Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?
[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.
The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”
The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:
Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.
The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.
As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”
The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:
His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”
The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”
Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.
If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.
“Having said this, I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
“Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
—Hannah Arendt citing Conor Cruise O’Brien, On Violence
Nelson Mandela gave one of the great speeches of 20th century at his trial before the South African Supreme Court in Pretoria in 1964. Mandela’s speech is best remembered for the ringing conclusion in which he articulates the ideals of free and democratic life as that “ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Six months after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech” from the Mall in Washington, DC, Mandela ended his own speech before being sentenced to life imprisonment with these words:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Mandela died yesterday and he will be rightly remembered for both his vision and his courage.
I want to focus on another aspect of his legacy, however, the question of violence. Often forgotten by those who quote only the final paragraph of Mandela’s speech, much of his speech is an exploration of the need for and proper revolutionary use of violence. Indeed, after a brief introduction in which Mandela reminds the Court that he holds a bachelor’s degree, that he is a lawyer, and that he was raised to revere his tribal forebears who fought in defense of their fatherland, he comes to the question of violence. “Having said this,” he says, “I must deal immediately and at some length with the question of violence.”
What follows is one of the most thoughtful and subtle reflections on the strategic and moral complications of violence we have. It is worth citing at length, and even this summary barely does Mandela justice. But here is Mandela’s argument for a limited campaign of violence in response to the violence of the South African state:
I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites.
I admit immediately that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, and that I played a prominent role in its affairs until I was arrested in August 1962….
In order to explain these matters properly, I will have to explain what Umkhonto set out to achieve; what methods it prescribed for the achievement of these objects, and why these methods were chosen. I will also have to explain how I became involved in the activities of these organisations.
I deny that Umkhonto was responsible for a number of acts which clearly fell outside the policy of the organisation, and which have been charged in the indictment against us. I do not know what justification there was for these acts, but to demonstrate that they could not have been authorised by Umkhonto, I want to refer briefly to the roots and policy of the organisation.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
But the violence which we chose to adopt was not terrorism…..
I must return to June 1961. What were we, the leaders of our people, to do? Were we to give in to the show of force and the implied threat against future action, or were we to fight it and, if so, how?
We had no doubt that we had to continue the fight. Anything else would have been abject surrender. Our problem was not whether to fight, but was how to continue the fight. We of the ANC had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this court to understand, but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence - of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country - and we, the leaders of the ANC, had nevertheless always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in May and June of 1961, it could not be denied that our policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing, and that our followers were beginning to lose confidence in this policy and were developing disturbing ideas of terrorism.
It must not be forgotten that by this time violence had, in fact, become a feature of the South African political scene. There had been violence in 1957 when the women of Zeerust were ordered to carry passes; there was violence in 1958 with the enforcement of cattle culling in Sekhukhuniland; there was violence in 1959 when the people of Cato Manor protested against pass raids; there was violence in 1960 when the government attempted to impose Bantu authorities in Pondoland. Thirty-nine Africans died in these disturbances. In 1961 there had been riots in Warmbaths, and all this time the Transkei had been a seething mass of unrest. Each disturbance pointed clearly to the inevitable growth among Africans of the belief that violence was the only way out - it showed that a government which uses force to maintain its rule teaches the oppressed to use force to oppose it. Already small groups had arisen in the urban areas and were spontaneously making plans for violent forms of political struggle. There now arose a danger that these groups would adopt terrorism against Africans, as well as whites, if not properly directed. Particularly disturbing was the type of violence engendered in places such as Zeerust, Sekhukhuniland, and Pondoland amongst Africans. It was increasingly taking the form, not of struggle against the government - though this is what prompted it - but of civil strife amongst themselves, conducted in such a way that it could not hope to achieve anything other than a loss of life and bitterness.
At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.
This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the government had left us with no other choice. In the Manifesto of Umkhonto published on 16 December 1961, which is exhibit AD, we said:
"The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices - submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future, and our freedom."
This was our feeling in June of 1961 when we decided to press for a change in the policy of the National Liberation Movement. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….
Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first method and to exhaust it before taking any other decision.
In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. This is what we felt at the time, and this is what we said in our manifesto (exhibit AD):
"We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realisation of the disastrous situation to which the nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war."
The initial plan was based on a careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital and foreign trade. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would tend to scare away capital from the country, make it more difficult for goods from the industrial areas to reach the seaports on schedule, and would in the long run be a heavy drain on the economic life of the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position.
Attacks on the economic life-lines of the country were to be linked with sabotage on government buildings and other symbols of apartheid. These attacks would serve as a source of inspiration to our people. In addition, they would provide an outlet for those people who were urging the adoption of violent methods and would enable us to give concrete proof to our followers that we had adopted a stronger line and were fighting back against government violence.
In addition, if mass action were successfully organised, and mass reprisals taken, we felt that sympathy for our cause would be roused in other countries, and that greater pressure would be brought to bear on the South African government.
This then was the plan. Umkhonto was to perform sabotage, and strict instructions were given to its members right from the start, that on no account were they to injure or kill people in planning or carrying out operations.
It is strange today to hear politicians of all stripes praising Mandela for his statesmanship when they, for years, condemned his embrace of violence and arrested those in the U.S. who—following Mandela’s own tactics—chained themselves to fences to oppose the U.S. government’s support of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is true that Mandela lived numerous lives. As a young man, he was part of a royal tribal household. As a young adult, he was a lawyer. Later he was a non-violent leader. Still later, he turned to limited and rationalized use of violence. For 27 years he paid for his crimes in prison and then emerged a statesman, one committed to reconciliation, freedom, and multicultural democracy. Finally, when he stepped down from the Presidency after one term he helped assure South Africa’s democratic future and became an elder statesman in the truest sense of the word.
To understand the complexities of Mandela’s limited turn to sabotage (as opposed to terrorism in his words), it is helpful to consider Hannah Arendt’s essay On Violence, originally published in the New York Review of Books in 1969. Violence, writes Arendt, is at root instrumental. It is a means to an end. And sometimes, violence can yield positive and even moderate results, Arendt claims, citing Conor Cruise O’Brien: “Sometimes ‘violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.’”
As did Mandela, Arendt well understood that violence can be a useful and important means in struggles for justice. She points to numerous of examples where violence has worked to promote justice: “France would not have received the most radical bill since Napoleon to change its antiquated education system if the French students had not rioted; if it had not been for the riots of the spring term, no one at Columbia University would have dreamed of accepting reforms; and it is probably quite true that in West Germany the existence of ‘dissenting minorities is not even noticed unless they engage in provocation.’” Violence can, and often does, make injustice visible to a citizenry that is blind to it. Because violence can “serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention,” violence can serve the cause of reform and also of justice.
We must take Arendt and Mandela’s point seriously. Violence is a means to an end. Violence can work. “No doubt, ‘violence pays.’” Violence can yield results.
But Arendt is not an advocate for violence. Violence can pay, she writes, but “the trouble is that it pays indiscriminately.” And this is where the use of violence becomes dangerous.
The danger in using violence as a means is that when “applied to human affairs,” violence as a means has a tendency to overwhelm whatever good ends towards which it aims. Too often, violence will lead those in power to respond with sham reforms designed to end violence. They will seek the path of least resistance, instituting reforms that are often the wrong reforms. Arendt offers the example of the way that the student university protests of the 60s led to new courses in Swahili and “admitting students without the necessary qualifications” instead of real reform of the entire educational system.
What is more, violence—precisely because it is effective—has a tendency to promote more violence in response. If violence in the name of justice doesn’t achieve its ends quickly, the likely result is not justice, but more violence: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”
To read Mandela’s speech from 1964 is to encounter someone who thought through the promise and danger of violence in precisely the rational way that Arendt call for. The question we should ask is whether the turn to violence by the ANC in South Africa—even the limited, rational, and property-oriented violence Mandela embraced—promoted or retarded the cause for reform? Was it the ANC’s violence that led, 30 years later, to the reform of South Africa? Or was it Mandela’s dignity in prison and his emergence as a force for peace and reconciliation? Let’s celebrate Mandela as a hero this week. But let’s also ask: Was he right about violence?
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. He warns against the idea that the humanities should be thought of as teaching basic literacy or “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. “There is nothing wrong with arguing that a good humanistic education will produce graduates who are critically literate, by some definition of critical literacy. However, the claim that only the full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy seems to me hard to sustain, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself? Would that not be simpler, and cheaper too?... I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.”
Recently, the New Statesman asked several prominent artists and scholars what revolution means to them. Some, like filmmaker Judd Apatow, poet Fatima Bhutto, and cartoonist Molly Crabapple, give long answers. Others keep it short; Chinese artist Ai Weiwei answered, simply "The revolution is a bridge that connects the past and the future. It is necessary, unpredictable and inevitable." The revolutions of the modern era were central to Arendt’s writing and thinking and she held up the American Revolution in particular as the great example of a liberation movement that succeeded in founding a free body politic. It is helpful to recall her own definition of revolution, if there is one: “The modern idea of revolution, inextricably bound up with the notion that the course of history suddenly begins anew, an entirely new story, a story never known or told before, is about to unfold, was unknown prior to the two great revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century…. Crucial, then, to any understanding of revolutions in the modern age is that the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.”
In an interview about his new book Year Zero: A History of 1945, Ian Buruma describes his ambivalence about heroes: "You need heroes sometimes in periods of crisis. You need them when you’re being occupied by the Nazis and in similar situations. But heroes tend not to be very nice people. They can be. There are of course heroic resistors who do it out of sheer decency but there are a lot of adventurers. To be a hero, especially when it involves violence, means you have to be pretty ruthless. Churchill was a hero but he was absolutely ruthless. The British people were absolutely right to cast him out in 1945. Clement Attlee was the man you needed then just as Churchill was the man you needed instead of Chamberlain and Halifax."
Lee Siegel looks at two new studies arguing that reading fiction promotes empathy. “The results were heartening to every person who has ever found herself, throughout her freshman year of college, passionately quoting to anyone within earshot Kafka’s remark that great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.” The subjects who had read literary fiction either reported heightened emotional intelligence or demonstrated, in the various tests administered to them, that their empathy levels had soared beyond their popular- and non-fiction-reading counterparts.” But Siegel wonders whether we should promote literature on the practical ground that it fosters empathy: “Though empathy has become something like the celebrity trait of emotional intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sensitivity and gentleness popularly attributed to it. … There is, for example, no more empathetic character in the novel or on the stage than Iago, who is able to detect the slightest fluctuation in Othello’s emotional state. Othello, on the other hand, is a noble and magnanimous creature—if vain and bombastic as well—who is absolutely devoid of the gift of being able to apprehend another’s emotional states. If he were half as empathetic as Iago, he would be able to recognize the jealousy that is consuming his treacherous lieutenant. The entire play is an object lesson in the emotional equipment required to vanquish other people, or to protect yourself from other people’s machinations. But no one—and no study—can say for sure whether the play produces more sympathetic people, or more Iagos.”
November 20, 2013
The Letters Between Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin
A Lunchtime Talk with Thomas Wild and Matthius Bormuth
The Hannah Arendt Center
Learn more here.
November 26, 2013
Spaces of “Politics” - Aspects of Transnationality in Arendt's Thinking
A Lunchtime Talk with Stefania Maffeis
The Hannah Arendt Center
Learn more here.
This week on the Blog, Jeff Champlin revisits Bonnie Honig’s classic article on Arendt and Derrida on the question of constitutions. We look again at Roger Berkowitz's essay on Arendt's understanding of the difference between thought and action. Elsewhere, Arendt Center Visiting Scholar Cristiana Grigore appeared on Al Jazeera.
“Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order.”
--Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture”
Hannah Arendt defines the cultural as that which gives testimony to the past and in preserving the past helps constitute our common world. A cultural object embodies the human goal of achieving “immortality,” which as Arendt explains in The Human Condition is not the same as eternal life or the biological propagation of the species. Immortality concerns the life of a people and is ultimately political. It refers to the particular type of transcendence afforded by political action. In “The Crisis of Culture,” Arendt shows how culture has a political role insofar as it creates durable and lasting objects that contribute to the immortality of a people.
The danger Arendt confronts in “The Crisis in Culture” is that mass culture makes art disposable and thus threatens the political ability of cultural life to produce lasting and immortal objects. The source of her worry is not an invasion of culture by the low and the base, but a sort of cannibalization of culture by itself. The problem is that mass culture swallows culture and subsumes it under the rubric of need. The immortal is degraded to a biological necessity, to be endlessly consumed and reproduced. Durable cultural objects that constitute a meaningful political world are thereby consumed, eroding the common world that is the place of politics.
Arendt’s point is first that mass culture—like all culture under the sway of society— is too often confused with status, self-fulfillment, or entertainment. In the name of status or entertainment, cultural achievements are stripped down and repackaged as something to be consumed in the life process. She would argue that this happens every time Hamlet is made into a movie or the Iliad is condensed into a children’s edition. By making culture accessible for those who would use it to improve themselves, the mass-culture industry makes it less and less likely that we will ever confront the great works of our past in their most challenging form. Eventually, the watering down of once immortal works can make it difficult or impossible to perceive the importance of culture and cultural education for humanity and our common world.
However, Arendt does not offer simply a banal critique of reality television as fast-food. We might recognize a more insidious form of the risks she describes in the new intellectualism that marks the politics, or anti-politics of the tech milieu. What has been termed Silicon Valley’s anti-intellectualism should instead be understood as a forced colonization of the space potentially inhabited by the public intellectual.
The prophets of the tech world see themselves as fulfilling a social and political duty through enterprise. They unselfconsciously describe their creations as sources of liberation, democracy, and revolution. And yet they eschew politics. Their abnegation of overt political activity is comprehensible in that, for them, ‘politics’ is always already contained in the project of saving the world through technological progress.
We see such exemplars of technological cultural salvation all around us. Scholars and cultural figures are invited to lecture at the “campuses” of Apple and Google, and their ideas get digested into the business model or spit back out in the form of TED talks. Even Burning Man, originally a ‘counter-cultural’ annual desert festival with utopian pretensions, has been sucked into the vortex, such that Stanford Professor Fred Turner could give a powerpoint lecture titled, “Burning Man at Google: A cultural infrastructure for new media production.” The abstract for his article in New Media & Society is even more suggestive: “…this article explores the ways in which Burning Man’s bohemian ethos supports new forms of production emerging in Silicon Valley and especially at Google. It shows how elements of the Burning Man world – including the building of a sociotechnical commons, participation in project-based artistic labor and the fusion of social and professional interaction – help to shape and legitimate the collaborative manufacturing processes driving the growth of Google and other firms.” Turner’s conclusion virtually replicates Arendt’s differentiation between nineteenth century philistinism and the omniphagic nature of mass culture:
In the 19th century, at the height of the industrial era, the celebration of art provided an occasion for the display of wealth. In the 21st century, under conditions of commons-based peer production, it has become an occasion for its [i.e. wealth] creation.
The instrumentalization of culture within polite society has given way to the digestion and reconstitution of culture in the form of gadgets meant to increase convenience. Would-be cultural objects become rungs on the hamster wheel of life’s progress. Progress as the ultimate goal of technological cultural innovation is a vague concept because it is taken for granted due to the self-contained and self-enclosed nature of the industry. Where it is defined, it is demonstrated through examples, such as the implementation of the smart parking meter or the use of cloud networking in order to better administer services to San Francisco’s homeless population.
In a recent New Yorker article on the tech revolutionaries, George Packer writes, “A favorite word in tech circles is ‘frictionless.’ It captures the pleasures of an app so beautifully designed that using it is intuitive, and it evokes a fantasy in which all inefficiencies, annoyances, and grievances have been smoothed out of existence—that is, an apolitical world.” Progress here is the increasingly efficient administration of life.
When tech does leave its insular environment and direct its energies outward, its engagements reflect both its solipsism and focus on utility, which for Arendt go together. The Gates Foundation’s substantial investments in higher education impose the quantitatively verifiable standard of degree completion as the sole or main objective, which seems odd in itself, given Gates’ notoriety as a Harvard drop-out. The efforts of the Foundation aim less at placing Shakespeare in the hands of every fast-food worker, and more towards redirecting all of cultural education toward the development of a cheap version of utilitarian aptitude. Such tech intellectualism will ask, “What is the point of slaving over the so-called classics?” The claim is that the liberal arts vision of university education is inseparable from elitist designs, based on an exclusive definition of what ‘culture’ should be.
“What is the use?” is the wrong question, though, and it is tinged by the solipsistic mentality of a tech elite that dare not speak its name. The tech intellectual presents the culture of Silicon Valley as inherently egalitarian, despite the fact that capital gains in the sector bare a large burden of the blame for this country’s soaring rate of inequality. This false sense of equality fosters a naïve view of political and social issues. It also fuels tech’s hubristic desire to remake the world in its own image: Life is about frictionless success and efficient progress, and these can be realized via the technological fix. “It worked for us, what’s the matter with you?”
For Arendt, culture is not meant to be useful for employment or even the lofty purpose of self-cultivation; our relationship to culture nurtures our ability to make judgments. Kant’s discussion of taste and “common sense” informs her notion of the faculty of judgment in art and politics. In matters of taste, judging rests on the human ability to enlarge one’s mind and think with reference to an “anticipated communication with others” and “potential agreement.” Common sense, as she uses it, “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world.” Culture and politics are linked in that both can only exist in a world that is shared. She writes:
Culture and politics, then, belong together because it is not knowledge or truth which is at stake, but rather judgment and decision, the judicious exchange of opinion about the sphere of public life and the common world, and the decision what manner of action is to be taken, as well as to how it is to look henceforth, what kind of things are to appear in it.
That culture and politics are about enacting judgments, rather than truth or technique for the advancement of biological life, is a point that is clearly missed by the tech intellectuals. The establishment of utility as the sole goal of higher education represents only one section of a general lens through which the world appears only as a series of practical problems to be figured out. In this paradoxical utopia of mass accessibility, insulation, and narrow-mindedness, applied knowledge threatens to occupy and pervert culture at the expense of political action and care for our common world.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.