We were prepared Monday night at the Hannah Arendt Center's NYC hideout, huddled together with candles and a portable radio, as we toasted the storm over dinner with neighbors and friends. Thankfully, the Arendt Center's two homes at Bard College and in upper NYC both escaped the wrath of the hurricane. Many of our supporters and friends were not so lucky. Bard's High School/Early Colleges in lower Manhattan and Newark have suffered greatly. People's lives have been disrupted and many who are older or immobile are stranded without power, heat, and water as the temperatures drop. Our hearts and thoughts go out to all who are struggling to salvage homes, stay warm, and put your lives back together. We hope soon that you can return to normal lives.
When nature roars and our lives are disrupted, the question of normalcy comes to the fore. People want to get back to normal. We all do. It is amazing to me how important normalcy is. This is especially true when one has children. Routines govern our lives and also help structure our days. They give to the cruel world a patina of safety, predictability, and control. Even more than the learning my daughter does in school or the teaching I returned to at Bard on Tuesday, our daily life routines assert our control over our lives. Humans are creative creatures and we build the world in which we live. Moments when nature and life assert themselves remind us that we are also earthy creatures, whose mastery over the world is as incomplete as it is tenuous.
As I wish you all a return to normalcy, I am aware that for some of you there is a kind of joy or even elation amidst the chaos. As much as we yearn for normal life, it is more often the comradeship found in extremis that stands out as the happiest and most meaningful moments of our lives.
Hannah Arendt knew this fellowship of disaster all-too well. A Jew in Germany, she was arrested twice, first in Germany and then later in France. She lived through Nazism and McCarthyism as well as the early days of the Atomic Bomb. Few knew as deeply as she did the need for the secure place of a home, a private place where one could live securely, in private, and think in solitude. The walls of our homes as well as the walls that encircle our cities and nations are, Arendt saw, essential foundations for human life. They structure our private lives and offer a space for public engagement.
And yet Arendt worried too about the numbing effects of normal life and glorified the experience of public action that accompanies natural as well as man-made catastrophes. In writing of the French resistance after the war, she was acutely aware of the way that tragedy could and often did open the door to human action. She writes of the French resistance fighters:
The collapse of France, to them a totally unexpected event, had emptied, from one day to the next, the political scene of their country, leaving it to the puppet-like antics of knaves or fools, and they who as a matter of course had never participated in the official business of the Third Republic were sucked into politics as though with the force of a vacuum. Thus, without premonition and probably against their conscious inclinations, they had come to constitute willy-nilly a public realm where - without the paraphernalia of officialdom and hidden from the eyes of friend and foe - all relevant business in the affairs of the country was transacted in deed and word.
In the midst of disaster, the French resistance found the joy of public action, of fighting and risking their lives for something that mattered. And during this struggle, the poet Rene Char saw the paradoxical situation, that the tragedy of French defeat and the victory of the Nazi's—events that not only disrupted his normal and everyday existence but threatened his life—had given his life more meaning than it had ever had. In the midst of the conflict, Char wrote: "If I survive, I know that I shall have to break with the aroma of those essential years, silently reject (not repress) my treasure".
In other words, Char knew that the treasure of public freedom found in resistance—the experience of acting publicly in meaningful and surprising ways, and thus the experience of freedom—was incompatible with a return to normal life. Once the horror of the war ended, so too would the weightiness of a life in which freedom and action were everyday experiences. And that was indeed the case. As Arendt writes: "After a few short years they were liberated [...] and thrown back into what they now knew to be the weightless irrelevance of their personal affairs."
It is something else for those who do not return, as many did not during the war and as many will not in the deadly wake of Hurricane Sandy. For them and their loved ones there is pain and loss. For the rest of us, there is normal life.
As we return, thankfully, to the welcome weightlessness of our personal lives, many of us will carry with us the aroma of even brief moments of communal fellowship, when we helped a stranger, overcame flood waters, snuggled in blankets and layers of clothes to stay warm, or struggled to start a generator. These moments, sometimes painful and even dangerous, will, if we are fortunate, become memories of our resilience and human capacities, often forgotten, to make do in extreme situations.
For those with time to reflect on the storm, here are a few of the best writings I have come across this week from those trying to make sense and find solace amidst the storm.
Walter Russell Mead has an exceptional essay reflecting on the power of nature and the fragility of human life.
But events like this don’t come out of nowhere. Sandy isn’t an irruption of abnormality into a sane and sensible world; it is a reminder of what the world really is like. Human beings want to build lives that exclude what we can’t control — but we can’t.
Hurricane Sandy is many things; one of those things is a symbol. The day is coming for all of us when a storm enters our happy, busy lives and throws them into utter disarray. The job on which everything depends can disappear. That relationship that holds everything together can fall apart. The doctor can call and say the test results are not good. All of these things can happen to anybody; something like this will happen to us all.
Somewhere in the future, each of us has an inescapable appointment with irresistible force. For each one of us, the waters will someday rise, the winds spin out of control, the roof will come off the house and the power will go out for good.
Alex Koppelmann reminds us of "Sandy's Forgotten," in an essay on the residents of The Baruch House, a public housing project that has been deeply impacted by the storm.
The people who live at the Baruch Houses were supposed to have evacuated before Sandy hit. Some did. Many did not, though, often because they had no good place to go. They are still there, without power, water, or any visible help from any government agency; city, state, or federal—other than some people from the city Housing Authority who’d come by to pump water out of flooded basements. Everywhere you walk in the neighborhood, fire hydrants have been turned into makeshift wells, with lines of people waiting, bottles and jugs in hand.
Downtown, hundreds of thousands of people remain without power. Many of them—usually those who live in buildings that stand six stories or higher, and there are plenty of those—are without running water as well. Public transportation remains limited. The subway is not running below Thirty-fourth Street, and on Wednesday night the M.T.A. temporarily suspended all bus service below Twenty-third Street; given their explanation of that decision, it seems likely that service will be suspended at night for as long as downtown remains dark. There are still very few ways for the people who live down there to get information about their situation—there is little or no cell phone service, and, of course, there is no television without electricity, though there are pay phones and some people, presumably, have battery-powered radios, though who knows how long those will last—so some are still wandering the streets inquiring of anyone who might know something. And it’s getting cold; temperatures dipped into the low forties overnight, and they’re not supposed to top the low fifties today.
The people I saw around the Baruch Houses seemed upbeat, an attitude noted by Reverend Leo Lawrence, who works at the nearby Dewitt Reformed Church. “It seems to me that it’s the first time I’ve seen so much cooperation between people, stores, everything,” he said. “It’s much more neighborly.” He thought most would try to wait the situation out. Asked why he hadn’t evacuated, he seemed surprised at the question. “Where would I go?” he asked.
Michael Specter makes the connection between Hurricane Sandy and climate change:
Some people will deny anything that displeases or scares them: unusual pain in their chests, unwanted lumps beneath their skin, or the fact that humans share ancestry with apes are a few examples. Another is climate change. There are people who could watch a hurricane like Sandy blow out of the Atlantic every other day and blame it on anything but human activity. They are like those who, having been diagnosed with diabetes, eat donuts for breakfast. There’s not much to do about them.
Unfortunately, that leads us to another type of denialism, more understandable, but possibly just as pernicious: the refusal to accept that we are edging up to the point where extraordinary measures will be required to lessen the impact of a climactic disaster. The best way to deal with climate change has been obvious for years: cut greenhouse-gas emissions severely. We haven’t done that. In 2010, for example, carbon emissions rose by six per cent—the largest such increase on record. (The data for 2011 is not yet final, but most researchers believe the numbers have continued their upward arc.)
Roger Pielke Jr. refutes those who are too quick to assert that we are suffering a spike in extreme weather events.
To put things into even starker perspective, consider that from August 1954 through August 1955, the East Coast saw three different storms make landfall—Carol, Hazel and Diane—that in 2012 each would have caused about twice as much damage as Sandy.
While it's hardly mentioned in the media, the U.S. is currently in an extended and intense hurricane "drought." The last Category 3 or stronger storm to make landfall was Wilma in 2005. The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.
Then again, Pielke's numbers may be quite wrong, as Mark Zandi suggests today. I give you Pielke's essay not because of his climate change skepticism, but rather as one example of the ways people are trying to make sense of the world in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. For those affected by the storm, we here at the Hannah Arendt Center wish you and your loved ones a quick return to normal life.
I am adding this essay by the painter Allen Hirsch, which appeared Saturday, November 3.
The chill and gloom in the air of our SoHo loft had made little difference to my daughter (“Daddy, when will I have Facebook?!”), although now, after two days, the desperation in her voice was slowly changing to resignation. This has been the longest period in her teenage life without an Internet connection. I shrugged my shoulders in the candlelight. I myself was as cut off as she was and had no way of knowing.
The blackout reminded many of us of how drastically the Internet and our myriad electronic devices have changed our lives. When the lights went out, we felt ourselves also losing power, as if we were part of the same flowing electricity that lit up the city.
Losing this power, however, also reminded my daughter and me of what we have left. Having “nothing better to do” can be a meaningful and sobering experience. While the darkness made us feel our vulnerabilities, it also illuminated the possibilities that we forgot were always within it.
“Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
-Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics
“Our inheritance was left to us by no testament”
-Hannah Arendt, quoting René Char, Between Past and Future
In his acceptance speech, the recipient of the 1997 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought wondered why he of all people had been chosen for it. He was, he said, a pragmatist, a practitioner of politics, not a political thinker. At the time he was already a prominent figure in contemporary politics: as a courageous pastor in the GDR who did not shy away from conflict with the regime, as a participant in the freedom movement of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, since 1990, as the Federal Commissioner for the newly created Stasi Archives, which was tasked with processing the history and crimes of the socialist dictatorship. This man, the winner of the 1997 Arendt prize, is the recently elected German Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck . [Under the German constitution, the President is the country’s highest representative, while the Chancellor is the head of government and most influential political figure in the German parliamentary democracy (Angela Merkel currently holds the latter position).]
The connection between Arendt and the highest office of the German government makes sense only in light of its oddity and of the unorthodox character of Joachim Gauck. His comment in the acceptance speech that he is a political practitioner rather than a political thinker marks a striking difference between himself and Arendt. One could say, however, that Gauck’s political actions largely constitute the realization of a political understanding that Arendt herself theoretically and conceptually developed. Their shared center of gravity can be formulated in a sentence from Arendt’s “Introduction into Politics”: “The meaning of politics is freedom.”
It is fitting, in a certain way, that the intellectual correspondence between Arendt and Gauck is least to be found in his text Plea for Freedom. This small book, published shortly before his election, can be read as the manifesto of his presidency. The book, divided into the three chapters “Freedom,” “Responsibility,” and “Tolerance” preaches more than it reflects. Generalized talk of “the soul,” and of supposed anthropological constants such as “the human psyche,” or the universal desire for happiness and healing overshadows the knowledge upon which the book is based: that politics comes out of plurality and exists in the living modes of “relatedness.”
When writing serves to express a political program, it becomes a part of the process of political action. Action and thought cannot occur simultaneously, Arendt notes. Thought and consideration become possible only when action has become history-- that is, when it has been completed and can be retold as a story and reflected upon.
Joachim Gauck’s best texts are distinguished by the fact that they are written out of personal experience. They speak from the perspective of an “I” that knows that political speech must be concrete and therefore limited. The more I generalize, the farther I distance myself from the solid ground of the facts. For a theologian, this may not be self-evident. In his acceptance speech for the Arendt prize, Gauck does not pay lip service to the prize’s eponym-- as did so many of those to whom Arendt became “hip” after 1989-- by claiming her as the inspiration for his political actions during the dictatorship. Rather, he recognizes his own lapse in not studying Arendt’s texts at the right time. He sees it as a failure to confront the intuitive striving and fighting for freedom with “conceptual clarity and precision,” quoting Arendt’s On Revolution.
Does this lack of conceptual clarity point to a romanticization which placed (the self-perceptions of) personal actions in the world of wishful thinking instead of in the world of facts, Gauck asked? The question is directed at himself and his contemporaries. “Did it suffice to have an opinion about reality, whose facts I hadn’t thoroughly developed?” he reflects with reference to Arendt in his afterword to the Blackbook of Communism (1998). I individually can hold an opinion, almost like philosophically wise thoughts or words; facts, on the other hand, are political, since I always share them with others. Arendt formulated it thus in Truth and Politics: “Factual truth is always related to other people [...]. It is political by nature.”
This understanding of the eminently political quality of facts shaped Joachim Gauck’s work as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-Archives. Perhaps this constitutes the greatest accomplishment of his life: Gauck’s work secured the documents and archived materials without which the history of the SED-dictatorship and its repressive apparatuses could not have been written.
In the months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of citizens and members of opposition groups occupied the headquarters of the state secret police in East Berlin and other cities of the GDR. The Stasi had already begun to destroy documents on a large scale. Approximately 130 miles of files were saved, where 3 feet of files could contain up to 10,000 pages. The Stasi had collected approximately 6 million personal files-- 4 million on citizens of the GDR, 2 million on citizens of the old Bundesrepublik. What was to be done with such a legacy?
Many demanded that the files be closed or even destroyed in the interest of “national peace.” One could expect such a vote from former GDR elites, who could be prosecuted or face moral discredit if the files were made public. But even reputable social-democratic politicians like Egon Bahr and, out of quite different motives, the West German secret service, wanted to prevent the Stasi files from becoming publicly accessible.
The “inherited burden of dictatorship,” Gauck called this legacy in his Memoirs (2009). It is an inheritance left with no testament, one could say with Arendt and René Char. It is an inheritance without precedent, for which a legal, political, moral, and historiographic procedure had to be found before any work could begin. Joachim Gauck, along with more than 3000 staff members, created the blueprints for dealing with the material. Since 1990, victims of Stasi persecution, as well as the media and researchers, are able to read and study the files of the state surveillance apparatus.
The fact that this is now possible cannot be taken for granted. Since the transition to democracy, other countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania have decided against opening their archives. In Germany, it’s one of Gauck’s major accomplishments to have successfully carried out the demand of the East Germany democracy movement to make the Stasi files publicly accessible.
The Federal Commission for the Stasi-Archives is now a permanent institution in Germany. The commission is internationally respected, and stands as a symbol for Germany’s way of dealing and coming to terms with dictatorship after 1989. The legal and administrative character of the commission, and the basis of its success, is largely thanks to Joachim Gauck’s capacity for political judgment, as he was the first director of the Commission from 1990 to 2000. Gauck, the unconventional political activist from the Baltic, recruited a legal and data protection expert from Bavaria as an administrator, to help carry out the revolutionary civil movement’s lofty goal of universal access to the records. The two persistently maintained this political demand in the face of the reservations and greediness of West German administration and political parties. Gauck recognized that the new Commission for the Stasi Archives would have to fit into the institutional structure of West Germany, and that this framework had to be confronted without naivete or arrogance.
During and since the first national elections in unified Germany in 1990, naivete and arrogance towards the power of established parties and institutions relegated almost all of the East German opposition groups to political meaninglessness. The widespread feeling that the momentum of political freedom was too quickly muted by, and swallowed up into the institutional structure of West Germany burdens the unification process to this day. The Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives is one of the few achievements in which something truly politically new came out of the momentum of freedom in 1989.
The election of Joachim Gauck connects the memory of this founding moment of political freedom with the highest office in Germany—which is delightful, but also feels incongruous. It may also appear incongruous to many that Gauck is the first nominee in Germany’s post-war history who was not elected President directly from another high political office. Since 2000, Gauck has worked for foundations, and as a free-lance writer and lecturer. He is less a man of the political class than a political man. This symbolic fact is one that might have interested Hannah Arendt.
with Anne Posten
Thomas Wild will begin teaching at Bard in the fall and will join the Hannah Arendt Center as a Research Associate.