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.
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.” Read more on the Arendt Center blog.
News that the SAT is about to undergo a makeover leaves Bard College President Leon Botstein unimpressed: “The changes recently announced by the College Board to its SAT college entrance exam bring to mind the familiar phrase “too little, too late.” The alleged improvements are motivated not by any serious soul searching about the SAT but by the competition the College Board has experienced from its arch rival, the ACT, the other major purveyor of standardized college entrance exams. But the problems that plague the SAT also plague the ACT. The SAT needs to be abandoned and replaced. The SAT has a status as a reliable measure of college readiness it does not deserve. The College Board has successfully marketed its exams to parents, students, colleges and universities as arbiters of educational standards. The nation actually needs fewer such exam schemes; they damage the high school curriculum and terrify both students and parents. The blunt fact is that the SAT has never been a good predictor of academic achievement in college. High school grades adjusted to account for the curriculum and academic programs in the high school from which a student graduates are. The essential mechanism of the SAT, the multiple choice test question, is a bizarre relic of long outdated twentieth century social scientific assumptions and strategies. As every adult recognizes, knowing something or how to do something in real life is never defined by being able to choose a “right” answer from a set of possible answers (some of them intentionally misleading) put forward by faceless test designers who are rarely eminent experts. No scientist, engineer, writer, psychologist, artist, or physician— and certainly no scholar, and therefore no serious university faculty member—pursues his or her vocation by getting right answers from a set of prescribed alternatives that trivialize complexity and ambiguity.”
Foreign policy types are up in arms—not over Russia’s pending annexation of Crimea, but over the response in the West. By yelling loudly but doing nothing in Syria and now in the Ukraine, America and Europe are losing all credibility. The insinuation is clear. If we don’t draw the line at Crimea, we will embolden Putin in Poland. Much as in the 1930s, the current NATO alliance seems unwilling to stand up for anything on principle if the costs are more than a few photo opportunities and some angry tweets. According to The American Interest, “Putin believes the West is decadent, weak, and divided. The West needs to prove him wrong.” And in Politico, Ben Judah writes: “Russia’s rulers have been buying up Europe for years. They have mansions and luxury flats from London’s West End to France’s Cote d’Azure. Their children are safe at British boarding and Swiss finishing schools. And their money is squirrelled away in Austrian banks and British tax havens.Putin’s inner circle no longer fear the European establishment. They once imagined them all in MI6. Now they know better. They have seen firsthand how obsequious Western aristocrats and corporate tycoons suddenly turn when their billions come into play. They now view them as hypocrites—the same European elites who help them hide their fortunes.”
In The New York Times Magazine, Siddhartha Deb profiles Arundhati Roy, the Indian writer best known in the West for her 1997 novel The God of Small Things. Though the book made Roy into a national icon, her political essays – in which she has addressed, among other issues, India’s occupation of Kashmir, the “lunacy” of India’s nuclear programme, and the paramilitary operations in central India against the ultraleft guerillas and indigenous populations – have angered many nationalist and upper-class Indians for their fierce critiques. Roy’s most recent work, The Doctor and the Saint, is an introduction to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s famous 1936 essay “The Annihilation of Caste” that is likely to spark controversy over her rebuke of Ghandi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. How does Roy see her fiction in relation to her politics? “I’m not a person who likes to use fiction as a means,” she says. “I think it’s an irreducible thing, fiction. It’s itself. It’s not a movie, it’s not a political tract, it’s not a slogan. The ways in which I have thought politically, the proteins of that have to be broken down and forgotten about, until it comes out as the sweat on your skin.” You can read Deb’s profile of Roy here, and an excerpt from The Doctor and the Saint here.
Comparing the MOOC and the GED, Michael Guerreiro wonders whether participants approach both programs with the same sense of purpose. The answer, he suspects, is no: "The data tells us that very few of the students who enroll in a MOOC will ever reach its end. In the ivy, brick, and mortar world from which MOOCs were spun, that would be damning enough. Sticking around is important there; credentials and connections reign, starting with the high-school transcript and continuing through graduate degrees. But students may go into an online course knowing that a completion certificate, even offered under the imprimatur of Harvard or UPenn, doesn’t have the same worth. A recent study by a team of researchers from Coursera found that, for many MOOC students, the credential isn’t the goal at all. Students may treat the MOOC as a resource or a text rather than as a course, jumping in to learn new code or view an enticing lecture and back out whenever they want, just as they would while skimming the wider Web. For many, MOOCs may be just one more Internet tool or diversion; in the Coursera study, the retention rate among committed students for a typical class was shown to be roughly on par with that of a mobile app. And the London Times reported last week that, when given the option to get course credit for their MOOC (for a fee), none of the thousand, or so students who enrolled in a British online class did.” A potent reminder that while MOOCs may indeed succeed and may even replace university education for many people, they are not so much about education as a combination of entertainment, credential, and manual. These are important activities each, but they are not what liberal arts colleges should be about. The hope in the rise of MOOCs, as we’ve written before, is that they help return college to its mission: to teach critical thinking and expose students to the life of the mind.
Noam Chomsky, speaking to the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers, takes issue with the idea that the American university was once living and is now undead, and seeks a way forward: "First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. These are not radical ideas."
This week on the blog Anna Metcalfe examines the multi-dimensional idea of action which Arendt discusses in The Human Condition. And in the Weekend Read, entitled 'Why the Jews?', Roger Berkowitz delves into anti-Judaism and its deeply seated roots in Western civilization.
Featuring Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Bard College partners with five local libraries for six weeks of activities, performances, and discussions scheduled throughout the Hudson Valley.
Learn more here.
'What Europe? Ideals to Fight for Today'
The HAC co-sponsors the second annual conference with Bard College in Berlin
March 27-28, 2014
Learn more here.
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.
In the most recent NY Review of Books, David Cole wonders if we've reached the point of no return on the issue of privacy:
“Reviewing seven years of the NSA amassing comprehensive records on every American’s every phone call, the board identified only one case in which the program actually identified an unknown terrorist suspect. And that case involved not an act or even an attempted act of terrorism, but merely a young man who was trying to send money to Al-Shabaab, an organization in Somalia. If that’s all the NSA can show for a program that requires all of us to turn over to the government the records of our every phone call, is it really worth it?”
Cole is beyond convincing in listing the dangers to privacy in the new national security state. Like many others in the media, he speaks the language of necessary trade-offs involved in living in a dangerous world, but suggests we are trading away too much and getting back too little in return. He warns that if we are not careful, privacy will disappear. He is right.
What is often forgotten and is absent in Cole’s narrative is that most people—at least in practice—simply don’t care that much about privacy. Whether snoopers promise security or better-targeted advertisements, we are willing to open up our inner worlds for the price of convenience. If we are to save privacy, the first step is articulating what it is about privacy that makes it worth saving.
Cole simply assumes the value of privacy and doesn’t address the benefits of privacy until his final paragraph. When he does come to explaining why privacy is important, he invokes popular culture dystopias to suggest the horror of a world without privacy:
More broadly, all three branches of government—and the American public—need to take up the challenge of how to preserve privacy in the information age. George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Philip K. Dick’s The Minority Report all vividly portrayed worlds without privacy. They are not worlds in which any of us would want to live. The threat is no longer a matter of science fiction. It’s here. And as both reports eloquently attest, unless we adapt our laws to address the ever-advancing technology that increasingly consumes us, it will consume our privacy, too.
There are two problems with such fear mongering in defense of privacy. The first is that these dystopias seem too distant. Most of us don’t experience the violations of our privacy by the government or by Facebook as intrusions. The second is that on a daily basis the fact that my phone knows where I am and that in a pinch the government could locate me is pretty convenient. These dystopian visions can appear not so dystopian.
Most writing about privacy simply assume that privacy is important. We are treated to myriad descriptions of the way privacy is violated. The intent is to shock us. But rarely are people shocked enough to actually respond in ways that protect the privacy they often say that they cherish. We have collectively come to see privacy as a romantic notion, a long-forgotten idle, exotic and even titillating in its possibilities, but ultimately irrelevant in our lives.
There is, of course, a reason why so many advocates of privacy don’t articulate a meaningful defense of privacy: It is because to defend privacy means to defend a rich and varied sphere of difference and plurality, the right and importance of people actually holding opinions divergent from one’s own. In an age of political correctness and ideological conformism, privacy sounds good in principle but is less welcome in practice when those we disagree with assert privacy rights. Thus many who defend privacy do so only in the abstract.
When it comes to actually allowing individuals to raise their children according to their religious or racial beliefs or when the question is whether people can marry whomever they want, defenders of privacy often turn tail and insist that some opinions and some practices must be prohibited. Over and over today, advocates of privacy show that they value an orderly, safe, and respectful public realm and that they are willing to abandon privacy in the name of security and a broad conception of civility according to which no one should have to encounter opinions and acts that give them offense.
The only major thinker of the last 100 years who insisted fully and consistently on the crucial importance of a rich and vibrant private realm is Hannah Arendt. Privacy, Arendt argues, is essential because it is what allows individuals to emerge as unique persons in the world. The private realm is the realm of “exclusiveness,” it is that realm in which we “choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives, personal friends and those we love.” The private choices we make are guided by nothing objective or knowable, “but strikes, inexplicably and unerringly, at one person in his uniqueness, his unlikeness to all other people we know.” Privacy is controversial because the “rules of uniqueness and exclusiveness are, and always will be, in conflict with the standards of society.” Arendt’s defense of mixed marriages (and by extension gay marriages) proceeds—no less than her defense of the right of parents to educate their children in single-sex or segregated schools—from her conviction that the uniqueness and distinction of private lives need to be respected and protected.
Privacy, for Arendt, is connected to the “sanctity of the hearth” and thus to the idea of private property. Indeed, property itself is respected not on economic grounds, but because “without owning a house a man could not participate in the affairs of the world because he had no location in it which was properly his own.” Property guarantees privacy because it enforces a boundary line, “ kind of no man’s land between the private and the public, sheltering and protecting both.” In private, behind the four walls of house and heath, the “sacredness of the hidden” protects men from the conformist expectations of the social and political worlds.
In private, shaded from the conformity of societal opinions as well from the demands of the public world, we can grow in our own way and develop our own idiosyncratic character. Because we are hidden, “man does not know where he comes from when he is born and where he goes when he dies.” This essential darkness of privacy gives flight to our uniqueness, our freedom to be different. It is privacy, in other words, that we become who we are. What this means is that without privacy there can be no meaningful difference. The political importance of privacy is that privacy is what guarantees difference and thus plurality in the public world.
Arendt develops her thinking on privacy most explicitly in her essays on education. Education must perform two seemingly contradictory functions. First, education leads a young person into the public world, introducing them and acclimating them to the traditions, public language, and common sense that precede him. Second, education must also guard the child against the world, care for the child so that “nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The child, to be protected against the destructive onslaught of the world, needs the privacy that has its “traditional place” in the family.
Because the child must be protected against the world, his traditional place is in the family, whose adult members return back from the outside world and withdraw into the security of private life within four walls. These four walls, within which people’s private family life is lived, constitute a shield against the world and specifically against the public aspect of the world. This holds good not only for the life of childhood but for human life in general…Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however, strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all.
The public world is unforgiving. It can be cold and hard. All persons count equally in public, and little if any allowance is made for individual hardships or the bonds of friendship and love. Only in privacy, Arendt argues, can individuals emerge as unique individuals who can then leave the private realm to engage the political sphere as confident, self-thinking, and independent citizens.
The political import of Arendt’s defense of privacy is that privacy is what allows for meaningful plurality and differences that prevent one mass movement, one idea, or one opinion from imposing itself throughout society. Just as Arendt valued the constitutional federalism in the American Constitution because it multiplied power sources through the many state and local governments in the United States, so did she too value privacy because it nurtures meaningfully different and even opposed opinions, customs, and faiths. She defends the regional differences in the United States as important and even necessary to preserve the constitutional structure of dispersed power that she saw as the great bulwark of freedom against the tyranny of the majority. In other words, Arendt saw privacy as the foundation not only of private eccentricity, but also of political freedom.
Cole offers a clear-sighted account of the ways that government is impinging on privacy. It is essential reading and it is your weekend read.
There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:
At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.
There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:
Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev's Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city's Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too," Rabbi Azman told Maariv. "I don't want to tempt fate," he added, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
You can read the whole talk here.
This Wednesday, February 26, there will be a screening of the film "Hannah Arendt" at Purchase College (in the Red Room, 1st floor, Student Services Building). The 2:30 pm screening will be followed by a 4:30 pm panel discussion featuring:
- Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College
- Anne O'Byrne, Philosophy, Stony Brook University-SUNY
- Anna Jurkevics, Political Science, Yale University
Peggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.
The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.
Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?
“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as ... actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”
Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?
““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”
Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:
“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”
It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.
What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony. The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.
This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:
“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”
Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.
Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.
There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:
“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”
As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.
The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.
Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.
On October 27, 2013, Walter Russell Mead and Roger Berkowitz sat down with Jay Rosen and Megan Garber as part of the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series. The series engages in ongoing discussion with the nation’s leading bloggers in politics, history, art, and culture.
Jay Rosen is a media critic, a writer, and a professor of journalism at New York University. You can visit his blog, "Pressthink" here. Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media. Read her work from The Atlantic here.
Roger Berkowitz started the evening by asking: Should journalists be objective or should they be political actors?
Jay Rosen answered: "Journalists have to do more than just flood us with facts." Rosen thinks of the journalist, "as a heightened form of an informed citizen." The panel discussed the idea of the journalist vs. the citizen and the myriad of ways in which the two overlap. As well, the role the Internet plays in creating an informed public through the sharing of information.
Megan Garber added, "I'm not interested in getting my ideas out, I'm interested in exploring things publicly...There is value in convening people together to talk about one thing."
Watch the video of the discussion here.
The next event in the "Blogging and the New Public Intellectual" series will take place March 9 and features a discussion with Tom Goldstein, the Publisher and a regular contributor to the SCOTUSblog.
Learn more about the event here and RSVP to email@example.com.
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.
According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn't have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon. Now comes Peter Beinart writing in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself. Here is Beinart on one way the current younger generation is an exception to the tradition of American exceptionalism: “For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.” But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it's one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that "religious faith and values are very important to America's success." And young Americans don't merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. "Americans," Pew notes, "do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle"—which means it's unlikely that America's decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age. In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.” Read more on Beinart and American exceptionalism in the Weekend Read.
In this interview, Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, explains his concept of the “technium,” or the whole system of technology that has developed over time and which, he argues, has its own biases and tendencies “inherently outside of what humans like us want.” One thing technology wants is to watch us and to track us. Kelly writes: “How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don't see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I'm trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can't stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It's suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can't stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there's no tracking in a temporary basis. I don't know, but this is the question I'm asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?” Asking such questions is where humans fit into the technium world. “In a certain sense,” he says, “what becomes really valuable in a world running under Google's reign are great questions, and that’s something that for a long time humans will be better at than machines. Machines are for answers; humans are for questions.”
Taking issue with a commentator's claim that The Paris Review's use of the word "crepuscular" (adj., resembling twilight) was elitist, Eleanor Catton suggests that the anti-critical attitude of contemporary readers arises out of consumer culture: "The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right." Literature, she says, resists this attitude, and, in fact cannot be elitist at all: "A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."
Vladislav Inozemtsev reviews Laurence Cockcroft’s book Global Corruption. “The book’s central argument is that corruption has political roots, which Cockcroft identifies as the “merging of elites.” Surveying the mechanisms of top-level decision-making from Russia to Brazil, to Peru and India, as well as in many other countries, he discerns a pattern: Politicians today often act as entrepreneurs, surround themselves with sycophants and deputies, and so navigate the entire political process as they would any commercial business. The hallmarks of a corrupt society are the widespread leveraging of wealth to secure public office; the leveraging of such authority to secure various kinds of privileges; and the interplay of both to make even bigger money. Simply put, corruption is a transformation of public service into a specific kind of entrepreneurship.”
George Packer takes a look at Amazon's role in the book business noting that its founder, Jeff Bezos, knew from the start that book sales were only the lure; Amazon's real business was Big Data, a big deal in an industry that speaks to people's hearts and minds as well as their wallets. Still, "Amazon remains intimately tangled up in books. Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning. For its part, Amazon continues to expend considerable effort both to dominate this small, fragile market and to win the hearts and minds of readers. To many book professionals, Amazon is a ruthless predator. The company claims to want a more literate world—and it came along when the book world was in distress, offering a vital new source of sales. But then it started asking a lot of personal questions, and it created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage; eventually, the book world realized that Amazon had its house keys and its bank-account number, and wondered if that had been the intention all along."
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the wake of NFL prospect Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay, considers how the concept of readiness is backwards: "The question which we so often have been offered—is the NFL ready for a gay player?—is backwards. Powerful interests are rarely “ready” for change, so much as they are assaulted by it. We refer to barriers being "broken" for a reason. The reason is not because great powers generally like to unbar the gates and hold a picnic in the honor of the previously excluded. The NFL has no moral right to be "ready" for a gay player, which is to say it has no right to discriminate against gay men at its leisure which anyone is bound to respect.”
This week, the magazine Jacobin released Class Action, a handbook for activist teachers, set against school reform and financed using the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. One of the many essays contained within is Dean Baker's "Unremedial Education," which contains one of the handbook's major theses, an important reminder for those who are interested in education as a route to both the life of the mind and the success of the person: "Education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school. However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality."
Amidst charges of implanted memories and celebrity arrogance, I have no insight into what occurred between Mr. Allen and the younger Ms. Farrow. One side seems to think that our “rape culture” induces people to disbelieve victims. The other side believes that accusations in the court of public opinion open the door to character assassination. Both are right, which does little to satisfy those seeking a clear path to certainty and moral outrage.
The truth the avalanche of accusations on all sides has brought to light is that factual truth is always contingent and never certain. The drive for certainty leads quickly to ideological simplifications that deny inconvenient facts in the name of coherent narratives. Over and over the facts are being made to fit the theory; such ideological certainty at the expense of reality is the root of fascism and all totalitarian impulses.
This indeed is the point of a wonderful essay mercifully unrelated to the Allen affair and written by Simon Critchley in The New York Times. Critchley is ostensibly writing about the 1973 BBC series “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. Specifically, Critchley focuses on one episode titled “Knowledge or Certainty.” Touching on physics and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the show begins with the premise that while science aims to provide an objectively accurate picture of the world, modern science has proven that such objectivity is impossible. In Critchley’s summation, there is “no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it—whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer—opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility.”
The lesson of modern science is that “There is no God’s eye view.” Anyone who claims to know the truth about the material world (and even more so about the moral or spiritual worlds) is “not just wrong, they are morally pernicious.” The point is that “[e]rrors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible.” And the result of this is that,
For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”
At this point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode on “Knowledge or Creativity,” a clip that suddenly shifts the scene “to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered.” We see Dr. Bronowski walking in Auschwitz. He says:
There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of Gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell, ‘I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.’
In other words, fascism, fundamentalism, and the holocaust are caused by a poor understanding of science, a confusion of necessarily hypothetical scientific knowledge with a push-button philosophy of certainty.
Even as Critchley and Bronowski beseech us to think we may be mistaken, I detect no suggestion that we should harbor doubts about the fact or the evil of the holocaust. Born in arrogance and certainty, the evil of the holocaust stands as an exception, something we all understand and know to be horrifically wrong. It may be true that “[w]e always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.” At the same time, there are times when to equivocate in our judgment is to refuse to do justice and even to be complicit in the justifications of wrong.
It may be true that science counsels humility and tolerance, but justice in the end requires making judgments. One of the great challenges of our time is the need to judge absent the solace of absolute knowledge or the illusions of certitude. We must at once admit to the uncertainty of the scientific age and insist that certain truths and certain judgments are beyond meaningful dispute. There are facts—that the holocaust happened and that it was a tragedy—that simply must not be denied. In other words, it matters that the Nazis did not win.
It is, of course, possible that had the Nazis won, our view of antisemitism today would be horrifically different. There is no cosmological truth to Nazi evil; but we humans don’t live disembodied in the cosmos. We live here, on this earth. And on this earth in this world that we have made, certain facts like the evil of the Nazi Final Solution are true. This does not mean that they are written in the stars or revealed by a God or carried by the wind. It does mean that such facts are the foundation of the common world in which we live as humans amidst plurality. In Hannah Arendt’s poetic language, these basic truths are told in stories and they are the basic building blocks of the world we share. This common world is what Arendt calls the “truth… we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.” In the common world, certain facts matter; the victory of common truths is not trivial if we are to live together in a shared world.
That it matters who wins, which facts we embrace, and which stories we tell to our children brings to mind an interview given by Woody Allen and discussed in a thoughtful essay by Damon Linker. Discussing Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen explicitly defends the main character who kills his lover when she threatens to expose the affair. As Linker elaborates on Allen’s point: “The viewer [of Crimes and Misdemeanors] is left to conclude that Judah got away with his crime scot-free—and that such an outcome is possible for anyone courageous enough to violate accepted moral customs and lucky or clever enough to avoid getting caught by the legal authorities.” Linker then cites this quote from Allen’s interview:
On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things.... People by the thousands watch it, thinking it's very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it's utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It's meaningless.
The meaninglessness of the world, Allen suggests, means that it doesn’t matter who wins. But that is sports, right? On the cosmic level and as a question of justice, it doesn’t matter if the Seahawks or the Broncos win the Super Bowl. It matters for the players and fans and corporate sponsors, but not in the grand scheme of things.
The problem is that Allen sees the triviality of sports as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of the human world. Here is Allen speaking in another interview in Commonweal Magazine, also cited by Linker:
Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems.
It is worth asking how sincere we should take Allen to be here. If he really thought the world were meaningless, why would he write about its meaninglessness? Is it simply that he writes for the relief of unbearable urges? Couldn’t he then write about pretty much anything? It does seem that Allen writes not simply to relieve himself but also because he has something to say. That he thinks what he writes matters.
What matters, Allen’s films suggest, is truth. Here is what Allen says later in the same Commonweal interview when asked about the apparent amorality of Crimes and Misdemeanors.
I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope…. Some people cope better than others.
For Allen, his film is about truth, namely the truth that the world has no meaning and that evil can prevail and often does.
Linker labels Allen a nihilist, by which he means the conviction that “There is no justice.” And that seems right insofar as Allen does reject and moral or spiritual meaning.
What is missing in Linker’s analysis is an appreciation of the moral significance of nihilism. Part of the problem is that nihilism signifies two related but different ideas. First, nihilism is a rejection of all certainty; nihilism comes from nihil, meaning nothing. It is the philosophy of nothing. Second, nihilism as it is associated with thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche also takes on the sense of re-valuation of all values. It is thus not merely a negative philosophy but also a call for the creation of new and immoral values. In Linker’s essay, nihilism is understood in the first and strict sense to be a negation of what is. In this sense, however, nihilism is inherent in all critical thinking and in thinking itself.
All thinking must negate what is to free itself for the new. Negation, or nihilism, “is but the other side of conventionalism.” That is why Hannah Arendt saw that “what we commonly call ‘nihilism’ is actually a danger in the thinking activity itself.” What nihilism agitates against is certainty, the “desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary.” Thinking, Arendt argues, is “equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.” It is opposed to common sense and all ideologies. Because thinking sets up obstacles truths and opposes settled certainties, thinking is dangerous: “There are no dangerous thoughts,” Arendt writes, “Thinking itself is dangerous.”
In a scientific age that, as Critchley reminds us, is allergic to certainty, nihilism understood as a rejection of dogmas and certainties is not an immoral doctrine so much as it is the truthful insistence that we oppose what Critchley calls the “monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism.” Critchley’s essay touches on the human need for tolerance of meaningful plurality and difference. It is your weekend read.