No Comment, Six Questions — December 4, 2009, 5:40 pm

Thinking in Dark Times: Six Questions for Roger Berkowitz

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?

In her allusion to the totalitarian states that arose after World War I, Arendt suggests that the world in which facts could be agreed upon is in danger of changing forever and that not only individual facts, but the fate of “factual truth” as such is in danger in this new and emergent reality. The danger to the political world in modern times is the loss of the factual world that emerges, paradoxically, at the heart of the political realm that ordinarily creates, and depends upon, historical remembrance.

What is of interest to Arendt is that the lie comes not from without, but precisely from within the realm of political action and is in fact tied to it by a fundamental similarity between action and lying. Facts are fragile in the political sphere, she says, because truth-telling is actually much less political in its nature than the lie.

—From Cathy Caruth, “Lying and History” in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Fordham University Press. Copyright © 2010 Fordham University Press

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?

Two thinkers—Socrates and the German philosopher Karl Jaspers—appear and reappear as Arendt’s examples that shed light on the power of thinking in dark times. What unites Jaspers and Socrates in Arendt’s imagination is their shared ability to replace the thoughtlessness of loneliness with the thoughtlessness of solitude.

Loneliness, Arendt writes, is the loss of the experience of being with others that can strike one even when and especially when one is with others and lost in and among them. In contrast to loneliness, solitude demands that one actually is alone, and yet, in the being alone of solitude, “I am ‘by myself,’ together with my self.” It is in solitude, Arendt sees, that we are least alone. Amid the plurality that attains in solitude, there is the possibility for the activity of thinking that interrupts totalitarianism and fosters political action.
—From Roger Berkowitz, “Solitude and the Activity of Thinking,”
in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Fordham University Press. Copyright © 2010 Fordham University Press

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.

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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