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Fordham University Press has just put out Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, a collection of papers from a conference convened at Bard College to mark Arendt’s hundredth birthday. I put six questions to Roger Berkowitz, a professor at Bard and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking, about issues addressed in the book.
1. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes that the most essential criterion for judging the events of our time is whether they will lead to totalitarianism. That seemed perfectly sensible in the ashes of World War II, when the West still faced an existential threat from the Communist bloc. But is this analysis still current today, in light of the triumph of liberal democracy that came in 1988-92, as the Communist world shattered and fell?
The victory of liberal democracy, for Arendt, is not a guarantee of human dignity. So while you’re right that the threat of totalitarianism appears less pressing today, Arendt’s book is not simply about totalitarianism but specifically its origins. Arendt locates those origins in the basic experiences of modern life: rootlessness, homelessness, and loneliness. These are her words, and they name a fundamental condition not limited to citizens of totalitarian states. This is why Arendt can write that “the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form—though not necessarily their cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
The title The Origins of Totalitarianism suggests that the book is a history that explains how totalitarianism got started. That is not Arendt’s project. Instead, her book is an effort to comprehend the outrageous reality of the 20th century, to face up to, and also to resist that reality. Her work is, as she writes, an attempt to “think what we are doing.” Such an effort at thinking means that we must reject both the reckless optimism of those who might argue that understanding history will protect us from repeating it and the reckless despair of those who spy the specter of a police state in every act of government.
Arendt, as you point out, demands we judge events with regard to their power to inaugurate totalitarianism. Take an example like the financial crisis. Arendt reminds us to think about such an event not merely as an economic crisis, but as one rooted in the very modern way of life that underlies totalitarianism. Arendt’s own analysis of the transfer of the economic principle of unlimited growth to politics shows how, in the age of globalization, politics has become subservient to economics. She makes visible how the boom and bust business cycle of capitalism has its roots in an economic way of thinking that harbors totalitarian impulses. The point is not that the financial crisis will lead to a resurgent totalitarianism. Rather, it reveals the continued purchase of a way of life susceptible to the pursuit of extreme political movements that follow an economic rationality unlimited by human judgment.
2. Both in her study of totalitarianism and her writings in the wake of the Pentagon Papers, Arendt focused on the relationship between politics and lying. How do you relate this to the experience America has been through in the wake of the attacks on 9/11?
Members of the U.S. government claimed that Iraq was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They insisted that all the prisoners held in Guantánamo prison were hardened terrorists. They swore that the United States does not torture its prisoners. What is striking in all of these claims is not that we now know them to be false. Rather, it is that at the time they were made, repeated, and accepted, facts already existed that showed these assertions to be false.
Arendt helps us to see that these lies were not like the lies a President tells when he conceals information to avoid a panic. Such lies are important to politics. Nor were these post-9/11 lies along the lines of Lincoln’s claim that the Civil War was fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.” Such a lie exemplifies the grand and dignified freedom of human beings to change the world for the better. It reminds us that it is the great liars who are remembered as the great politicians.
The political lies Arendt worries about are not mere falsehoods. They are political acts in which facts are denied and alternative realities are created. In denying facts, the political liar acts to change the world, to make reality anew so that it conforms to our needs and desires. In this way, lying is at the essence of political action.
In its hostility to facts, however, the political lie opens the door to a politics that not only denies facts but works actively to disempower facts, thus enabling the creation of a coherent albeit fictitious world. The danger inheres in the utter logicality of the fictional narrative. To preserve the fiction, facts that contradict it need to be eliminated.
3. Arendt rattled political liberals in the United States with her skeptical take on school desegregation, expressed at the time of the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, rooted in a firm acceptance of the notion of limited powers of governance, and a strong aversion to the use of police powers to achieve otherwise desirable social objectives. Is there any evidence that she changed her views later?
Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” has been a landmine since it was written in 1957, originally for Commentary. When Commentary refused to publish it, Dissent did so, but not without a disclaimer of disagreement and a series of critical responses. None of these critiques swayed Arendt. In 1965, Arendt read Ralph Ellison’s comment on her essay published in Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro. In a letter to Ellison, she writes: “You are entirely right: it is precisely this ‘ideal of sacrifice’ which I didn’t understand.” The many criticisms leveled by her liberal friends didn’t bother her, but Ellison convinced her that “I simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.”
Arendt’s letter to Ellison has been seized upon as evidence that she recanted her opposition to forced integration. This overstates the case. Ellison rejects Arendt’s claim that black parents exploited their children by sending them into such an explosive situation. Arendt’s admission that she did not understand the black experience of sacrifice does not suggest that she altered her view that forced desegregation was a fundamental violation of the rights of all parents to educate their children as they wished. For her, the appropriate analogy was to anti-miscegenation laws. At the core of private freedom is the right to marry whomever one wants, irrespective of color (or, we might add, sex), and also the right to raise one’s children as one wants.
What Arendt defends in the Little Rock essay is a vibrant right to privacy as a space where one can be truly unique and different in ways that, because they are meaningfully outside of mainstream opinion, are often offensive and prejudiced.
4. Arendt’s Zionism and her identity as a Jew betwixt assimilation and self-assertiveness might be discerned from her book on Rahel Varnhagen. But her attachment to Israel also appears linked to a certain face of the Jewish state—one that embraced the more liberal values of the Israeli Labor Party, perhaps. How do Arendt’s views about Zionism and her vision of a Jewish state stack up with the current debate between AIPAC and J-Street?
Arendt never denied her Judaism. She insisted that one defend oneself in the identity for which one is attacked–in her case, as a Jew. In the 1930s she worked for Youth Aliyah helping to transport Jewish children to Palestine. In the 1940s she advocated for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis and wrote passionately about the plight of Jews in concentration camps, criticizing Jewish leaders for not acting to publicize the Holocaust. After the war, she stood with Judah Magnes as a critic of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. Instead, she advocated for a binational state that encompassed Jews and Arabs as equal citizens. Whether such a state was ever possible, many have credited Arendt with prescience in her prediction that a Jewish state would necessarily be chauvinist, that Palestinians—as second class citizens—would emerge as refugees presenting an insolvable problem, and that Israel would become a militarized state. Arendt had little patience for the Jewish leaders of the diaspora, a group that gained their leadership credentials not through election, but through philanthropy. These very Jewish leaders later shunned Arendt for her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.
5. One of the core ideas of modern American liberalism has been the need to suspend judgment to study a problem. But this is also one of the major criticisms that conservatives level at liberals, namely they seem almost without values. Arendt writes in her forward to Totalitarianism of the imperative to attempt an understanding without political prejudices. On the other hand, she also writes very persuasively of the moral imperative to form judgments, drawing heavily on Kant in the process. On which side, ultimately, would you put her in this debate?
There is no idea more central to Arendt’s political thought than judgment. Judgment requires, above all, what Kant called disinterestedness and what Arendt called seeing the question also from another’s point of view. Judgment is not mere personal taste or preference. To judge is to speak the truth, a truth that must always appeal to a common sense beyond one’s own prejudices.
Arendt identifies the lack of judgment today—what you refer to as the liberal predilection for suspending judgment—as one of the gravest dangers we face. This fear of judgment has two sources. First, the rise of social science and determinism explains all behavior via calculable norms so that individuals seem less accountable. This results in the classic liberal fear of judging those whose actions emerge from socially determined circumstances. Second, judgment is hindered by our belief in equality. To judge another requires the confidence and pride that one knows better. There is an arrogance to judging that is increasingly absent in our times.
We see this of course in the unwillingness of most politicians and journalists to judge the events of our time, from terrorism to torture. Terrorism, even as it is condemned, is all too often rationalized, explained, and excused as necessary or logical under the circumstances. And torture is said to be necessary and defensible to save lives. In both cases, there is, in Arendt’s words from Responsibility and Judgment, a “deep-seated fear … of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame.”
6. Your collection ends with a visit to Hannah Arendt’s private library and a walk through some of her books. It’s intriguing that she has such a substantial collection of works by Carl Schmitt, and that she has engaged so thoroughly with a man she only rarely cites or discusses. Can you explain this?
One of the great advantages of the Arendt Collection at Bard is the ability to inhabit Arendt’s working library, to see which books she read and how she read them. There is no doubt that Arendt read Carl Schmitt’s books and read them closely and critically.
Schmitt’s discussion of the populist movements and their challenge to the nation-state in Staat, Bewegung, Volk plays an important and cited role in Arendt’s discussion of the rise of imperialism in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Equally important, and cited too, is Arendt’s reliance on Schmitt’s Politische Romantik in her own discussion of the role of romanticism in the birth of race thinking and totalitarianism.
More broadly, Arendt shares with Schmitt a sharp distinction between politics and economics. Both fear the reduction of the freedom of political action to the conformity of administration. That said, Arendt does not see the political as an activity of distinguishing friend from foe, as Schmitt does. For Arendt, the autonomy of politics is an attempt to preserve a space for human spontaneity, the freedom to act in unexpected ways absent the constraints of economic needs or social conformities.
More from Scott Horton:
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