Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
21Jul/141

The Story of Reconciliation

Greek_storytelling

**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.

--Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
27May/142

The Emperor’s New Clothes and Pluralistic Ignorance

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“Men who no longer can make sure of the reality which they feel and experience through talking about it and sharing it with their fellow-men, live in the same nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty which, in a normal world, is the terrible fate of insanity.”

--Hannah Arendt, “Ideology and Propaganda

Who could forget the story of the Emperor’s new clothes?  A pair of scheming tailors promise the ruler of a rich kingdom a suit of clothes woven with a magical property: only truly worthy individuals can see them. The Emperor accepts, but when the enchanted robes arrive he finds he cannot see them. Neither can his advisers. Neither can any member of his court.

Secretly ashamed, the Emperor and his retinue proceed to parade through the streets. The many subjects who have assembled there in order to catch a glimpse of the robes find their own proud hopes embarrassed. The farce reaches its peak when an uninhibited youth finally points out the obvious: the Emperor is wearing nothing.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s fable skewers social pretension, not political domination. It cautions against face-saving falsehoods, not forced untruths. Nevertheless, the story of the Emperor’s new clothes highlights political hazards quite similar to those discussed by Hannah Arendt in her 1950 lecture, “Ideology and Propaganda.” In particular, both texts focus attention on the threat of pluralistic ignorance that arises whenever free public discourse is throttled by convention, or prohibited by law.

Pluralistic ignorance is a particular kind of popular delusion. It occurs when the various members of a group or population (1) do not know some fact or accept some principle, (2) do not know that their peers do not know that fact or accept that principle, and (3) act in such ways as to avoid revealing their lack of knowledge or acceptance to their peers. In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, as Cristina Bicchieri has pointed out, the condition of pluralistic ignorance explains why, though neither the emperor nor his subjects can see the magic robes, all act as if they can. Many may doubt the reality of those robes, but fear of public degradation prevents any from airing these doubts before the bold child speaks out.

States of pluralistic ignorance can be sustained by sterner forces than fear of public disgrace, as Hannah Arendt’s 1950 lecture explains. The basic subject of Arendt’s talk is familiar from movies like The Lives of Others and books like 1984. She is concerned with the straitened states of mind that systematic surveillance and severe curtailments of freedom of expression can produce. Arendt’s analysis of the “nightmare of loneliness and uncertainty” induced by totalitarian forms of government and social control suggests that the cumulative effect of such repressive policies is to uncouple belief from judgment, conviction from action. But this is just what characterizes the condition of pluralistic ignorance.

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Arendt did not think that loneliness was exclusively a product of totalitarian modes of government. She believed this estranged state of mind could also be non-coercively induced by long exposure to commercial standards and patterns of life in liberal societies. To understand this view, we should distinguish loneliness from a similar concept to which Arendt assigned very different meaning, namely, solitude.

Loneliness, on Arendt’s view, is the condition of persons whose beliefs, formed by active or passive processes, remain largely privately held, and are rarely submitted to the scrutiny of others in the form of judgments, or tested more rigorously still in the form of action. Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial –interactions.

Against loneliness, Arendt opposed the condition of solitude. This is the condition of isolation that thinking persons temporarily enter in order to review their beliefs or principles undistracted by the tumult of social and political life. Solitude is distinguished by loneliness insofar as the beliefs or commitments formed in this condition of temporary retreat are expressly intended for eventual exhibition in the political sphere in the form of judgments and actions.

If loneliness aligns with pluralistic ignorance by signifying a gap between belief and action, solitude provides a check on pluralistic ignorance by enabling individuals to revise their beliefs and prepare their judgments in isolation from forces that might repress or distort them. But solitude only fulfills this purpose when the isolated individual returns to political life and expresses a judgment or performs an action in which the connection between private belief and public undertaking is manifest. In this way the forces that sustain pluralistic ignorance are undermined, or overcome.

We might ask what the predominant causes of loneliness and pluralistic ignorance are today, seven decades after Arendt’s lecture. Recent revelations concerning the operations of the National Security Administration show that active, systematic surveillance of citizens’ personal communications is no Cold War relic, but rather a present reality. Within some communities, at least, awareness or suspicion of direct government surveillance will likely inhibit free expression, and bar open discourse.

At the same time, developments in technology and the rise of mass participation in social networks may also contribute to the growth or persistence of loneliness, in Arendt’s sense. Such technologies certainly make it more difficult to achieve the kind of solitude recommended by Arendt as the condition for effective contemplation – as anyone who owns a smartphone knows. Additionally, the tendency of participants in digital communications to cluster amongst like-minded peers, and to expose themselves only to opinions likely to match their own, limits the chances of encountering checks or dissensions from one’s judgments that could effectively alter one’s beliefs, or expose a gap between conviction and action. In light of such facts, we might alter Arendt’s phrase to speak loneliness and certainty as states of mind characteristic of our present age.

Source:  Spideroak.com

Source: Spideroak.com

It would be a mistake to end on such a gloomy note, however. Digital technologies have also created powerful new means of expressing judgments, or organizing actions that are truly political, in the sense that their conclusion is not pre-determined, their progress not fixed in any one direction. Although the ‘Twitter revolutions’ of the last several years have disappointed the hopes of many of their proponents, their unanticipated paths of development have helped to make vivid the risks imposed by action, and the radical openness of politics. These are topics worthy of contemplation; they are also topics that demand debate.

--Paul Morrow

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
19May/140

Arendt on the Limits of Social Science

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“[Regarding The Origins of Totalitarianism] while I feel that within the necessary limitations of a historical study and political analysis I made myself sufficiently clear on certain general perplexities which have come to light through the full development of totalitarianism, I also know that I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and to account for a rather unusual approach [to] the whole field of political and historical sciences as such. One of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.”

--Hannah Arendt, Review of Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Reply to Eric Voegelin (1953)

Arendt wrote this in defense of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, less as a direct reply to the criticism of the political scientist Eric Voegelin than to the criticism in general which her book had received. According to this criticism Arendt got carried away by her “emotionally determined method of proceeding from a concrete center of shock toward generalizations” which “leads to a delimitation of (the) subject matter” and ignores the duties of a scientist regarding objectivity, universality and (the) validity of their research and the representation of the results of that research. There can hardly be a worse reproach against a political philosopher operating within the terrain of history and social science, and we can imagine how a still unknown Arendt would get on in our contemporary world of peer-reviewed journals with their comprehensive control that results in a kind of intellectual self-censorship.

But Arendt did not think at all to subordinate herself to the common scientific norms.  Her Oeuvre contains only a few remarks like those in her reply to Voegelin about the way she understood scientific work. They refer mainly to three aspects: critical thinking, commitment, and judgment.

1. Critical thinking: Writing her essays about the origins of totalitarianism Arendt asked herself how to write the history of anti-Semitism when you do not want to preserve but to destroy it. One answer would be: “from the perspective of the victims”, but according to Arendt this would be an apology, not historiography. So, she saw no other choice but to approach the analysis through historical concepts. This is also true for her book On Revolution, which is no historiography of the American and the French revolution either but also an analysis with historical concepts. To read these two books as works of history would miss the essential point.

Similar is the case of her writings about political phenomena. They do not either fit into traditional political science. The reason is, Arendt was a political thinker, not a scientific commentator: “The authors are auctores, that is, (they) augment the world,” she explained in a university course. “We move in a world, which is augmented by the authors. We cannot do without them, because they behave in an altogether different way from the commentators. The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books. This difference becomes visible in a person like Machiavelli. Machiavelli was interested in Italy, not in political theory, not even his own. Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se” (History of Political Theory, 1955). Therefore, Arendt was not interested in commenting on intellectual and theoretical systems like liberalism or pragmatism but rather in analyzing facts. “I proceed from facts and events instead of intellectual affinities and influences”, she declared in her reply to Voegelin.

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2. Commitment: The criticism of her book on totalitarianism repudiated her tone as too committed and emotional. Arendt replied that the style should be appropriate to the context. Extreme poverty like that of the British miners at the beginning of industrialization would provoke indignation. To describe these conditions without indignation consequently would mean to remove them from their context and rob them of one of their essential qualities. This also applies to the concentration camps; to describe them sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them; and such condoning cannot be changed by a condemnation which the author may feel duty bound to add but which remains unrelated to the description itself. “

It is worth reading again Orwell’s social report The Road To Wigan Peer (1937) about the misery of the British miners. Is anything as memorable being written about the refugees on their way to the borders of the EU and the US, about the feminicide in Mexico and other countries, or the living conditions in Southern Europe during the economic and financial crisis? What do social scientists think about their social responsibility when in their research they transform subjects into objects and try to represent the social conditions objectively instead of adequately?

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3. Judgment: it is very unusual for a scientist to show the limits of the sciences that common sense places upon them as Arendt did. She subdues scientific judgment to everyday understanding. In her essay “Understanding and Politics” (1952) she explains: “Knowledge and understanding are not the same, but they are interrelated. Understanding is based on knowledge and knowledge cannot proceed without a preliminary, inarticulate understanding. Preliminary understanding denounces totalitarianism as tyranny and has decided that our fight against it is a fight for freedom. ... Preliminary understanding ... no matter how rudimentary and even irrelevant it may ultimately prove to be, will certainly more effectively prevent people from joining a totalitarian movement than the most reliable information, the most perceptive political analysis, or the most comprehensive accumulated knowledge. Understanding precedes and succeeds knowledge. Preliminary understanding, which is at the basis of all knowledge, and true understanding, which transcends it, have this in common: They make knowledge meaningful.”

This means that the scientists can only illuminate, but neither prove nor disprove what they have preliminarily understood. And when he tries to create politics out of the results of his research he loses all common sense, “which alone will guide him securely through the labyrinth of his own knowledge”. And when he tries to make his knowledge meaningful, he “must become very humble again and listen closely to the popular language, in which words like ‘totalitarianism’ are daily used as political clichés and misused as catchwords, in order to re-establish contact between knowledge and understanding.”

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This understanding means to judge, which is to take into consideration all real or possible points of view and to pronounce a judgment. Arendt discussed this procedure in another course with the example of a slum and its inhabitants whose points of view we should know in detail to be able to judge their situation, which does not mean to be in agreement with them.

But without critical thinking and commitment this judgment remains empty.

These three aspects show that the hitherto existing characterization of Arendt’s method as “thinking poetically” or of her position as “between the disciplines” are improper. Arendt rather attunes her style to the context and moves beyond the disciplines. And for her it is just as little about the alternative scientist or public intellectual, as she was sometimes called. While this professional thinker tends to raise himself above the common citizens, it is the non-professional action and judging of ordinary citizens, which stand at the center of Arendt’s work.

--Wolfgang Heuer

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
14Apr/140

Amor Mundi 4/13/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

Denaturalization and Superfluous People

passportIn 2010, Mohamed Sakr was stripped of his British citizenship. “Seventeen months later,” the NY Times reports, “an American drone streaked out of the sky in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia and killed Mr. Sakr. An intelligence official quoted in news reports called him a “very senior Egyptian,” though he never held an Egyptian passport. A childhood friend of Mr. Sakr, Bilal al-Berjawi, a Lebanese-Briton also stripped of his citizenship by the British government, was killed in a drone strike a month earlier, after having escaped an attack in June 2011. The cases of Mr. Sakr and Mr. Berjawi are among the most significant relating to the British government’s growing use of its ability to strip citizenship and its associated rights from some Britons at the stroke of a pen, without any public hearing and with only after-the-fact involvement by the courts. Now, faced with concerns that the steady stream of British Muslims traveling to fight in Syria could pose a threat on their return, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is pushing legislation that would give it additional flexibility to use the power, which among other things keeps terrorism suspects from re-entering the country.” The sovereign right of a nation to control who is nationalized or denationalized is unchallenged, and yet in practice the rise of mass denationalization first emerged in Europe in the 1930s. For Hannah Arendt, it is a truism that “One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization.” This does not mean that Britain is teetering toward totalitarianism. All countries make use of denationalization to some extent. And yet, the normalization of the practice of depriving some people of their status as citizens does not deprive them simply of rights, but also leaves them fully outside the sphere of organized human society. They lack not the right to a trial or the right to speak, but the right to have rights as a member of human society. Mass denationalization is a dangerous road.

Beyond the Rational

mythSelf-described rationalist and atheist Barbara Ehrenreich, who is also a scientist by training, is interviewed about her new book Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything on NPR. She recounts one of the mystical experiences she had as a teenager in the Mojave Desert: “It was – the only words I can put to it after all these years are that the world flamed into life. Everything was alive. It was like there was a feeling of an encounter with something living, not something God-like, not something loving, not something benevolent, but something beyond any of those kinds of categories, beyond any human categories.” This book, Ehrenreich says, marks the first time she has spoken to anyone about these experiences. “…I think I have a responsibility to report things, even if they're anomalous, even if they don't fit whatever theory I had in my mind or most people have or anything. So it's in that spirit that I take this risk…Now I'm getting responses from people and I'm talking about serious people, serious rational actually nonbelievers, people I know through my work, as well as total strangers who pop up and say, that is so much like my experience.”

Unheard Prayer

chickIn an interview, Mary Szybist, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for poetry, discusses the relationship between her prayer and her chosen medium: "When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry. I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that."

No Easy Way Out

peterOnly a few days prior to author and naturalist Peter Matthiessen's death last week, the New York Times Magazine published a profile of him in honor of In Paradise, Matthiessen's final book. That novel springs from an experience that the author had during a Zen Buddhist retreat held at Auschwitz; one night, the group fell into dance, a profoundly divisive act, not, perhaps, that different from holding a meditation retreat in a German death camp. A few nights later, responding both to the dancing and to the retreat as a whole, Mattheiessen spoke: “I just got up and made a generality that if we think the Germans are unique in this regard, we’re crazy. We’re all capable of this, if the right buttons are pressed. Our countries have all done it. Man has been a murderer forever...It was no great manifesto up there. I just wanted to say, ‘Come on, we’re all in this together.’” There is, however, a non-minimal difference between those who might have participated in the Final Solution if given the chance and those who did so. To say we are all guilty is to say that no one is, as Arendt never tired of pointing out. I would like to think Mattheiessen knew he was just mouthing a “generality,” as he said.

Against Philosophical Cleverness

bernardPaul Sagar reviews Bernard Williams' posthumous collection of essays and reviews. Sagar praises the therapeutic impact of the seriousness of Williams’ public thinking, which may “teach and urge patience regarding the long span of time that is required to acquire, process, and then develop knowledge and ideas. This in turn can have a calming effect, balancing the sense of being overwhelmed by the vast amount that there is to know before one can even come close to saying something worth saying.” Indeed, Williams is one of those few public thinkers who, in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, elevate public discourse by the force of their example. In other words, Williams insists that philosophy remain a humanist rather than a scientific project. “Williams urged that philosophy must be a humanistic discipline. Many analytic philosophers proceed as though the sheer force of their cleverness can scythe through deep problems of human living and understanding, unaided and unencumbered by further learning and knowledge. This attitude frequently goes along with a willful philistinism: a celebration of one’s ignorance beyond one’s academic niche, within which one prowls to do battle with the more or less clever as they dare come forth. Williams’s work stands as an indictment of this way of going about philosophy. He shows that it is most certainly an intellectual mistake. But it is also an ethical one, insofar as we rightfully find ignorance repellant and its celebration a vice. The richness and value of human experience must extend beyond being merely clever, if our lives are to have that dimension of meaning which philosophy, of all disciplines, should surely put first and foremost (the clue, after all, is in the name).”

Pictures of Reconciliation

recThe NY Times offers pictures of reconciliation, putting faces and bodies to relationships such as this one: “NZABAMWITA: “I damaged and looted her property. I spent nine and a half years in jail. I had been educated to know good from evil before being released. And when I came home, I thought it would be good to approach the person to whom I did evil deeds and ask for her forgiveness. I told her that I would stand by her, with all the means at my disposal. My own father was involved in killing her children. When I learned that my parent had behaved wickedly, for that I profoundly begged her pardon, too.” KAMPUNDU: “My husband was hiding, and men hunted him down and killed him on a Tuesday. The following Tuesday, they came back and killed my two sons. I was hoping that my daughters would be saved, but then they took them to my husband’s village and killed them and threw them in the latrine. I was not able to remove them from that hole. I knelt down and prayed for them, along with my younger brother, and covered the latrine with dirt. The reason I granted pardon is because I realized that I would never get back the beloved ones I had lost. I could not live a lonely life — I wondered, if I was ill, who was going to stay by my bedside, and if I was in trouble and cried for help, who was going to rescue me? I preferred to grant pardon.”” Arendt relates reconciliation to Amor Mundi, to love the world. Reconciliation, she writes, “has its origin in a self-coming to terms with what has been given to one.” The act of loving the world as it is re-imagines one’s solidarity in the face of a wrong that threatens to dissolve that common sense of belonging to a world, even a world that harbors horrific wrongs. In this sense, reconciliation is the judgment that in spite of our plurality and differences, we share a common world.

Rawls on Why Baseball is the Best of All Games

baseI attended my first Mets game of the season last Sunday, with my daughter. She is learning to watch the whole field, to note where the outfielders shift against right and left handed hitters and when her favorite player, David Wright, covers the line at third. Baseball is a game of pauses that can be filled with strategy, conversation, and hot dogs. Basking in the glory of the beginning of a new season of hope, I was thrilled to come across a short letter by John Rawls extolling seven virtues of baseball. Here are the first two. “First: the rules of the game are in equilibrium: that is, from the start, the diamond was made just the right size, the pitcher’s mound just the right distance from home plate, etc., and this makes possible the marvelous plays, such as the double play. The physical layout of the game is perfectly adjusted to the human skills it is meant to display and to call into graceful exercise. Whereas, basketball, e.g., is constantly (or was then) adjusting its rules to get them in balance. Second: the game does not give unusual preference or advantage to special physical types, e.g., to tall men as in basketball. All sorts of abilities can find a place somewhere, the tall and the short etc. can enjoy the game together in different positions.”

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12Apr/141

Denationalization and Totalitarianism

ArendtWeekendReading

In 2010, Mohamed Sakr was stripped of his British citizenship. Not long thereafter, Sakr was killed in Somalia by a United States drone strike. American intelligence officials referred to him as an Egyptian, though he never had an Egyptian passport. There was no mention in the U.S. or the U.K. of his former British citizenship. One month before Sakr was killed, his friend Bilal al-Berjawi was killed in a drone attack after also having his British citizenship revoked. These are not isolated instances.  As Mark Mazzetti reports in the NY Times, “Forty-two people have been stripped of their British citizenship since 2006, 20 of them last year…. In Israel, by comparison, the power to revoke citizenship has been used only twice since 2000, according to the Interior Ministry there.” And according to Mazzetti’s article in the New York Times, the British Government is seeking even greater authority to denationalize citizens it believes engage in terrorism.

“The cases of Mr. Sakr and Mr. Berjawi are among the most significant relating to the British government’s growing use of its ability to strip citizenship and its associated rights from some Britons at the stroke of a pen, without any public hearing and with only after-the-fact involvement by the courts. Now, faced with concerns that the steady stream of British Muslims traveling to fight in Syria could pose a threat on their return, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government is pushing legislation that would give it additional flexibility to use the power, which among other things keeps terrorism suspects from re-entering the country.”

The sovereign right of a nation to control who is nationalized or denationalized is unchallenged; it is a basic right of sovereignty to patrol the boundary of citizenship. It is true that citizenship is a privilege. And nations have long denationalized those who attained their citizenship by fraud; at times, as well, the practices of expulsion and exile were employed to deal with those who were found guilty of treason or impiety.

But the rise of mass denationalization first emerged in Europe in the 1930s and is associated with the advent of totalitarianism. What denationalization does is deny those it disowns not only the right of a trial or the right of due process, but more importantly, it denies them the right to have rights. To denationalize someone is to say that they no longer belong to any organized political community. They can appeal to no state for rights or protection. They are a mere human being, no longer an American, an Englishman, or a European.

Homeless and stateless, the denationalized person cannot even be arrested or put on trial and imprisoned in accord with the law, for the stateless are also outside the reach of the law. They are outlaws in that they are outside the protection of the laws. Which is why Hannah Arendt argues that it is a truism that “One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization.”

This does not mean the Britain is teetering toward totalitarianism. All countries make use of denationalization to some extent. And yet, the normalization of the practice of depriving some people of their status as citizens does not deprive them simply of rights, but also leaves them fully outside the sphere of organized human society. It is significant that the UK is currently seeking the authority not simply to denationalize those it deems a threat to its security, but to do so even in those cases where doing so would render the person fully stateless.

These are not isolated or extraordinary cases. The dozens of denationalized terrorists in the UK could, of course, be arrested, tried, and convicted in accordance with the law. By choosing to denationalize classes of people, the UK is creating a population of stateless persons who lack not the right to a trial or the right to speak, but the right to have rights as a member of human society. It is creating a class of people outside the law and thus subject to normalized extra-legal killings performed by the secret services of a state that otherwise is a constitutional democracy limited by the rule of law. Mass denationalization is a dangerous road.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Mar/143

Dr. Strangelove and the Banality of Evil

Arendtquote

Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.

-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.

The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.

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Still from "Dr. Strangelove"

In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.

According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking.  This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.

The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.

The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.

-Ian Zuckerman

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Feb/141

Why Think?

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This post was originally published July 16, 2012

"What makes us think? Hegel's answer: Reconciliation. Reconciliation with what? With things as they are. But this we do constantly anyhow by establishing ourselves in the world. Why repeat it in thought?"

          - Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, 782

No relation is more central to Hannah Arendt's writing than that between acting and thinking. Thinking, Arendt knows, is distinct from action that takes place in the world. Thinking is a seeing into the unseeable and the unsayable. It is a relation with oneself in the two-in-one of a dialogue one has with oneself. In thinking, the thinker withdraws from the world. "In thinking," she writes in 1970, there is a partial "pulling of oneself back out of the world of appearances."  Thinking, in other words, can be apolitical and unworldly. Thinking is even, she writes, analogous to death in its rejection of the world.

Against the un-worldliness of thinking, Arendt embraces the political humanism of action. InThe Human Condition, Arendt names action as "the only activity that goes on directly between men" and "corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world." To act, she writes, is to live and "to be among men." Action is tied to human life just as thinking is, for Arendt, a metaphor for death.

The connection between action and human life, as well as the association of thinking with death, might suggest that Arendt prefers action to thought. And yet such a view would be at least misleading if not mistaken. Thinking, Arendt insists in The Human Condition, is the "highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." Above all, she strives to bring thinking and action together; to think what we are doing. Arendt's entire life's work is a response to the thoughtlessness of our time that is the fundamental enabling condition of totalitarianism. There is, for Arendt, no more meaningful or powerful response to the dangers of totalitarianism than the pure activity of thinking.

What then is thinking? And why is it important? These are questions Arendt struggles with at all times, but nowhere more explicitly than in her Denktagebuch. In the passage quoted above, Arendt writes that Hegel answers the question: "Why Think?" with the idea of reconciliation.

For Hegel, reconciliation is experienced as a response to his fundamental experience of the world ripped asunder. In other words, the world appears to man as that which is foreign. Man stands against the objects and things of the world, which are separate from him. And man's dream and drive is to reunite himself with the world. In Hegel's words from his Encyclopedia:

"The highest and final aim of philosophic science is to bring about ... a reconciliation of the self-conscious reason with the reason which is in the world – in other words, with actuality.”

The aim of thinking, Hegel repeats,

"Is to divest the objective world that stands opposed to us of its strangeness, and to find ourselves at home in it: which means no more than to trace the objective world back to the notion – to our inmost self.”

What this means, Hegel writes in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, is that “the ultimate aim and business of philosophy is to reconcile thought or the Notion with reality.”

Arendt returns repeatedly to Hegel's idea of reconciliation. Perhaps no other thread of inquiry receives more attention in Arendt's Denktagebuch, which begins in 1950 with a seven page meditation on the political importance of reconciliation. In Between Past and Future, Arendt writes:

“The task of the mind is to understand what happened, and this understanding, according to Hegel, is man’s way of reconciling himself with reality; its actual end is to be at peace with the world.”

In Truth and Politics, Arendt again raises the problem of a thoughtful reconciliation to reality alongside a reference to Hegel:

"Who says what is always tells a story. To the extent that the teller of factual truth is also a storyteller, he brings about that ‘reconciliation with reality’ which Hegel, the philosopher of history par excellence, understood as the ultimate goal of all philosophical thought."

In Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, Melvyn A. Hill reports a further remark by Arendt, in which she says,

"I can very well live without doing anything. But I cannot live without trying at least to understand whatever happens. And this is somehow the same sense in which you know it from Hegel, namely where I think the central role is reconciliation--reconciliation of man as a thinking and reasonable being. This is what actually happens in the world."

In all these and in many other instances, Arendt affirms the centrality of reconciliation to her project. Thinking, as a kind of reconciliation with the world, is the activity in which human beings work to understand and comprehend the world around them. This understanding-reconciliation is necessary because without it we would not live in a world that we could understand or make our way in. Objects for which we have no understanding and no language to describe them are non-existent. There is a basic truth to Hegel's idealism; that the real world only is for humans insofar as we humans think about that world and reconcile ourselves to it.

At the same time, Arendt distinguishes her sense of reconciliation from that of Hegel. We humans are constantly and of necessity reconciling ourselves with reality. In living and acting, we establish ourselves in the world. We accept and conform to institutions, traditions, habits, and customs. We build a human world and then live in it, even if we at times resist that world or rebel against it. Both resistance and rebellion presume a prior reconciliation with and understanding of the world. This is what it means to be human and to act. In our everyday actions and life we enact our reconciliation to the world.

If reconciliation is almost unconscious and natural, why then, Arendt asks, do we have to repeat this reconciliation in thought? This is a question Arendt repeats often and in different ways. Her answer has much to do with her conviction that sometime in the early parts of the 20th century, philosophy and thinking ceased to be able "to perform the task assigned to it by Hegel and the philosophy of history, that is, to understand and grasp conceptually historical reality and the events that made the modern world what it is." For Arendt, somehow the "human mind had ceased, for some mysterious reasons, to function properly." In other words, what happens in the 20th century is that a gap emerges between reality and thinking.

This gap between thinking and reality itself, Arendt writes, is not new. It may be, she supposes, "coeval with the existence of man on earth." But for centuries and millennia, the gap was "bridged over by tradition." Human beings created gods, customs, and cultures that gave their lives meaning. The world made sense and human reason seemed to fit well to the realities that surrounded it.

The homelessness of the modern world, our undeterred will to truth, combined with our scientific insistence upon universal knowledge, means that we moderns can never be at home in a finite and mortal human world. It is in such a world that the drive for certainty risks perfecting itself into totalitarian ideology and the need for coherence threatens to elevate comforting lies over unsettling truths.

In our modern world where our thinking efforts to understand the real world forever fall short, reconciliation assumes a different and distinctly non-Hegelian sense. Reconciliation demands that we forego the will to absolute knowledge or scientific mastery of the world.  We must, instead, reconcile ourselves to the reality of the gap between thinking and acting.

Thinking today requires “settling down in the gap between past and future;” in other words, thinking demands that we continually recommit ourselves to the loss of a knowable and hospitable world and, instead, commit ourselves to the struggle of thinking and acting in a world without banisters.  Only if we think and reconcile ourselves to the reality of our irreconcilable world can we hope to resist the ever-present possibility of totalitarianism.

-Roger Berkowitz

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/9/14

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Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

It Matters Who Wins

ascentSimon Critchley at "The Stone" reminisces about Dr. Jacob Bronowski's "Ascent of Man" series and specifically the episode on Knowledge and Creativity. At one point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode, 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.'" It is a must read essay and must see clip. And you can read more about in Roger Berkowitz's Weekend Read.

Inside Camp X-Ray

xrayIn the wake of President Obama's yearly promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, South African writer Gillian Slovo suggests that, just as important as closing the base is acknowledging what happened inside: "There are two qualifications for being in Guantanamo: you have to be male, and you have to be Muslim. And once you've had the bad luck to be shipped there, you're stuck. Ordinary prisons in democratic societies work because of the cooperation of prisoners, most of whom, if they behave well, know they will eventually be freed. Not so in Guantanamo: there are the voiceless who, the American government has decided, do not deserve a trial. That's why, as Lord Steyn said, the American government made every effort to stop us from knowing what was happening there and that is why it is the responsibility of those who do have a voice in our world to let it be heard."

Woody Allen, Nihilist

wppdyIn the midst of the debate concerning whether the allegations against Woody Allen should affect how his work is received and celebrated, Damon Linker discusses the philosophical nihilism underlying Allen's work and its moral implications. He points to the 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a married man who murders his lover in order to prevent her from disclosing their affair not only gets away with the crime but manages to entirely overcome his guilt and find happiness. In a 2010 interview with Commonweal magazine that Linker quotes, Allen explained the existential meaninglessness that he wanted the film to depict: "[E]veryone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.... [O]ne can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, 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. There is no justice..." Nihilism threatens to bring about a world in which anything becomes possible and permissible because we no longer see human life as having meaning. And yet, nihilism, as Hannah Arendt saw, can also be central to the practice of thinking and acting that creates meaning. For more on Woody's nihilism, see Roger Berkowitz's Weekend Read.

Ambivalent About Love

loveIn an interview, comics artist  expresses her ambivalence about love: "Well, love isn't an end in itself, no emotion is. Emotions are signposts directing you to actions, and the actions have varied consequences beyond the scope of the events that instigated them. I'm more interested in examining the state of being in love, of accommodating that feeling and attempting to legibly express it, than I am with mapping the initial process of a romantic attraction. If the lovers in my stories seem to struggle to connect with one another, it's because that's what being in love mainly entails, this ongoing mutual desperate groping for communion. I don't mean to argue that I think love isn't worthwhile! I think it absolutely is, but whether I think that or not, love and every other strong emotion will still be rampaging through the animal kingdom, kneecapping all attempts at independent decision-making, compelling us to conform our behavior to its purpose, which is mainly procreative. In fact the inevitability of it is reassuring. Pulling these things apart a little is beneficial, and I'd like to see it done more, but questioning a concept doesn't equate to rejecting it outright. I question it precisely because I believe in it so strongly."

Of Fear, Cowardice, and Courage

womanLinda Besner, striking an Arendtian note, wonders what it means that we have abandoned the idea of cowardice. One worry is that if we no longer speak of cowardice we may no longer be able to praise bravery. Besner suggests that contemporary definitions of bravery-facing down your own fears-are useful for self development, but not so much for living with others: "without a moral category of cowardice, are we really entitled to a category of bravery? The argument that Fear is Courage sounds unsettlingly Orwellian, and paves the way for the simple admission of fear to replace overcoming it. The emotional risks of facing one's feelings matter; but an inward-looking process focused on self-actualization is different from a sense of duty to the wider world. If cowardice consists in failing the collective, bravery may be said to inhere in taking personal risks for the greater good."

On Miracles, Agony, and Optimism

manIn the same special issues on "Generation" that elicited Carol Becker's reflections discussed last week, Jan Verwoert asks "why would Capital exploit the miraculous, if it was not for the fact that it is a source of infinite generative energy?" He writes, "Miracles happen always and everywhere. Art presents us with evidence of their occurrence daily, in the most mundane fashion: every little instant in which the mind clears, an intuition takes shape, you see what you couldn't see before, and what couldn't be resolved suddenly can be; in the spot where the writing got stuck the night before, words fall into place; the morning after, you meet someone by chance who opens a door and a project that seemed unrealizable yesterday goes through no problem; the fingers find their way across the key--or fretboard and a song is born; the painting that has been staring back at you for weeks or months now, half complete yet incompletable because it's evident that it lacks something but is impossible to see what-well, that canvas suddenly opens up, and within the shortest amount of time things shift into perspective and the work is done. This is a miracle. It cannot be achieved, or caused by any known means (drugs don't work). It occurs."

Featured Events

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 7:00 pm

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From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Bill Dixon reflects on the "sandstorm of totalitarianism" that is based upon "loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz explore truth, creativity, nihilism, and the affaire Allen.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3Feb/142

Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm

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“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.

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The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form - and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.

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Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push - sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly - toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Jan/140

On Civic Journalism

ArendtWeekendReading

In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.

The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”

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One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:

In Pilgrim's Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.

The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.

Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).

Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.

Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.

The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.

The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”

Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?

Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.

Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.”  The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.

watchdog

To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.

Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.

But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.

Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”

Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself:  If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
13Jan/140

Amor Mundi 1/12/14

Arendtamormundi

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.

False Analogies: Stalin and Cromwell

cromwellPeter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)” For a lesson in false analogies, read more here.

After All the People We Killed

ecuSome stories are so morally complicated and politically convoluted that they tug us this way and that as we read about them. That is how I felt reading Bethany Horne’s account of the genocidal, environmental, political, criminal, and corporate tragedy that is unfolding in Ecuador. Horne’s title, “After All the People We Killed, We Felt Dizzy” is a quotation from a member of the Huaorani tribe describing their massacre of an entire family group from the Taromenane people. A 6-year-old girl who survived the massacre has since been kidnapped twice and has now been elevated into a symbol in a political war between environmentalists and human rights activists on one side and the Ecuadoran government on the other. “Conta [the kidnapped girl] can't know that the jungle she was snatched from by those armed men in helicopters is a rallying cry for 15 million people in Ecuador. She can't know that the land rights and human rights of her people are the cause of a massive movement to force the president of Ecuador to do something he does not want to do. And last of all, Conta can't possibly comprehend the full impact of what Correa wants so badly from the Taromenane: the crude oil underneath their homes, a commodity that powers a world she does not understand that threatens to swallow her.”

Talking to Each Other

John Cuneo

John Cuneo

In a short profile of author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber elucidates the difference that Turkle makes between the way we talk at each other, with our machines, and the way we talk to each other, in person-to-person conversations: “Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. ‘You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,’ Turkle says. 'It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.’”

Incomplete Tellings are all that Remain

manMark Slouka remembers his recently passed father and elaborates on one of the particular things he lost: "With him gone, there’s no one to reminisce with, no one to corroborate my memories (or correct them), no one to identify the little girl smiling up from the curling photograph at the bottom of the shoebox. In 1942, in Brno, my father’s family hid a man in the rabbit hutch for a week, until he could be moved. That’s all I know of the story, and now it’s all I’ll ever know. With no one to check me, error will spread like weeds. Which is how the past is transmuted into fiction, and then the fool’s gold of history."

Banking and the English Language

benThomas Streithorst, before attempt to untangle the language of finance, explains why he thinks the task is necessary: "Sometimes I think bankers earn all that money because they make what they do seem both tedious and unintelligible. Banking may be the only business where boredom is something to strive for, so its jargon both obfuscates and sends you to sleep. But six years of pain forces us to realize that economics is too important to be left to the bankers. If the rest of us keep bailing them out, we might as well know what they do. Fortunately, finance isn’t as complicated as its practitioners pretend. It does, however, have its own language, and if you don’t understand it, it sounds like gobbledygook."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Steven Tatum considers what it means to teach Arendtian thinking. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz reflects on President Vladimir Putin's recent attempt to justify statues memorializing Josef Stalin by comparing him to Oliver Cromwell.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Jan/143

Stalin, Hitler, and Cromwell and the Politics of Memory

ArendtWeekendReading

Peter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)”

The idea behind Putin’s analogy seems to be that great leaders often need to commit crimes or atrocities. Cromwell was undoubtedly brutal to the Irish. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was brutal to the South, but he is still honored by many. Of course, Stalin killed people as well, but he also won WWII against Hitler and elevated the Soviet Union to superpower status. The moral seems to be that great leaders often must dare to act in morally questionable ways, which does not disqualify them as great leaders worthy of commemoration: To make an omelet, goes the saying, you must break a few eggs.

Singer wants to argue, rightly, that there is a difference between leaders like Cromwell and someone like Stalin. His answer, however, is simply that Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Cromwell:

“Unlike Cromwell, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of very large numbers of civilians, outside any war or military campaign. According to Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, 2-3 million people died in the forced labor camps of the Gulag and perhaps a million were shot during the Great Terror of the late 1930’s. Another five million starved in the famine of 1930-1933, of whom 3.3 million were Ukrainians who died as a result of a deliberate policy related to their nationality or status as relatively prosperous peasants known as kulaks.”

cromwell

It is insufficient, however, to say that Stalin differs from Cromwell only in the number of people he killed. For one thing, the Irish population Cromwell had to suppress was significantly smaller than the European Jews or the Russian peasants. By one estimate, Cromwell killed nearly one-third of the million-and-a-half Catholics living in Ireland, all within a nine-month siege. While most of those fatalities were soldiers, many also were priests and civilians. Singer’s retreat to a numerical distinction is simply too easy and does not take seriously enough the question: What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Stalin?

Cromwell’s conquest and pacification of Ireland was truly brutal. In a mere nine months, he and his Ironsides killed over 500,000 people. Further, Cromwell characterized and justified his killing as God’s work. In one letter justifying his particularly bloody victory in Drogheda, he wrote: “This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.... it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise work remorse and regret.” A crusader for England, Cromwell can be seen both as an unprincipled warrior and as one of the great defenders and proponents of a uniquely English brand of political virtue. It is that ambiguity that allows him to be both reviled and also memorialized in England.

For all his incomparable evil, Stalin led the Soviet Union through its war with Germany. The Soviet resistance in the Battle of Leningrad is legendary. And Stalin ultimately led his country to a victory over the Nazis and elevated it to become one of the world’s two 20th century superpower. He is a hero for many Russians. Sure, many also hate him; but so do many Irish and Scottish citizens of the United Kingdom disdain and hate Cromwell. Cromwell is memorialized in spite of these hatreds. Should Stalin not be memorialized for this contribution to Russian and Soviet history?

To answer that question, it is important to realize also how Stalin differs from Cromwell.  What Stalin brought to politics was a totalitarian ideology, a politics that, as Hannah Arendt argues in “Image of Hell,” “invariably appears in the clothes of an inevitable logical conclusion made on the basis of some ideology or theory.” Stalin’s mass killings were “justified” by his scientific theories of history, and the murdered were assigned to the “dying classes” whose deaths were justified because they stood on the wrong side of the march of historical progress. That only Stalin could know the “true interests of the proletariat” was simply one component of the general Stalinist program that imagined entire populations to be representatives of a “hostile class.”

The technical method that Stalin, like Hitler, hit upon to support their ideologies was terror. For Arendt, Stalinism and Nazism are united in their reliance upon scientific ideologies held in place by apparatuses of terror. They differ in that the Nazi ideology calls upon nature and race to mark its enemies, while the Stalinist ideology turns to history. Racial ideologies are “more thorough and more horrible than the Marxist or pseudo-Marxists” or Stalinist varieties, but both are devastating insofar as the reliance on “science” sweeps away all opposition and all limiting factors. By adding to the reality of political power a “superstitious belief in the eternity of that power,” scientific totalitarianisms magnify their self-justifications and thus enable the most extreme and unlimited doing of evil.

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The difference between someone like Cromwell versus figures like Stalin and Hitler is that the latter employed unlimited terror in pursuit of the impossible victory of supposedly scientific absolute idea—be it the idea of a master race or a socialist utopia. Cromwell may have thought his was a divine task, but he did not arbitrarily decide that innocent people were suddenly enemies of the people, to be eliminated either on account of their religion, race, or supposed class interest. In short, Cromwell may have been a rabid and morally compromised political leader, but he was still engaged in a politics of interest, not a crusade of terror that dehumanized people according to quasi-scientific theories.

Stalin’s crime was not simply to kill masses of people, for Cromwell and many other heroes have done that as well. What Stalin did is institute an entire totalitarian edifice in which the entire Soviet people were ruled by terror and fear. Stalin’s totalitarian government was not morally ambiguous in the sense of Cromwell’s, it was an amoral and immoral system in which anything could be justified in the name of power and control. To memorialize Stalin is—in spite of his undeniable importance for modern day Russia—is to look the other way not simply at mass murder, but at a totalitarian system of government that eviscerates freedoms for everyone. It is that horrific message that President Putin seems not to understand—or maybe he just doesn’t find it so horrific.

Here is Peter Singer’s attempt to distinguish Stalin from Cromwell. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
25Nov/130

Some Thoughts on the Importance of Personality

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Action is “the miracle that saves the world from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

“I mentioned the quality of being a person as distinguished from being mere human..., and I said that to speak about a moral personality is almost redundancy...In the process of thought in which I actualize the specifically human difference of speech I explicitly constitute myself a person, and I shall remain one to the extent that I am capable of such constitution ever again and anew.”

-Hannah Arendt, "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy"

 

We are used to finding in Arendt’s work a clear distinction between action and speech on the one hand and thinking and judging on the other. But here in the second quote, Arendt declares that only this thinking through and - qualified - speech can transform a mere human being into a personality.

Now, when, as Arendt writes in the first quote, the miracle of action saves the world from its normal‚ 'natural’ ruin, defining nature as non-civilization, as barbarity, then this means that such an action is insolubly connected to the question of the personality of those who act. Who are those who acted in Occupy Now! or joined Los Indignados in Spain: were they individuals in the literal sense of independent human beings as the smallest units, which change sometimes rapidly into parts of masses, or were they persons, personalities? This question is much more important than the question of political goals or theoretical programs. Because it depends on those, who act, whether the world can be saved from its neo-liberal ruin and if yes, how.

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The distinction between individuals and personalities always has an elitist appearance. But it is evident that we find personalities independent of their social status among workers, academics and politicians. A personality is not formed by its social origin or intellectual Bildung, but by a practical everyday education of citizens. This education is not based on the separation of reason and emotion, but on that what Arendt referred to as the “understanding heart” of the biblical King Solomon, which comprises equally heart and mind. The European 18th century, facing a secular society increasingly oriented towards an open freedom, searched for the possibility of a self-bound orientation in judgment. It discussed taste as a power of cognition. Melchior Grimm for example, a more or less forgotten German illustrator, essayist and diplomat, wrote: “The condition of a pronounced and perfect taste is to have a sharp intellect, a sensitive soul and a righteous heart.” Here taste does not only mean the aesthetic but also the moral judgment. In Grimm’s trilogy all three elements are indispensible in their mutual conditionality: reason can become inhuman without soul and heart; the sensitive soul apolitical due to an unchecked compassion; the righteous heart confused without reason.

Back then there was a prevailing understanding that moral and artistic quality rest in equal measure on independent thinking and on independent judgment. This is still visible in our everyday use of language whenever we speak of a “beautiful” or “ugly” gesture or figure of speech or of the “inner beauty” which a person possessing integrity shows by that integrity. These examples are, according to Kant, expressions of the harmony of the different powers of cognition both in regards to their inner proportions and in respect to the free coexistence of these powers and their mutual influence on one another. It is a harmony which occurs between form and content as well as between “an enlarged mentality” and reason, it differs from purely rational judgment.

Therefore, it is not the reason, which we are proud of because it distinguishes us from animals, but rather what Arendt calls an enlarged mentality which is of decisive political importance. In her Denktagebuch (Thinking Diary) she wrote: “Because of the fact that not self-bound reason but only an enlarged mentality makes it possible ‘to think in the place of another’, it is not reason, but the enlarged mentality which forms the link between human beings. Against the sense of self fueled by reason, by the I-think, one finds a sense for the world, fueled by the others as common-sense (passive) and the enlarged mentality (active.)”

From this interpersonal perspective follows the aspect that freedom is to be understood as “freedom for,” as inter-subjective, common freedom, which is inseparably bound to the responsibility for everything that happens in the political community. This responsibility does not deal with moral or juridical guilt for one’s own actions but instead with the responsibility of someone who is “a responder,” who understands that the actions of all decide whether or not we live in a decent society.

Though with Kant the era of investigations into the conditions for an independent judgment ended and the Kantian “capacity to judge” was replaced during the 19th and 20th centuries by logic, ideologies and theoretical systems, there were still some ambassadors of the 18th century left – Arendt of course, and her contemporaries like George Orwell and Albert Camus. Orwell’s works are marked by a hypothesis; namely, that the decency inherent in the everyday life of normal people can resist the general loss of orientation in an age of ideology. “It looks like a platitude,” he wrote, but his message was nothing more than: “If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” He tried to interpret what he called the “common decency” as a compass not only of single persons but also of the social and political life of citizens. According to Orwell this common decency rests on general, practical everyday moral norms and habits. Common decency differs from explicit and rigid moral prescriptions of “the good human being” by its openness and flexibility. For Orwell it was not human dignity in an abstract way that had to be protected but the behaviour to which a society commits itself that was in need of defending. The decent life affords social regulations that consist of respect for others, the absence of domination or humiliation, and social, economic or cultural equality. The highest income should not be ten times higher than the lowest. All laws should respect or support a decent life and include all citizens in the “pouvoir constituant des vie ordinaries.” Orwell was against the socialism of his time as an oligarchic collectivism, which attracted only the socially marginalized and intellectuals. “In our country,” he wrote, “the liberals fear freedom and the intellectuals are ready for any sort of ignominy against thinking.” That means: “The direct conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves.”

This aspect of decency refers to what for Arendt is the basis of all political action and independent judgment; the effort to recover in a political community the right middle ground and human scale that marks the place where civilization ends.

Like Arendt and Orwell, Albert Camus stressed the importance of moderation while he observed excess among Marxist intellectuals after WW II, described in his most provocative book The Rebel. Revolutionary errors, he declared, disregarded natural limits and in so doing betrayed human inviolability. The experience of modern revolutions shows that “revolutions when they have no limits other than historical effectiveness, means endless slavery.” For Camus it is the task of revolt to redefine the place of the right middle and human scale in a permanent critical confrontation with present conditions.

Herein lays the actuality of these three authors, Arendt, Orwell and Camus: writing about totalitarianism, they described the conditions of a decent society, which was menaced then by revolutionary dogmatism and ideological mass-movements, and which is menaced today - not by revolts, or mass protests - but quite the contrary, by the destruction of politics and the common good by neo-liberalism.

menin

Therefore, it is not by chance that Arendt in her portraits of writers, politicians and thinkers, which she wrote on various occasions and published in her book Men in dark Times, always came to speak about their personal qualities. For example, Lessing’s critical mentality which could “never give rise to a definite worldview which, once adopted, is immune to further experiences in the world because it has hitched itself firmly to one possible perspective”; Rosa Luxemburg’s cultural background of an assimilated Jewish life in Poland characterized by excellent literary taste, independent moral concepts and the absence of social prejudices, and Waldemar Gurian’s independent judgment and non-conformism – he was her friend and the dean of the University of Notre Dame - who “was delighted when he could break down the(se) barriers of so-called civilized society, because he saw in them barriers between human souls.

-Wolfgang Heuer

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
21Oct/130

Of Ceilings and Binders: The Case for Satire

Arendtquote

“Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…into the dustbin where it belongs.”

 -George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

I was rereading Orwell’s great 1946 essay this morning, as I prepare to be hurtled back across the continent and into that black miasma engulfing the Atlantic coast from the great belching factories on the Potomac.  There is something in the air: the newspapers smack against doors a little harder, the grumble in the deli line is a little more fractious, and the smaller canines seem still more invested than usual in expansionist aggression against my outer territories.  Perhaps it’s simply the first signs of the descent of winter, but I’m inclined to attribute the collective ill-temper to more political causes, and “Politics and the English Language” seemed as important as my totemic Emergen-C packets to avoid contracting anything unpleasant.  Like much of the late Orwell, I find its linguistic politics slightly repugnant and its language an utter delight, an irony that would, I have no doubt, have the pleased the author.

orwell

I’ve  known a number of professors of history and politics who make this essay mandatory reading before their classes, and despite my better graces I’m leaning towards the practice.  The attraction for me is less the cantankerous attempt to ward off bad essay-writing than the fact that Orwell explains, in his inimitable way, something fundamental about the politics of language and the languages of politics, and that lesson is one that I think is particularly salient for the political moment.  The second to last sentence of the essay (the first that opens the quotation above) is much quoted, and it finds the most powerful expressions of its searing critique of the political manipulation of language in 1984 and Animal Farm.  Maybe the existence of this pathology of political language is the one great lesson we managed to learn from the twin births of totalitarianism Arendt diagnosed (I’m less sanguine about our memory in other arenas), even if treatment for the condition has not gone terribly well: we are all well-aware of, if not always well-attuned to, the nearly infinite capacity of our languages to bear and even beautify raw, enormous dissembly.  And, as in 1984, the most powerful dissemblies of the blustery political day are the pithy little gems – “death tax,” “death panel,” “debt ceiling” (conservative politicians in particular have a perennial fondness for D) – which manage to imagine into being a crisis capable of paralyzing a state.

Nevertheless you almost never read anyone quote what follows after the political respectability of murder for Orwell, the thought that concludes the essay and explains its form.  More’s the pity, because it contains a point that I think just might be more salient for the particular political crisis that gripped Washington and then whimpered off into the sunset (the night that follows is always a bit too brief, and is getting shorter).  The question, for Orwell, is not whether political language lies, but what one does with the species of neologism – the “Achilles’ heel” and the “yellow peril” – which seems to all tempered response almost utterly devoid of meaning, and yet manages nevertheless to grip a (part of a) national imagination and twist it into factual destruction.

It was, to be sure, an imaginary crisis.  But nearly all crises have to be imagined into existence before they can take those first few shaky steps towards disaster without their parents’ support.  Imagining facts into the world, Arendt reminds us in “Lying and Politics,” is the entire point of political language.  It exists to craft the narratives that move nations, and the power to imagine crisis is not one that we necessarily want to do without altogether (perhaps Churchill was an Arendtian before Arendt when he suggested that Chamberlain’s greatest political vice was an extraordinary lack of imagination).  All crises begin with facts – there is after all such a bureaucratic thing as the fiscal limit called the “debt ceiling” – but facts, Arendt reminds us,  can be remarkably impotent in the political world until we have spun them finely and woven them with enough meanings to make them live. The trouble with crises is not that they are imagined, but that after they have been imagined into the world, they are remarkably difficult to unimagine.  If Boehner has learned anything about political language, this month, it is how little control we exercise over the neologisms we release into the world once they are in the mouths of others.

So what to do about these little political language imps, if they’re to be stopped before they wreck the political machines that spit them out?  This is where I find Orwell brilliant as a political writer, a representative of a literary tradition that stretches from Chaucer through Swift to Burgess and Vonnegut.  Orwell’s answer here, perhaps more recognizable in Burmese Days and Road to Wigan Pier than in their later cousins, is to jeer: in other words, to make language – and language, not speakers – an object of mirth.  This impulse never left Orwell.  For all that 1984 is decisively, almost irresistibly crushing, it is also one of the darkest, bitterest exercises in history of a political tool of the arts of language that has always thrived when the political world is at its worst: irony and mirth in the face of horror.  We forget that about 1984, perhaps because the young are often assigned the book before our little burgeoning faculties of irony are fully sensitive to what Arendt calls a “vulnerability to human unsuccess”…or then again, perhaps the opposite is more true, that we understood it then, and forget as we struggle to shed that vulnerability Arendt describes as the killer of poets.

Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of.  Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror’s power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty “We, The Refugees”).  In that, we risk becoming horror’s willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn.  It’s a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line.  In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment.  The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do.  This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains.  The lesson of “Shooting an Elephant” always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it.  It’s a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing.

This, in turn, is why the satire of language, in particular, does offer a way forward.  It’s a case that Orwell makes and has been made brilliantly in a more American vein by Pryor, Carlin, and its modern geniuses Dave Chappell, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey.  If our morasses are mostly made of imaginings, in fact for better or worse must be, then the talent for jeering precisely those imaginative failings that turn crises into disasters is our best hope for sorting out in time what is more silliness than substance, what we should and what we cannot afford to leave to laughter.  Orwell’s talent is one we should be paying more attention to as things get blacker, not less, because ungentle teasing by that gift’s greatest artists may be our last, best hope of sorting through a world of imagined politics and its deafening neologisms.  The most gifted have unleashed some imps of their own: who will now forget poor Mittens’ binders full of women?

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It is commonplace, on both sides of the political spectrum, to wail and gnash about the sheer irrationality of some ways of understanding America’s problems.  But there are some forms of attachment, especially those that seem to inhere powerfully in these little language-imps, that the aesthetics of detached analysis and even fiery polemic are simply ill-equipped to combat.  When debating has become shouting, neither louder shouting nor studiously detached sermonism are likely to have much effect.  Sometimes, someone needs to kick out the soapbox.

We do need communities of analysis, communities of clear-eyed engagement in a political world so thoroughly fogged over with huff-puffery, and that will always give those like the author not blessed with the flair for jest something to do with ourselves (my closest friends assure me that I’m terrifyingly unfunny, and it’s true, but I’d like to still have something to do, even if it’s to be a lighthouse without a beacon or a coast).  Fate save us, though, from ever being delivered wholly over to the hands of the terminally serious, because it might just be that the emotional sacrifices of our jesters that are our best offerings to appease the gods of democracy.  As a public feeling powerless and deeply estranged from its state looks for ways “one can at least change one’s own habits”, a daily dose of satire with strong coffee may be better for political revival than what punditry and prognosis have on offer.

-Ian Storey

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
23Jul/130

Hannah Arendt as a Jewish Cosmopolitan Thinker

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Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.

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This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.

This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism

combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.

Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.

In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.

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Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.

I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.

This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.