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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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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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