Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

The Higher Sociopathy

28 Jul

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”

Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it's now over 1000]many of these civilianI find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide willas they have for generationslearn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

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.

Hannah Arendt, Lawrence of Arabia, and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

22 Mar

This peculiar preoration by Geoffrey Gray in The New Republic (h/t Aaron Bady) about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370—

I’ve found myself asking a different question: Do we really want to find this missing plane at all? The families of the victims deserve answers, of course, but as the days go on and more nautical miles are searched for missing debris, there’s an undeniable urge for investigators to keep on looking, not find anything, and let the mystery endure.

The New York Times‘s Farhad Manjoo argues that the “terror” isn’t only that we can’t find the plane, but being off the grid itself, untethered to our friends and family. I disagree. Our “hyperconnectivity,” as he calls it, is the very reason we need this mystery right now. In a moment dominated by the radical adoption of new technology, with reports of the NSA’s massive snooping, talk of Amazon drones making deliveries like toilet paper door to your doorstep, or checking the status of a flight through a pair of Google glasses, we need to feel that there is at least something out there that the grand orchestra of satellites and supercomputers can’t find or figure out.

It’s more than a tad ironic, but apropos, that it took a missing airplane—one of man’s greatest technological innovations—to remind us that there’s still some mystery left to humanity.

—reminds me of something Hannah Arendt said about T.E. Lawrence in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

He was tempted only by the basic endlessness of the game and by secrecy as such. And secrecy again seems like a symbol of the basic mysteriousness of life.

Lawrence was seduced into becoming a secret agent in Arabia because of his strong desire to leave the world of dull respectability whose continuity had become simply meaningless, because of his disgust with the world as well as with himself.

The analogy is certainly not exact, but as Arendt points out, the white man has often sought an escape from the burdens of civilization—be they respectability in Lawrence’s case, or hyperconnectivity in Gray’s case—in the brown man’s misery.

Gray claims we always divine existential meaning in air catastrophes:

There’s a precedent for missing airplanes prompting big, existential questions—well before “Lost” became a hit TV show. After World War II, as planes became larger and faster, slews of flights were seemingly swallowed by the sea. Navy bombers, search-and-rescue missions—all types of airplanes disappeared, many in the western part of the Atlantic that became known as the Bermuda Triangle. The legend of vanished planes only heightened the national anxiety over flying, prompting airlines to sex-up stewardesses to ease passengers nerves. Perhaps it was against God’s wishes, many thought, for man to fly like birds.

The hijacker era in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in many ways, was a protest against the increasing size of the flying machines and the big companies making them. In the fall of 1971, as jumbo jets were rolling off the production lines at Boeing, the hijacker known as D.B. Cooper boarded a plane in the Pacific Northwest, ransomed the passengers for bags of cash, and parachuted out midair, never to be seen again, he became a cult hero. Cooper was, in the words of a sociologist back then, “one individual overcoming, for the time being anyway, technology, the corporation, the system.”

Gray’s two examples don’t demonstrate anything of the sort: in the first case, the fear of flying prompted more concerns about safety; in the second, a thief’s willed and brash midair escape turned him into a folk hero. Not quite the same as Gray, well, doing this:

Wherever the Malaysia Airlines plane is, it found a hiding place. And the longer it takes investigators to discover where it is and what went wrong, the longer we have to indulge in the fantasy that we too might be able to elude the computers tracking our clicks, text messages, and even our movements. Hidden from the rest of the world, if only for an imagined moment, we feel what the passengers of Flight 370 most likely don’t: safe.

I can’t help wondering if Gray would have been quite so forthcoming with his ruminations —or quite so cavalier about the families of the victims (“of course”)—had the plane in question been USA Airlines Flight 370 or England Airlines Flight 370.

The N Word in Israel

16 Jan

Jodi Rudoren has a fascinating piece in the Times on proposed legislation in Israel that seems to be gaining ground.

Israel is on the brink of banning the N-word. N as in Nazi, that is.

Parliament gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi — or any other slur associated with the Third Reich — or to use Holocaust-related symbols in a noneducational way. The penalty would be a fine of as much as $29,000 and up to six months in jail.

Backers of the law say it is a response to what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world as well as an increasing, casual invocation of such terms and totems in Israeli politics and even teenage trash talk.

Many Jewish Israelis make high-school pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Yet younger people have also been heard using the Hebrew word shoah — which literally means catastrophe but is generally reserved for the Holocaust — to describe an everyday disaster like a botched relationship or a messy kitchen.

At least half a dozen European nations, along with Brazil, already prohibit the use of Nazi symbols and flags, along with those of other extremist groups, and a longer list consider Holocaust denial a crime (as Israel has since 1986). And Rwanda bans “genocide ideology,” which it defines as any form of speech or action deemed to support or promote genocide. But other countries do not ban the utterance of the word Nazi, as the proposed Israeli law would, along with “everything that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.”

I should confess at the outset that I find the throwing around of the word Nazi to describe individual Israelis or the actions of the Israeli state really distasteful. While specific actions or deeds of the state do make me think of the Nazis—I simply can’t look at the Separation Wall without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto—I still flinch, and am repelled by, the hurling of that epithet. So I get, at a visceral level, where people might be coming from on this.

That said…there are so many other things to say.

First, the idea that you can’t, in the State of the Jews of all places, say the word Nazi or anything, as the article puts it, “that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.” What if there really are Nazis in Israel? Or neo-Nazis? You can’t call them what they are?

Also, isn’t it part of the arsenal of a lot of defenders of Israel to claim that countries like Iran or opponents of the state are the inheritors of an anti-Semitic tradition that culminated in Nazism? Seems like you’d be depriving these people of one of their critical weapons. So I’m fascinated about that. The article touches on it, obliquely.

Second, prohibitions on words have a special valence in Judaism, as in most religions and cultures. They acquire an aura of holiness and the sacred. Could it be that the two words you can’t say or write in Israel are going to be God (for religious reasons, which not all Jews honor) and Nazi (for political reasons, which would apply to everyone)? Are God and Nazi really to be the two holiest words of the Jewish people in Israel?

Third, it seems like the intimate relationship between the Holocaust and Jewishness is coming full circle here. So much of postwar Jewish-American and Israeli identity—not to mention the legitimacy of the State of Israel—is caught up in the Holocaust, in remembrance of it. But because of the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment, the State of Israel now wants to put that connection back in its box. References to Nazism once served as a legitimating device for Israel; now they’re a delegitimating device.

And last, one could say that what has cheapened the Holocaust and the remembrance of Nazism more than anything is not the casual or even hateful invocation of the Nazi epithet, but the use, as Hannah Arendt recognized in those memorable opening passages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the Holocaust by the Israeli state and its international supporters. There’s no business like Shoah business, as the old joke has it.

I’d say there’s far less kitsch in a teenager describing her failed relationship as a shoah—indeed, I see that as a brilliant appropriation of the word, signaling the vitality and power of Jewish irony and satire, the triumph of not merely humanism but our humanity over barbarism—than there is in state leaders mobilizing the memory of six million to justify the exertions of a regional superpower. As Hillary Clinton did when she visited Yad Vashem in 2009:

Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. God bless Israel and its future.

When it comes to the cheapening of the Holocaust, that horse has long been out of the barn.

The History of Fear, Part 4

30 Sep

Today, in part 4 of our series on the intellectual history of fear, we turn to Hannah Arendt’s theory of total terror, which she developed in The Origins of Totaltarianism (and then completely overhauled in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

I’m more partial, as I make clear in my book, to Eichmann than to Origins. But Origins has always been the more influential text, at least until recently.

It’s a problematic though fascinating book (the second part, on imperialism, is especially wonderful). But one of the reasons it was able to gain such traction is that it managed to meld Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror with Tocqueville’s theory of democratic anxiety. It became the definitive statement of Cold War social thought in part because it took these received treatments and mobilized them to such dramatic effect. (And one of the reasons, I further argue in the book, that Eichmann provoked such outrage was that it revived some of the ways of thinking about fear that we saw in Hobbes.)

Again, if you want to get the whole picture, buy the book.

• • • • •

Mistress, I dug upon your grave

To bury a bone, in case

I should be hungry near this spot

When passing on my daily trot.

I am sorry, but I quite forgot

It was your resting-place.

Thomas Hardy

It was a sign of his good fortune—and terrible destiny—that Nikolai Bukharin was pursued throughout his short career by characters from the Old Testament. Among the youngest of the “Old Bolsheviks,” Bukharin was, in Lenin’s words, “the favorite of the whole party.” A dissident economist and accomplished critic, this impish revolutionary, standing just over five feet, charmed everyone. Even Stalin. The two men had pet names for each other, their families socialized together, and Stalin had Bukharin stay at his country house during long stretches of the Russian summer. So beloved throughout the party was Bukharin that he was called the “Benjamin” of the Bolsheviks. If Trotsky was Joseph, the literary seer and visionary organizer whose arrogance aroused his brothers’ envy, Bukharin was undoubtedly the cherished baby of the family.

Nikolai Bukharin

Nikolai Bukharin

Not for long. Beginning in the late 1920s, as he sought to slow Stalin’s forced march through the Russian countryside, Bukharin tumbled from power. Banished from the party in 1937 and left to the tender mercies of the Soviet secret police, he confessed in a 1938 show trial to a career of extraordinary counterrevolutionary crime. He was promptly shot, just one of the 328,618 official executions of that year.

Not long before his murder, Bukharin invoked a rather different biblical parallel to describe his fate. In a letter to Stalin, Bukharin recalled the binding of Isaac, the unwitting son whose father, Abraham, prepares him, on God’s instruction, for sacrifice. At the last minute, an angel stops Abraham, declaring, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.” Reflecting upon his own impending doom, however, Bukharin envisioned no such heavenly intervention: “No angel will appear now to snatch Abraham’s sword from his hand.”

The biblical reference, with its suggested equivalence of Stalin and Abraham, was certainly unorthodox. But in the aftermath of Bukharin’s execution it proved apt, for no other crime of the Stalin years so captivated western intellectuals as the blood sacrifice of Bukharin. It was not just that this darling of the communist movement, “the party’s most valuable and biggest theoretician,” as Lenin put it, had been brought down. Stalin, after all, had already felled the far more formidable Trotsky. It was that Bukharin confessed to fantastic crimes he did not commit.

For generations of intellectuals, Bukharin’s confession would symbolize the depredations of communism, how it not only murdered its favored sons, but also conscripted them in their own demise. Here was an action, it seemed to many, undertaken not for the self, but against it, on behalf not of personal gain, but of self-destruction. Turning Bukharin’s confession into a parable of the entire communist experience, Arthur Koestler, in his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, popularized the notion—later taken up by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Humanism and Terror and Jean-Luc Godard in his 1967 film La Chinoise—that Bukharin offered his guilt as a final service to the party. In this formulation it was not Stalin, but Bukharin, who was the true Abraham, the devout believer who gave up to his jealous god that which was most precious to him.

But where Abraham’s readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice has aroused persistent admiration—Kierkegaard deemed him a “knight of faith,” prepared to violate the most sacred of norms for the sake of his fantastic devotion—Bukharin’s has provoked almost universal horror. Not just of Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership, but of Bukharin himself—and of all the true believers who turned the twentieth century into a wasteland of ideology.

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac

Moralists may praise familiar episodes of suicidal sacrifice such as the Greatest Generation storming Omaha Beach, but the willingness of the Bukharins of this world to give up their lives for the sake of their ideology remains, for many, the final statement of modern self-abasement. Not because the sacrifice was cruel or senseless—not even because it was undertaken for an unjust cause or was premised on a lie—but because of the selfless fanaticism and political idolatry, the thoughtless immolation and personal diminution, that are said to inspire it. Communists, the argument goes, collaborated in their own destruction because they believed; they believed because they had to; they had to because they were small.

According to Arthur Schlesinger, communism “fills empty lives”—even in the United States, with “its quota of lonely and frustrated people, craving social, intellectual and even sexual fulfillment they cannot obtain in existing society. For these people, party discipline is no obstacle: it is an attraction. The great majority of members in America, as in Europe, want to be disciplined.” Or, as cultural critic Leslie Fiedler wrote of the Rosenbergs after their execution, “their relationship to everything, including themselves, was false.” Once they turned into party liners, “blasphemously den[ying] their own humanity,” “what was there left to die?” Abraham believed in his faith and was deemed a righteous man; the communist believed in his and was discharged from the precincts of humanity.

As we now know, Bukharin’s confession, like so many others of the Stalin era, was not quite the abnegation intellectuals have imagined. From 1930 to 1937, Bukharin resisted, to the best of his abilities, the more outlandish charges of the Soviet leadership. As late as his February 1937 secret appearance before the Plenum of the Central Committee, Bukharin insisted, “I protest with all the strength of my soul against being charged with such things as treason to my homeland, sabotage, terrorism, and so on.” When he finally did admit to these crimes—in a public confession, replete with qualifications casting doubt upon Stalin’s legitimacy—it was after a yearlong imprisonment, in which he was subject to brutal interrogations and threats against his family.

Bukharin had reason to believe that his confession might protect him and his loved ones. Soviet leaders who confessed were sometimes spared, and Stalin had intervened on previous occasions to shield Bukharin from more vicious treatment. Threats against family members, moreover, were one of the most effective means for securing cooperation with the Soviet regime; in fact, many of those who refused to confess had no children. Instead of manic self-liquidation, then, Bukharin’s confession was a strategic attempt to preserve himself and his family, an act not of selfless fanaticism but of self-interested hope.

But for many intellectuals at the time, these calculations simply did not register. For them, the archetypical evil of the twentieth century was not murder on an unprecedented scale, but the cession of mind and heart to the movement. Reading the great midcentury indictments of the Soviet catastrophe—Darkness at Noon, The God That Failed, 1984, The Captive Mind—one is struck less by their appreciation of Stalinist mass murder—it would be years before Solzhenitsyn turned the abstraction of the gulag into dossiers of particular suffering—than by their horror of the liquidated personality that was supposed to be the new Soviet man. André Gide noted that in every Soviet collective he visited “there are the same ugly pieces of furniture, the same picture of Stalin and absolutely nothing else—not the smallest vestige of ornament or personal belonging.” (Writers consistently viewed public housing, whether in the Soviet Union or in the United States, as a proxy for leftist dissolution. Fiedler, for instance, made much of the fact that the Rosenbergs lived in a “melancholy block of identical dwelling units that seem the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind: rigid, conventional, hopelessly self-righteous.”) Perversely taking Stalin at his word—that a million deaths was just a statistic—intellectuals concluded that the gulag, or Auschwitz, was merely the outward symbol of a more profound, more ghastly subtraction of self. Even in the camps, Hannah Arendt wrote, “suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims.” It was instead that the camps were “laboratories where changes in human nature” were “tested” and “the transformation of human nature” engineered for the sake of an ideology.

If we owe any one thinker our thanks, or skepticism, for the notion that totalitarianism was first and foremost an assault, inspired by ideology, against the integrity of the self, it is most assuredly Hannah Arendt. A Jewish German émigré to the United States, Arendt was not the first to make such claims about totalitarianism. But by tracing the ideologue’s self-destruction against a backdrop of imperial misadventure and massacre in Africa, waning aristocracies and dissolute bourgeoisies in Europe, and atomized mass societies throughout the world, Arendt gave this vision history and heft. With a cast of characters—from Lawrence of Arabia and Cecil Rhodes to Benjamin Disraeli and Marcel Proust—drawn from the European landscape, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism made it impossible for anyone to assume that Nazism and Stalinism were dark emanations of the German soil or Russian soul, geographic accidents that could be ascribed to one country’s unfortunate traditions. Totalitarianism was, as the title of the book’s British edition put it, “the burden of our times.” Not exactly a product of modernity—Arendt repeatedly tried to dampen the causal vibrato of her original title, and she was as much a lover of modernity as she was its critic—but its permanent guest.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

Yet it would be a mistake to read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a transparent report of the totalitarian experience. As Arendt was the first to acknowledge, she came to the bar of political judgment schooled in “the tradition of German philosophy,” taught to her by Heidegger and Jaspers amid the crashing edifice of the Weimar republic. Making her way through a rubble of German existentialism and Weimar modernism, Arendt gave totalitarianism its distinctive cast, a curious blend of the novel and familiar, the startling and self-evident. Arendt’s would become the definitive statement—so fitting, so exact—not because it was so fitting or exact, but because it mixed real elements of Stalinism and Nazism with leading ideas of modern thought: not so much twentieth-century German philosophy, as we shall see, but the notions of terror and anxiety Montesquieu and Tocqueville developed in the wake of Hobbes. As Arendt confessed in private letters, she discovered “the instruments of distinguishing totalitarianism from all—even the most tyrannical—governments of the past” in Montesquieu’s writings, and Tocqueville, whose work she read while drafting The Origins of Totalitarianism, was a “great influence” on her.

But within a decade of publishing The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt changed course. After traveling to Israel in 1961 to report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann for The New Yorker, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, which turned out to be not a trial report at all, but a wholesale reconsideration of the dynamics of political fear. Not unlike Montesquieu’s Persian Letters or the first half of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Eichmann in Jerusalem posed a direct challenge to the account of fear that had earned its author her greatest acclaim. It produced a storm of outrage, much of it focused on Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann, her savage sense of irony, and her criticism of the Jewish leadership during the Holocaust. But an allied, if unspoken, source of fury was the widespread hostility to Arendt’s effort to upend the familiar canons of political fear: for in Eichmann, Arendt showed that much that Montesquieu and Tocqueville—and she herself—had written about political fear was simply false, serving the political needs of western intellectuals rather than the truth. Arendt paid dearly for her efforts. She lost friends, was deemed a traitor to the Jewish people, and was hounded at public lectures. But it was worth the cost, for in Eichmann Arendt managed “a paean of transcendence,” as Mary McCarthy put it, offering men and women a way of thinking about fear in a manner worthy of grown-ups rather than children. That so many would reject it is hardly surprising: little since Hobbes had prepared readers for the genuine novelty that was Eichmann in Jerusalem. Forty years later, we’re still not prepared.

Victims of the Great Purge

Victims of the Great Purge

If Hobbes hoped to create a world where men feared death above all else, he would have been sorely disappointed, and utterly mystified, by The Origins of Totalitarianism. What could he possibly have made of men and women so fastened to a political movement like Nazism or Bolshevism that they lacked, in Arendt’s words, “the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death?” Hobbes was no stranger to adventures of ideology, but his ideologues were avatars of the self, attracted to ideas that enlarged them. Though ready to die for their faith, they hoped to be remembered as martyrs to a glorious cause. For Arendt, however, ideology was not a statement of aspiration; it was a confession of irreversible smallness. Men and women were attracted to Bolshevism and Nazism, she maintained, because these ideologies confirmed their feelings of personal worthlessness. Inspired by ideology, they went happily to their own deaths—not as martyrs to a glorious cause, but as the inglorious confirmation of a bloody axiom. Hobbes, who worked so hard to reduce the outsized heroism of his contemporaries, would hardly have recognized these ideologues, who saw in their own death a trivial chronicle of a larger truth foretold.

What propelled Arendt in this direction, away from Hobbes? Not the criminal largesse of the twentieth century—she repeatedly insisted that it was not the body counts of Hitler and Stalin that distinguished their regimes from earlier tyrannies—but rather a vision, inherited from her predecessors, of the weak and permeable self. Between the time of Hobbes and that of Arendt, the self had suffered two blows, the first from Montesquieu, the second from Tocqueville. Montesquieu never contemplated the soul-crushing effects of ideology, but he certainly imagined souls crushed. It was he who first argued, against Hobbes, that fear, redefined as terror, did not enlarge but reduce the self, and that the fear of death was not an expression of human possibility but of desperate finality. Tocqueville retained Montesquieu’s image of the fragile self, only he viewed its weakness as a democratic innovation. Where Montesquieu had thought the abridged self was a creation of despotic terror, Tocqueville believed it was a product of modern democracy. The democratic individual, according to Tocqueville, lacked the capacious inner life and fortified perimeter of his aristocratic predecessor. Weak and small, he was ready for submission from the get-go. So strong was this conviction about the weakness of the modern self that Arendt was able to apply it, as we shall see, not only to terror’s victims but, even more wildly, to its wielders as well.

Melding Montesquieu’s theory of despotic terror and Tocqueville’s account of mass anxiety, Arendt turned Nazism and Stalinism into spectacular triumphs of antipolitical fear, what she called “total terror,” which could not “be comprehended by political categories.” Total terror, in her eyes, was not an instrument of political rule or even a weapon of genocide. One will look in vain throughout the last third of The Origins of Totalitarianism, where Arendt addresses the problem of total terror, for any reckoning with the elimination of an entire people. Total terror, for Arendt, was designed to escape the psychological burdens of the self, to destroy individual freedom and responsibility. It was a form of “radical evil,” which sought to eradicate not the Jews or the kulaks but the human condition. If Arendt’s totalitarianism constituted an apotheosis, it was not of human beastliness. It was of a tradition of thought—established by Montesquieu, elaborated by Tocqueville— that had been preparing for the disappearance of the self from virtually the moment the self had first been imagined.

The Question of Palestine at Brooklyn College, Then and Now

3 Feb

In 1942, Brooklyn College hired a young instructor to teach a summer course on Modern European history. Though academically trained, the instructor was primarily known as the author of a series of incendiary articles in the Jewish press on Jewish politics and Zionism.

An active though ambivalent Zionist, the instructor did not shy from scorching criticism of the movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. She had already come to some unsettling conclusions in private. In an unpublished essay, she compared the Zionists to the Nazis, arguing that both movements assumed that the Jews were “totally foreign” to other peoples based on their “inalterable substance.” She wrote in a letter that she found “this territorial experiment” of the Jews in Palestine “increasingly problematic.” By the spring of 1942, she was more public in her criticisms. In March, she wrote that the Irgun—the Jewish paramilitary group whose most prominent commander was Menachem Begin—was a “fascist organization” that “employed terrorist methods in their fight against Arabs in Palestine.”

In the coming years, despite her continuing involvement in Zionist politics, she would grow even more critical of the movement. The very idea of the State of Israel, she would write in 1943, was “based on the idea that tomorrow’s majority [the Jews] will concede minority rights to today’s majority [the Palestinians], which indeed would be something brand-new in the history of nation-states.” In 1944, she accused a circle of Jewish fighters of believing “not only that ends justify means but also that only an end that can be achieved by terror is worth their effort.” By the end of that year, she had come to the conclusion that the extreme position within Zionism, which she consistently associated with fascism, was now the mainstream position of David Ben Gurion, and that that fascist tendency had been latent within Theodor Herzl’s original vision all along. By 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded, she would write: “The general mood of the country, moreover, has been such that terrorism and the growth of totalitarian methods are silently tolerated and secretly applauded.”

The name of that instructor was Hannah Arendt.

If Brooklyn College could tolerate the instructor who wrote those words in 1942—and would go onto write those words of 1944 and 1948—surely it, and the City of New York, can tolerate the co-sponsorship by the political science department of a panel on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2013.

Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist?

1 Dec

It’s Old Home Week in the American media. First there was the welcome back of Abraham Lincoln (and the brouhaha over the Spielberg film). Now Thomas Jefferson is in the news. But where it was Lincoln the emancipator we were hailing earlier in the week, it’s Jefferson the slaveholder who’s now getting all the press.

Yesterday in the New York Times, legal historian Paul Finkelman wrote a bruising attack on Jefferson titled “The Monster of Monticello.” This was a followup to some of the controversy surrounding the publication of Henry Wiencek’s new book on Jefferson, which makes Jefferson’s slaveholding central to his legacy.

Finkelman’s essay has already prompted some pushback. David Post at The Volokh Conspiracy (h/t Samir Chopra) wrote:

Jefferson, Finkelman tells us, was not a “particularly kind” slave-master; he sometimes “punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.” And he  believed that  ”blacks’ ability to reason was ‘much inferior’ to whites’ and that they were “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”  So what?  Really – so what?  If you want to think that he was a bad guy — or even a really bad guy, with truly grievous personal faults — you’re free to do so.  But to claim that that has something to do with Jefferson’s historical legacy is truly preposterous.

Jefferson’s real legacy, says Post, is not what he did or didn’t do to his slaves—that’s a strictly personal failing, I guess—but the glorious words he wrote in The Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths…you know the drill. (Various folks on Twitter have made similar claims to me.) Post also links to a short paper he wrote on Jefferson’s contributions to the cause of antislavery.

In that paper, Post liberally quotes from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, “an extraordinary book” according to Post, in which Jefferson does voice some of his ambivalence over slavery. Curiously, Post never cites the lengthy and disturbing passages from Query XIV, where Jefferson offers his most considered views on the nature and status of  black people and their fate in America. And it’s clear why. It makes for chilling reading.  I’ll just cite some brief excerpts here:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour.  Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.  And is this difference of no importance?  Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races?  Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?  Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.  The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?  Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race.  They have less hair on the face and body.  They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.  This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.  Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it.  They seem to require less sleep.  A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.  They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome.  But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.  When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites.  They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.  Their griefs are transient.  Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.  In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.  To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour.  An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course.  Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.  It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation.

The Indians, with no advantages of this kind [as that enjoyed by black slaves in America], will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit.  They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation.  They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated.  But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.  In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch.  Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.  Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.  Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet.  Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination.  Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet.  The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.  The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.  Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition…But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky.  His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration.  Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column.

With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture.  Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence.  When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death.  Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman.  Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists.  They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children.  Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves.  But they were of the race of whites.  It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.

To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history.  I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.  It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?  This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.  Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty.  Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?’  join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only.  Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort.  The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master.  But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history.  When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.

I bring up these passages less because I’m interested in Post’s omissions and his arguments than because of the general way the debate about Jefferson has been framed thus far. The basic idea seems to be that Jefferson had some fine ideas—and terrible practices. And whatever of his legacy that’s terrible, the argument goes, is entirely caught up with, and consumed by, the institution of slavery. So once we abolish slavery, thanks in part to the words of the Declaration that Jefferson wrote, we’re in the land of the good Jefferson.

But as this passage in Notes on the State of Virginia suggests, Jefferson’s real and lasting contribution to the American experiment is not exhausted either by the Declaration or by the institution of slavery. It is as a theorist of race domination—of white supremacy, of the perdurability of race (and specifically the black race), of the ineradicable shallowness of blackness as against the textured profundity of whiteness—that he stands out. And that is a legacy that persists to this day.

Jefferson was not a liberal hypocrite, a symptom of his time. He was the avant garde of a group of American theorists who were struggling to reconcile the ideals of the Declaration with the reality of chattel slavery. His resolution of that struggle took the form of one of the most vicious doctrines of racial supremacy the world had yet seen. That is his legacy, or at least part of his legacy. He was by no means the only one to take this route, but he was one of the earliest and easily the most famous. He is the tributary of what would become an American tradition.

And as I argue in what follows, which is an excerpt from a paper on Louis Hartz that I never published (though a passage or two of it may appear in The Reactionary Mind), Jefferson’s race theory—along with that of such men as Thomas Dew, James Henry Hammond, and William Harper, who feature prominently in my discussion—points not only to the eighteenth century (he was much more than a man of his times) and not only to the categories of liberalism and republicanism, which are so familiar to US intellectual historians. It also points, albeit only in a suggestive way, to the future, to the twentieth century and European doctrines of racialized fascism.

Jefferson, I would submit, should be remembered not only as the writer of the Declaration of Independence and owner of slaves, but also as a contributor, along with his successors, to a doctrine of race war and what Hannah Arendt would later call, in another context, “race imperialism”—which would find its ultimate fulfillment a century later, and a continent away.

In the interest of legibility and flow, I’ve eliminated all the footnotes

● ● ● ● ●

Racism was tailor made to the counterrevolutionary task of combating abolition, of reconciling the Declaration of Independence with the reality of chattel slavery.  It combined ideas of equality and inequality, and fused the radical’s vision of political plasticity with the conservative’s notion of the stubbornness of history.  It proved an ideology of extraordinary and protean—extraordinary because protean—resilience, precisely because it had something for everyone, save of course for the slaves themselves.

According to Josiah Nott, races are “marked by peculiarities of structure, which have always been constant and undeviating.  Human races—as opposed to other species of animal or plant—are particularly immutable.”  From these deep and enduring differences of physical structure, moral differences, equally enduring, followed.  “Is it not a law of nature, that every permanent animal form…carries with its physical type a moral of its own, which cannot be obliterated, changed, or transferred to another, so long as the physique stands?”

More than classifying men and women into distinctive types, slavery’s racial theorists made the quite radical argument that humanity’s every attempt to rise above its physical nature was a misbegotten enterprise.  We are, they claimed, beings of the utmost and comprehensive constraint.  Our character, personality, individuality—none of these is self-fashioned or amenable to artifice.  Each is an irrevocable and irreversible given.

If the intransigence of biology was the back-story of race, it followed that there was only one race, properly understood, in America:  the black race.  According to Nott, white people reason, imagine, and create—activities of transcendence that do not jibe with the liabilities of race.  The white man “takes up the march of civilization and presses onward.”  He frees himself of his inheritance, his circumstance, history itself.  For that reason, “the Caucasian races have been the only truly progressive races of history,” which means nothing so much as that whites were not a race at all.

Among blacks, however, “one generation does not take up civilization where the last left it and carry it on as does the Caucasian—there it stands immovable; they go as far as instinct extends and no farther.”  In the words of Thomas Cobb, the black man’s “mind is never inventive or suggestive.  Improvement never enters into his imagination.  A trodden path, he will travel for years, without the idea ever suggesting itself to his brain, that a nearer and better way is present before him.”  Blacks can no more rise above their station than they can sink below it.  They are what they are, have been and will be.  As William Harper wrote, “A slave has no hope that by a course of integrity, he can materially elevate his condition in society, nor can his offence materially depress it…he has no character to establish or lose.”  Even contempt or scorn, claimed Harper, would not spur the black race to do better.

Writing long before these theories of racial difference were fully formulated, Thomas Jefferson offered a glimpse of what it means to think of blacks as a race, as the race, and whites as individuals.  Blacks are brave, he says, but this is due to “want of forethought.”  The black man is “ardent,” but this is lust, not love.  “In general,” he says, “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”  In “imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”  One can see their brute incapacity for historical transcendence and moral or political freedom in the color of their skin.  While whites sport “fine mixtures of red and white,” reflecting the diverse range of passions and sensibilities at their disposal, blacks suffer from the “eternal monotony” of blackness, that “immovable veil” that makes any subtlety or nuance, any gradation of feeling, any distinctiveness or idiosyncrasy of character and personality, impossible.

No mere contradiction or sleight of hand, this dual portrait of whites as individuals and blacks as a race was the perfect counterrevolutionary argument.  It ascribed to whites all the virtues of a ruling class—capable of action, freedom, politics itself—and to blacks all the deficits of a class to be ruled.  “This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,” wrote Jefferson of black slaves.  Even among free blacks in the North, Thomas Dew argued, “the animal part of the man gains the victory over the moral.”  After the Civil War, Nott would write that “all the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau, or ‘gates of hell cannot prevail against them’ [the inequalities between whites and blacks].”

But while race thinking prescribed the most vicious forms of domination, it also absorbed a mutant strain of the egalitarianism then roiling America and turned it into a justification for slavery.  “Jack Cade, the English reformer, wished all mankind to be brought to one common level,” wrote Dew.  “We believe slavery, in the United States, has accomplished this.”  By freeing whites from “menial and low offices,” slavery had eliminated “the greatest cause of distinction and separation of the ranks of society.” Anticipating the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, Edmund Morgan, and David Roediger, the slaveholders openly acknowledged that slavery made white men feel equal.  Equal and, more important, superior:  under slavery, freedom became a scarce privilege, a prized distinction that just happened to be possessed by all white men.  It thus discharged the egalitarian debts of America—not by paying them (Alexander Stephens would claim that the claim of equality in the Declaration of Independence was “fundamentally wrong”) but by democratizing feudalism.

However vigorous were these nods to a feudal—if democratized—past, the defenders of slavery remained firmly fixed upon the future.  Refusing the identity of the staid traditionalist, they preferred the title of the heretic and the scientist, that fugitive intelligence who marched to his own drummer and thereby advanced the cause of progress and civilization.  John C. Calhoun compared the criticisms he received for his positions to the “denunciation” that had fallen “upon Galileo and Bacon when they first unfolded the great discoveries which have immortalized their names.”  Like all the great modern—William Harvey, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and James Mill were also among their other models—the slaveholders were guided, or claimed to be guided, by the light of truth and reason. Just as Galileo was initially persecuted and now revered, so would the South one day be hailed for its innovations.  “May we not,” asked Stephens, “look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?”  In 1837, Calhoun declared that the “experiment” of racialized slavery “was in progress, but had not been completed.”  The “judgment” of society, he warned, “should be postponed for another ten years,” when the experiment would presumably be concluded.

But there was another side to this embrace of the fugitive intellect: the acute sense of wounded victimhood, which sounded like nothing so much as the grievances of a revolutionary class in the making.  The master class performed that strange alchemy, so peculiar to privileged groups, by which the enjoyment of power—not just on the plantation or in the South but in national political institutions as well—is turned into the anxiety of persecution.  Calhoun was the master of this transposition, borrowing directly from the abolitionist canon to make the case that it was the slaveholder that was the true slave.  He compared the tariff to the exploitation and extraction of slavery and the federal government’s use of coercive power against the states to the “bond between master and slave—a union of exaction on one side and of unqualified obedience on the other.”  Burke made a similar move in his account of the fate of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution: his treatment of the hounded queen resembles those stories of feminine victimhood—think of Richardson’s Pamela—that Lynn Hunt has recently argued helped give rise to the popular discourse of human rights during the eighteenth century.

The slaveholders’ sense of being besieged was not imaginary: outside of Brazil and the Caribbean, they were a lonely outpost of domination; with the abolitionists beginning to gain traction in some northern circles, they were acutely aware—Calhoun earlier than most—of the writing on the wall.  Even so, their perception of themselves as aggrieved subalterns subjugated by imperious elites reflects more than a prophetic realism.  It testifies to the curious ways in which a revolutionary idiom can infiltrate the most exalted of classes.  “We…are in a hopeless minority in our own confederated republic,” cried Harper.  “We can have no hearing before the tribunal of the civilized world.”

With their orientation to the future and acute sense of victimhood, the southern writers adopted an ethos geared less to liberalism or conservatism—ideologies arising from previous centuries of European conflict—than to fascism, the one ism of the twentieth century that could and would make a legitimate claim to novelty.  They beat the drums of race war. Like the Nazis ca. 1940, they offered deportation and extermination as final solutions to the Negro Question.  If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”  Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported from France with their parents, Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.”  If the slaves were freed, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.”

Like the Nazis, the defenders of slavery spoke of lebensraum.  We often forget that Hitler, in Mein Kampf, spurned Europe’s pursuit of overseas colonies, arguing instead that his countrymen should “direct [their] eyes toward the land in the East” where Germany could escape the industrial present and build an agrarian future.  In Poland and Russia, the Germans could “finally put an end to the prewar colonial and trade policy and change over to the land policy of the future” based on the slave labor of the Slavic peoples. The slaveholders spoke of expanding to the west, where they too would create an alternative modernity, an agricultural utopia that would validate their new political economy of land and forced labor.  They dreamed of vast empires, like the Roman or the Egyptian, but on the Mississippi.  (Why Memphis, after all, or Cairo, Illinois?) “In our own country, look at the lower valley of the Mississippi,” wrote Harper, “which is capable of being made a far greater Egypt.”  In “the great valley of the Mississippi” James Hammond thought he saw “the acknowledged seat of the empire of the world,” perhaps even “an empire that shall rule the world.”

Lurking beneath the South’s notions of race war and land empires was a vision of life as permanent struggle, of history as a ledger of agonistic conflict.  Not for the slaveholders the pastorals of old Europe, where time stood still or moved forward at glacial pace.  “Mutation and progress is the condition of human affairs,” wrote Harper.  Like Nietzsche and the Social Darwinists, the master class believed that social friction and political contest made for passion and greatness.  The problem with the abolitionist creed, Harper argued, was that it would create a society where “if there is little suffering, there is little high enjoyment.  The even flow of the life forbids the high excitement which is necessary for it.”  Only in struggle and domination could “the moral and intellectual faculties…be cultivated to their highest perfection.” Better the inequality of slavery, which allows for the highest cultivation of the few, than the mediocrity of equality.  Only the “inequality of condition between the front and rear ranks,” wrote Calhoun, gives “so strong an impulse to the former to maintain their position, and to the latter to press forward into their files.”  Only inequality, in other words, would guarantee “the march of progress.” Slavery, Dew concluded, would produce not only an efficient economy but also the most dynamic and expansive society the world had ever seen.

All that good, expensive gas wasted on the Jews!

31 Oct

People sometimes ask why I’m a fan of Hannah Arendt. I’ve a complicated relationship to her work, so I wouldn’t characterize myself as a complete fan. But I do love reading her, and one of the reasons I do is that she had such a brutal and unforgiving sense of irony, which she often held in reserve for only the most morally addled sectors of the bourgeoisie. (In this respect she was quite like Brecht and other Weimar modernists.)

Nowhere is this more on display than in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is probably my favorite Arendt text. Here’s a representative passage (pp. 110-111).

My next story is even more to the point, since it concerns someone who was not a “leader,” may not even have been a Party member. It happened in Königsberg, in East Prussia, an altogether different corner of Germany, in January, 1945, a few days before the Russians destroyed the city, occupied its ruins, and annexed the whole province. The story is told by Count Hans von Lehnsdorff, in his Ostpreussiches Tagebuch (1961). He had remained in the city as a physician to take care of wounded soldiers who could not be evacuated; he was called to one of the huge centers for refugees from the countryside, which was already occupied by the Red Army. There he was accosted by a woman who showed him a varicose vein she had had for years but wanted to have treated now, because she had time. “I try to explain that it is more important for her to get away from Königsberg and to leave the treatment for some later time. Where do you want to go? I ask her. She does not know, but she knows that they will all be brought into the Reich. And then she adds, surprisingly: ‘‘The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.’ I look around furtively, but no one seems to find this statement out of the ordinary.” The story, one feels, like most true stories is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!

That “because she had time” is so perfect — and so echt Arendt.

And just as an addendum, or an aside, here’s a passage from a letter Mary McCarthy wrote Arendt in 1970, which captures the bitchy fun—and political seriousness—of their relationship.

Five days, nearly, in London, very social. I saw a lot of fashion-mad people, including the current Women’s Lib idol, an absurd Australian giantess [Germaine Greer] who made remarks like “We must make them understand that fucking is a political act.” And here’s a marvelous one, quoted from Sonia [Orwell] by Stephen Spender: “Auschwitz, oh, dear no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp.”

Update (November 2, 10:30 pm)

Over at my Tumblr, I posted this chilling story (provided by one of my readers) that Walter Benjamin wrote about to Margarette Steffin in 1939:

Karl Kraus died too soon after all. Listen to this: the Vienna gas board has stopped supplying gas to Jews. A consequence of the gas consumption of the Jewish population was that the gas company lost money, since it was precisely the biggest users who did not pay their bills. The Jews preferred to use the gas to commit suicide.

The Army as a Concentration Camp

21 Oct

Reading this terrific piece about James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, I stumbled across this passage from Jones’s WWII, a nonfiction treatment of the Second World War:

Everything the civilian soldier learned and was taught from the moment of his induction was one more delicate stop along this path of the soldier evolving toward acceptance of his death. The idea that his death, under certain circumstances, is correct and right. The training, the discipline, the daily humiliations, the privileges of “brutish” sergeants, the living en masse like schools of fish, are all directed toward breaking down the sense of the sanctity of the physical person, and toward hardening the awareness that a soldier is the chattel (hopefully a proud chattel, but a chattel all the same) of the society he serves and was born a member of.

I don’t know how accurate a representation of military life Jones’s description is, but it sounds remarkably similar to Hannah Arendt’s account of the camps in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Once the moral person has been killed, the one thing that still prevents men from being made into living corpses is the differentiation of the individual, his unique identity….

The methods of dealing with this uniqueness of the human person are numerous….They begin with the monstrous conditions in the transports to the camps, when hundreds of human beings are packed into a cattle-car stark naked, glued to each other, and shunted back and forth over the countryside for days on end….The aim of all these methods, in any case, is to manipulate the human body—with its infinite possibilities of suffering—in such a way as to make it destroy the human person as inexorably as do certain mental diseases of organic origin.

It is more significant that those individually condemned to death very seldom attempted to take one of their executioners with them, that there were scarcely any revolts….For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events. Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death….

NYPD in Israel: Hannah Arendt on the Best Police Department in the World

6 Sep

In Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt famously argued that one of the hallmarks of Nazism was the supremacy of the police over the military, even in—especially in—occupied territories. Nothing quite signaled totalitarianism’s obliteration of the distinction between the domestic and the international, its aspiration to world rule, as this.

Above the state and behind the facades of ostensible power, in a maze of multiplied offices, underlying all shifts of authority and in a chaos of inefficiency, lies the power nucleus of the country, the super-efficient and super-competent services of the secret police. The emphasis on the police as the sole organ of power, and the corresponding neglect of the seemingly greater power arsenal of the army, which is characteristic of all totalitarian regimes, can still be partially explained by the totalitarian aspiration to world rule and its conscious abolition of the distinction between a foreign country and a home country, between foreign and domestic affairs….Since the totalitarian ruler conducts his policies on the assumption of an eventual world government, he treats the victims of his aggression as though they were rebels, guilty of high treason, and consequently prefers to rule occupied territories with police, and not with military forces.

So what, oh what, would she have made of this?

The New York Police Department opened its Israeli branch in the Sharon District Police headquarters in Kfar Saba. Charlie Ben-Naim,  a former Israeli and veteran NYPD detective, was sent on this mission.

You don’t have to fly to New York to meet members of the police department considered to be the best in the world — all you have to do is make the short trip to the Kfar Saba police station in the Sharon, where the NYPD opened a local branch.

Behind the opening of the branch in the Holy Land is the NYPD decision that the Israeli police is one of the major police forces with which it must maintain close work relations and daily contact.

Ben-Naim was chosen for the mission of opening the NYPD branch in Israel. He is a veteran detective of the NYPD and a former Israeli who went to study in New York, married a local city resident and then joined the local police force. Among the things he has dealt with in the line of duty are the extradition of criminals, the transmitting of intelligence information and assistance in the location of missing persons, both in the United States and in Israel.

It was decided, in coordination with the Israeli police, that the New York representative would not operate out of the United States embassy but from a building of the Sharon District Police headquarters, situated close to the Kfar Sava station. The NYPD sign was even hung at the entrance to the district headquarters, and Ben-Naim’s office is situated on the first floor of the building. One of the walls bears the sign: “New York Police Department, the best police department in the world.”

It’s true, as Nathan Newman has pointed out to me, that the FBI already has offices around the world. But in the US, it has always been state and local police that truly wield the coercive power of the state. Only ten percent of all prisoners in this country are in federal jails; the rest are in state and local cells.

“New York Police Department, the best police department in the world.” Oh, the field day Arendt would have had with that!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,227 other followers