**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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.