**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.
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.
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.)” For a lesson in false analogies, read more here.
Some 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.”
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.’”
Mark 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."
Thomas 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."
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.