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The Disappointment of Hannah Arendt (the film)

28 Jun

So I finally saw Hannah Arendt this weekend.

As entertainment, it was fine. I enjoyed the tender portrayal of Arendt’s marriage to Heinrich Blücher (though the rendition of her relationship to Mary McCarthy was painful to watch). I loved the  scenes in their apartment. Even though the depiction of its style and decor was more Mad Men than Morningside Heights, and the roominess, airiness, and light of the apartment gave little suggestion of the thick and heavy German hospitality for which Arendt and Blücher were famous. And, yes, a lot of the dialogue was painfully wooden and transparently devoted to narrative exposition, but I didn’t mind that so much.

My real problem with the film is that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why it was made. As my wife pointed out to me, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Eichmann controversy or Arendt. There’s nothing in it you wouldn’t know from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s biography or those drive-by summations of the Eichmann controversy that you get in standard intellectual histories of the period. So why make the film?

Films of this nature are supposed to dramatize something you can’t see in—or understand from—other genres. But does Hannah Arendt do that? I know there was much talk when it came out of the way that it captures on screen the process of thinking, but frankly I found those to be some of the more embarrassing scenes in the film. It’s a Hollywood producer’s idea of thinking: resting on the sofa, eyes closed, smoking, an idea crosses the thinker’s mind, eyes open. That that may have been how Arendt in fact did think—parts of it fit with Arendt’s own descriptions (not the cheesy eyes opening bits)—doesn’t quite redeem it, for the simple reason that seeing it on the screen doesn’t add anything to reading about it on the page.

I suppose one could argue that the film brings this story of Arendt and the Eichmann controversy to viewers who didn’t know anything about it. And that’s not nothing. But Hannah Arendt—who managed not only to bring stories to readers who didn’t know anything about them, but to tell those stories in a new and distinctive way, in part by the pioneering nature of her genre-bending writing—deserves better than that.

When Presidents Get Bored

17 Jun

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.

Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places.

Usually abroad, in foreign wars and imperial exploits. As the British prepared to fight the Opium War, Tocqueville privately exulted, “I can only rejoice in the thought of the invasion of the Celestial Empire by a European War. So at last the mobility of Europe has come to grips with Chinese immobility!” Upon the conclusion of the Treaty of London, which threatened to diminish France’s role in the Middle East and aroused cries for war throughout France, Tocqueville wrote Mill that though he was wary of the rush to war, he thought it “even more dangerous” to “chime in with those who were loudly asking for peace, at any price.”

Or, if these action intellectuals look inward, it’s to the politics of reaction and counterrevolution. Thus, in 1848, Tocqueville was among the leading voices calling for the full suspension of civil liberties, welcoming talk of a “dictatorship” in order to preserve “the alienable right of Society to protect itself.” Whence the exhilaration? Whence the passion with which he defended a polity he had spent the better part of two decades denouncing? In his memoir of the Revolution of 1848, he offered an answer:

Let me say, then, that when I came to search carefully into the depths of my own heart, I discovered, with some surprise, a certain sense of relief, a sort of gladness mingled with all the griefs and fears to which the Revolution had given rise. I suffered from this terrible event for my country, but clearly not for myself; on the contrary, I seemed to breathe more freely than before the catastrophe. I had always felt myself stifled in the atmosphere of the parliamentary world which had just been destroyed: I had had found it full of disappointments, both where others and where I myself was concerned.

Defending liberalism against radicalism, Tocqueville was given the chance to use illiberal means for liberal ends, and it’s not entirely clear whether it was the means or the ends that most stirred him.

There was no field left for uncertainty of mind: on this side lay the salvation of the country; on that, its destruction. There was no longer any mistake possible as to the road to follow; we were to walk in broad daylight, supported and encouraged by the crowd. The road seemed dangerous, it is true, but my is so constructed that it is less afraid of danger than of doubt.

(Recall the words of Christopher Hitchens after 9/11: “I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”)

Perhaps we have less to worry from Obama’s boredom. After all, he’s a writer and a politician who embraces—luxuriates in—moderation, skepticism, irony, and doubt. At least publicly.

Then again, so was Tocqueville.

Update (11 pm)

So it turns that that Obama quote, with which I led off my post, is not in fact a direct quote from Obama, but is instead a paraphrase, by one of Obama’s aides, of something Obama said. Slate‘s David Weigel has the whole story.

When Intellectuals Go to War

26 May

On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha, I’ve been reading Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. There I came across this letter from Arnold Schoenberg to Alma Mahler, dated August 28, 1914. Ross only quotes a snippet, but here’s a lengthier excerpt:

Meanwhile, you have certainly already heard of the glorious victory of the Germans against France, England, and Belgium. It is among the most wonderful things that have happened. But it does not surprise me: it is not any different from the war of the Greeks against the Persians….My friends know it, I have often said to them, I never had any use for all foreign music. It always seemed to me stale, empty, disgusting, cloying, false, and awkward. Without exception. Now I know who the French, English, Russians, Belgians, Americans, and Serbians are: barbarians! The music said that to me long ago.[...] But now comes the reckoning. Now we shall send these mediocre purveyors of kitsch back into slavery.

Schoenberg was hardly the only artist to support his team during the First World War. But what strikes me in his stance here is something you often see when intellectuals go to war: their tendency to interpret the war in the most parochial terms imaginable, that is, as an expression of their own causes and concerns, no matter how alien those might be from the state waging the war. Not only did Schoenberg see German war aims as the defense of German/Viennese culture (again, he was not alone in this), but he saw it more specifically, and improbably, as an extension of his own battle against retrograde tendencies in modern music. As if the Kaiser had read Harmonielehre and decided to march into Belgium on behalf of atonality.

Schoenberg’s letter reminds me of a wonderful moment in the run-up to the Iraq War. Charlie Rose had Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell on to debate the war (I can’t find the video but apparently you can buy it on Amazon). Ignatieff was being especially nasty, mocking Schell for saying something like “the peoples of the earth” had said no to the war. Which, given the international character of the protests of February 15, 2003, wasn’t wide of the mark. But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff. After Ignatieff did his thing of describing the war as the second coming of Isaiah Berlin, Schell gently reminded him that, however much he might wish it were otherwise, he wasn’t in fact the commander-in-chief of the country that would be fighting the war. Whatever aims the United States would ultimately pursue in waging war on Iraq, they would have little to do with the concerns of Michael Ignatieff.

A state goes to war for its reasons. It takes an especially potent form of imaginative power to assume that the academic question that happens to be on your mind at the moment is somehow shared by the men and women who are leading that state. Ordinary citizens, of course, are hardly immune to seeing themselves in that war and its exploits. But when it comes to the narcissism of war, as the example of Christopher Hitchens reminds us, no one has quite the self-deluding capacity of the intellectual.

Happy Memorial Day.

Updated (May 27)

Taghi Amirani, a producer/director in London, just sent me notice of a documentary his production company has made, “We Are Many,” about the February 15, 2003 international protests and their long-term repercussions. Looks great.

Free-Market Orientalism

26 May

From an interview with Friedrich von Hayek in 1983 (p. 490):

Robert Chitester: Going back to the question I asked you about people you dislike or can’t deal with, can you make any additional comments in that regard, in terms of the characteristics of people that trouble you?

Hayek: I don’t have many strong dislikes. I admit that as a teacher—I have no racial prejudices in general—but there were certain types, and conspicuous among them the Near Eastern populations, which I still dislike because they are fundamentally dishonest. And I must say dishonesty is a thing I intensely dislike. It was a type which, in my childhood in Austria, was described as “Levantine”, typical of the people of the eastern Mediterranean. But I encountered it later, and I have a profound dislike for the typical Indian students at the London School of Economics, which I admit are all one type—Bengali moneylender sons. They are to me a detestable type, I admit, but not with any racial feeling. I have found a little of the same amongst the Egyptians—basically a lack of honesty in them.

H/t loyaltothegroupofseventeen (via Mark Ames)

Reality Bites

13 May

According to Cass Sunstein, studies in psychology and behavioral economics show that 80% of the population is “unrealistically optimistic.” When it comes to their own actions and life prospects, people tend to have unwarranted expectations that things will work out well for them. The other 20%? The realists? They “include a number of people who are clinically depressed.”

The Gender Gap in Political Theory

13 May

I just wanted to give a quick shout-out to an important new blog—Ms. Perestroika—that’s keeping track of the gender gap in academic political theory. It just started, but already it’s got informative posts on recent job searches and hires, the publication record of Political Theory, whose books are getting reviewed and by whom, and the composition of panels at the Western Political Science Association. This seems like an important initiative, so I wanted to make sure folks knew about it.

Machiavelli: The Novel

8 May

For all you readers, teachers, and students of Machiavelli:

There’s a wonderful graphic artist up in Boston named Don MacDonald who wrote a graphic novel Machiavelli. The aim of the novel, beyond its aesthetic and literary qualities, is to bring the scholarly knowledge about Machiavelli that we in the academy have been accumulating over the years—about his republicanism, his humanism, his literary excellence—to the public. That Machiavelli was not, as a famous book would have it, a teacher of evil, that he was not especially Machiavellian, and that his teaching was not especially Machiavellian, at least as we’ve come to understand that term.

Anyway, Don is now launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise money for the conversion of the novel from an online text, which is what it is now, into a printed text, an e-book, and a website. I don’t often make pitches for you to contribute money, but this is a worthy cause. One that’s especially dear to me, as a teacher and reader of Machiavelli.

Please make a contribution.

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