig’s classroom was one of the most intellectually infectious I have ever experienced. He is, for me, one of that select group of teachers on whom I model my own teaching. Teaching, he showed me, should be free to provoke in the name of thinking. Indeed, it must.

thinki desk

I’ve been thinking about Werner Feig a lot this past week, ever since I came across a NY Times article about a high school teacher in Albany who has been suspended for asking his students to write an essay arguing that Jews are evil. The assignment was thought to be so awful a breach of teaching judgment that the school district refuses to release the name of the teacher. Here is the Times' account:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.

“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The reaction to the assignment has been—with very few exceptions—highly negative. Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, the superintendent of schools in Albany, fully repudiated the teacher: “Obviously, we have a severe lack of judgment and a horrible level of insensitivity. That’s not the assignment that any school district, and certainly not mine, is going to tolerate.” Jewish organizations swung into action, joining the superintendent at a press conference. The Anti-Defamation League will run sensitivity training workshops.

New York City Councilman David Greenfield went further and insisted the teacher be fired. In a statement, Greenfield writes: "The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs. Quite obviously, this teacher lacks the judgment and common sense necessary to have a position of such great responsibility and is clearly not fit to return to the classroom."

The press too has jumped on this story, making it a national news item, covered on all the networks and in papers around the country. Writing on Jezebel, David Barry made a feint in the direction of understanding the value of such an assignment, but then about-faced and concluded:

However, nothing ever good comes from pretending that you’re a Nazi, and there is literally an infinite number of FAR BETTER persuasive writing prompts, such as, “Convince me that you, a human high school student, are actually a glass of apple cider,” or “Convince me that you’re an acorn that is running for the mayor of Oakton on an anti-squirrel platform. Make me believe that you despise squirrels.” The Nazi prompt isn’t just bigoted writing assignment — it’s also a cheap trick, a way to stir up the volatile psyches of high school students in an effort to engage them in a task that they hate, namely, writing essays.

Reading about this assignment and the heated reaction it elicited, my first reaction was to think back to Mr. Feig. Would his style of teaching simply be impossible today? Do we really live in a world in which a teacher is unable to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of evil people? Are we so far down the road of thou-shalt-not-offend that we simply cannot tolerate the exercise and effort to think from the perspective of those with whom we disagree or even those whose opinions we view as intolerable?

The outrage in Albany also brought to my mind the recent debate over gun control. For many on the left, the Newtown tragedy was an unanswerable wakeup call for gun control. I get that. As I wrote shortly after Newtown, the fact that one person without any assistance could do so much damage with automatic weapons is good reason to regulate automatic weapons. We will never stop killing. And we will never stop killing with guns. But when one crazy person can kill dozens or potentially hundreds with high-powered guns, we should work to keep such guns out of the hands of unstable people.

gun

At the same time, I understand and respect the strong attachment that many people have to guns. Some love to hunt. Others see guns as a symbol of their freedom. In a world where people feel powerless and vulnerable, owning a weapon offers a feeling of power (real or fictional). I respect that need. It is part of the beauty of America that we imbue in people the desire to feel powerful. That is the genius of democracy: that every individual matters. At a time when most people feel alienated from our broken democracy, guns can become a crutch. I may wish people found other symbols of their power, but I do get why owning a gun is meaningful. There are times when I want one myself.

What the gun control fiasco in Congress illustrates is how neither side made any effort to really understand the other. Actually, it is worse than that. Partisans of gun control are vitriolic in their baiting of those who will argue against gun control. Gun advocates are at times even worse, as the crosshairs scandal around the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made clear. The ill will and disgust that proponents of both positions have for the other was palpable in every editorial and every argument. In short, for advocates and opponents of gun control, the other side was so stupid and wrong and evil as to be simply incomprehensible.

Which brings me back to the unnamed teacher in Albany who has been disciplined and shamed and abandoned for asking high school students to put themselves in the place of an official during the Nazi government. Such an official might well be asked to write such a memo. The students in the school had been studying Nazi propaganda in school. They were about to read Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. Doesn’t it make sense in this context to push students to understand how it might be that Nazi’s did what they did?

For Hannah Arendt, political thinking demands the practice of enlarged thinking, of thinking from the position of those who are absent. She writes: “Political thought is representative. I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoint of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” She does not mean that in political thinking we think what others think, but that the first requirement of political life—a life alongside others with whom one often disagrees—is to seek to think from their point of view. To have a chance of convincing someone they are wrong, you must first understand that person’s argument in its strongest and most compelling sense. Only then, also, can you respond to those with whom you disagree as human beings.

When I teach The Origins of Totalitarianism, I emphasize Arendt’s insistence that we must not simply condemn antisemitism (we must do that too) but ask as well what are the logical and rational reasons why modern antisemitism could lead to the holocaust? It is not an accident, nor is it irrational, she argues, but has something to do with the way that Jewish separateness and distinction exists in a problematic way in the modern world that demands equal treatment.  Such questions are uncomfortable and she does not ask them to excuse antisemitism, but to understand its modern power.  Students regularly come to see the benefit of such queries, made even more difficult when I extend the discussion to ask after the rationales for the continued relevance of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Luckily for me, my students understand the value of this exercise and don’t condemn me as a racist or antisemite.

It is easy to say that Nazis are not human beings and that the effort to understand them is, itself, immoral. That is the argument the Albany superintendent made. It is the same argument that leads many to say that racists are inhuman and that all bigots are sub-human. But to comprehend is not the same as to agree. Rather, as Arendt writes in the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, comprehension is the prerequisite for resistance.

origins

Of the many responses I found to the suspension of the Albany school teacher, only one defended him. Writing on the CNN Belief Blog, Stephen Prothero of Boston University told of his experience teaching Nazi theology who taught that Jews were evil and were responsible for killing Christ, amongst other antisemitic slanders. He writes:

First, I wanted my students to realize that smart Christians with doctoral degrees supported the Holocaust. Second, I wanted them to grapple with the implications of this fact on their own religious commitments. Do Christians today have any responsibility to know this history and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again? If so, how can they exercise that responsibility without coming to understand the contours of Nazi thought?

Prothero reminds me of the importance of teachers like Werner Feig. He offers a thoughtful and compelling argument for why we need to challenge our young people with precisely the kinds of assignments that have been rejected in Albany. The scandal in Albany may prove that such teaching is simply no longer be possible today. If that is true, it is for the worse. To help see why, I commend to you Stephen Prothero’s defense of teaching Nazi theology. It is your weekend read.

-RB

6Feb/130

“If”

My girlfriend and I walked by a clothing storefront and noticed the print on some of the t-shirts at the lower right corner of the window and went in. She had mentioned this Imaginary Foundation (IF) before. They make print t-shirts.

I went to school at an expensive liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley—everyone there makes print t-shirts. It is like a business you start as a college sophomore as a way to convince yourself that you are a ‘creative entrepreneur’ before you enter the corporate world (or, alternatively, as a penance for inherited culture and comfort) the not-for-profit world.

Often, I cannot stand them —the print t-shirts. There is something out of shape about them, as if the juxtaposition of body/shirt/image, sets askew some intrinsic agreement in the marriage of fashion and identity. And yet, the IF designs spoke to me. There is something dreamy and yet sincere about these prints. If le petit prince was looking for a print t-shirt, he would buy one of these.

It just so happened that the owner of the company was visiting this Seattle distributor and was in the store. He was awkward, skittish and European. I liked him, and before we left I told him that I blog for a thinking and humanities institute out east and may want to write about his brand. That’s how I got into the Imaginary Foundation.

The shirts are not exactly ‘pretty,’ or ‘fashionable,’ rather, their attraction is a gesture beyond themselves -- a rare feat in a culture that positions branding as the apex of success. I’ll describe one shirt and if interested you can invest your own time in the Imaginary Foundation.

The “Being There” shirt has three anonymous human heads (one of the cloud suit, one of the water suit, and one of the fire suit). The heads are in peripheral view and are aligned, with a slight skew (allowing us the view of all three faces), as they break through a wall, the veil of the universe.

Other shirts handle concepts of psychosis and love “Love Science,” science and discovery in a reach towards heaven “Reach,” and other such concepts widely considered esoteric or cliché within the lens of our popular culture. But, we no longer understand what a ‘cliché’ is. I have long held the view that a cliché is a truth, or a point of interest and perspective insight, that has simply been worn out by overexposure. But who has worn it out? How have we taken the liberty and quiet pleasure of the private sphere (the realms of reflection, contemplation, meditation as it is thought of in the Greek terms), out of our living cycle, our consciousness, our daily existence? Why is the call for private contemplation no longer a necessity of existence? It seems we should have more time then ever for such practices. So many of our daily chores, our basic needs, are met through the economic matrix. I no longer have to chop wood for warmth, hunt a boar for food, trek down to the river for a water simply, etc... Why shouldn’t I spend more time in private contemplation, or even public conversation on these more subtle topics of the human necessity? Why shouldn’t I be making something in an effort to communicate those private necessities? The actualization of the humanist requires space for such a practice. And yet, anything that requires a slowing down of, a calling for the work of the mind and private reasoning, is now, quite often immediately, labeled a cliché.

In The Human Condition Arendt writes “The emancipation of labor and the concomitant emancipation of the laboring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly means progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that it was also progress in the direction of freedom.” She is not saying that laboring classes should not have been emancipated. Rather, that the humanist goal has been blurred by some glitch. Instead of moving towards freedom from wasteful labor (a waste of human power -- physical, mental, spiritual) we instead have emancipated labor. Most of us have become imprisoned in a non-sustainable cycle that for the continuation of its forward motion requires an ever-increasing consumption and waste. This waste can be seen in terms of power. The core power of the human psyche originates in the liberty of free private thoughts—a psychological space for contemplation. A mapping of one’s stillness that is only possible in the acquisition of free time. Free time is a result of freedom from labors necessity. What Arendt’s thoughts gesture towards is that the set of basic necessities that we have been freed from, have been replaced by another, far more complicated and disguised set—the necessity to perpetuate a system that is moving much faster then us; a necessity to consume and continue consuming. To be ‘a part of‘ is, today, to be a consumer—to take ones place in the labor of waste.

Oh right, I wanted to tell you about a product...

“IF” is a creative project. It gains the viewers attention and borrows the imagination. This is a beginning. It does not steal, it borrows. It suggests the prospect of resonance rather than ownership.

I checked out the company website. The “about” page describes the development of the Imaginary Foundation: “a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. They hold dear a belief in human potential and seek progress in all directions.” The page is dotted with black and white images from the sixties, shaggy haired men and turtle-neck clad women engaged in contemplative, laissez-faire, light spirited dialogue. The imaginary director of the foundation is described as a “70-something uber-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement.” The foundation is imaginary. It is a base, a canvas, for the products (the t-shirts) and the ideas behind them.

The blog section of the site imagines a list of contributors: Isadore Muggll, Kamilla Rousseau, etc. These architects, as is the back story, are too imaginary. “IF” is a fictional foundation for the product. But the product is real and engaging.

What is captured here goes beyond the tangible properties of the product (t-shirts). It is about what the product delivers—the wonder of creativity and science, the archetypes of the IF.  Imagination IS the foundation of this product.

The blog itself is a venue for artists who marry technology and art, as well as other thought provoking materials. The image I use at the head of this article is taken from the blog. Cloud, idea, light, community, play—IF: all these are represented in the Cloud installation. This art installation is a discovery I am brought to by the Imaginary Foundation.

I once taught a course on the development of contemporary advertising, heavily focused on Edward Bernays and the peripheral route of persuasion. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Woodrow Wilson’s image advisor, the father of the term "Public Relations," and the architect of the torches of freedom (Lucky Strikes) campaign, among many others. His theory, though terribly simplified here, was that the modern consumer does not purchase with his mind; rather, he defers to his emotions in most choices. The rational-actor is a fiction. If consumerism became god, branding became its religion.

Ad campaigns have become remarkably creative, and even, at times, beautiful. Have you ever felt the urge to cry during a Jeep commercial? Many have. I think I have. The central conceptual premise of the AMC show Mad Men, depends upon this tension: between art and consumption; the rendering from black and white, to color; the effective marketing and selling off of the human experience. In question is the art aspect of advertising. It is at the core of Don Draper’s motivations, and the one that despite his many character failings keeps endearing him to us. Ultimately we are asking, will he reconcile his artistic urge (his private motivation) with his office at the homunculus of the consumerism model (his role in the corporate arena). Exposed is a manipulation, an incongruence, an infidelity in the marriage of advertising and art. Where as art points towards something beyond itself, beyond even the image and the medium, the ad campaign points only to one purpose—back into itself. No idea behind it. Nothing living. It consumes.

Advertising is like the Ouroboros, the dragon that swallows its own tail; having entirely swallowed itself, the modern advertising campaign defies the laws of balance, it is only the un-relentless, hungry serpent head of consumption -- devoid of the body of life. The only urge driving it is to possess.

It is the difference between the work of Egon Schiele and Penthouse, the writings of Georges Bataille and a godaddy.com super bowl campaign.

Seduce ->consume. This is the current mandate of the ad campaign. But this relationship is only sustainable through incompletion. It requires continual doses. Seduce -> consume -> feel a lack even in the possession of product (contract unfulfilled) -> be seduced again -> consume. Ad infinitum. A terrible loop.

How can consumerism and individual consciousness (the most private sector) be made sustainable? Is it possible for a product to speak beyond itself? To fulfill the promise of its persuasion? And if it could, what would that mean for us?

Here I position the word sustainability to face two directions. In part it refers to what Arendt terms as “worldly,” the creation produced through work and not labor, something that has the potential to last beyond the productions of time, something that maneuvers into the arena of the eternal. I also want to posit the word in terms of its evolving contemporary potential. The one sector of the public, and political sphere that allows for the platform of this conversation is the environmental movement. It is where we have begun to contemplate the world beyond the shortsighted view of individual lifetimes. We speak of the sustainability of our planet; we are considering new ways to move our habits from wasteful and consumptive, towards lasting and sustainable power. It is a fairly new conversation and the word “sustainability” is evolving with each new perspective we bring to it.

Sustainability goes beyond consumer awareness. It is about the awareness of the product, how a brand gains consciousness. I need to explore here a definition of “consciousness.”

I have come to understand definitions as ever evolving in accordance with society and the pressures put upon it by the conditions of the time, the fractals of our world (more simply put, the culture stew).

Consciousness is the expanding of space into which one can resonate. To learn of the world around us, to acknowledge it, to consider its multiple dimensions, is to become more conscious -- to create space into which we can move by the will of our imagination and invention.

The Imaginary Foundation is an example of this bridge. It acknowledges itself and its fiction. It allows for play. It is a small company that uses the fabrication of its narrative to bring the consumers attention to the mimetic principles behind its product. Revealing the architects conceit brings me (the consumer) into co-authorship of the story. It endears itself to me. We do not only consume the product. We consume the narrative of the product. Even if I do not purchase, if I am thinking about it, I am talking about it, I have bought in. If it generates new ideas and deeper order thoughts, then I have begun to take ownership of the product. I consume the myth, I begin to co-author it -- I don it in the neural network of culture. And thus the product has gained consciousness, has begun to be carried beyond the object -- it resonates.

My study of this product is limited. I am not encouraging anyone here to purchase a shirt. I have not purchased a shirt. What I think this opens up is a table for negotiations between the current consumerism model, and individual consciousness—an opportunity to examine sustainable consumerism in all implications.

-Nikita Nelin