Tag Archives: hannah arendt

Good Journalism, 4/26/18

26 Apr

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.


A Very Cyclical Double Feature

2 Apr

This past week, courtesy an absent roommate’s Netflix, I enjoyed a rather absurd double feature involving sincere philosophy, adolescent sex, and excessive smoking: Hannah Arendt and Y Tu Mamá También. Neither one is new: I hadn’t yet seen the Arendt film, but I’ve read her work extensively and written about it here and here; I first saw Y Tu Mamá También last summer, and reviewed it here. As this blog reaches its two-year anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate than with a sprawling synthesis between two wildly different strains of thought?

The Arendt film (2012) is a dramatization of the defining moment in the career of a great thinker, her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the worst Nazi war criminal to escape Germany after the war. The Israeli secret police tracked him down in Argentina, and he went on trial in the new Jewish state, locked in a glass box to prevent anyone from finishing the job too soon. Arendt, a German Jew living in America and the first great theorist of totalitarianism, seemed the perfect correspondent, but her ultimate verdict set off a firestorm. She declared that Eichmann was not the embodiment of some demonic form of evil; she called him banal and frighteningly normal, and also pointed out the role of many European Jewish leaders in enabling the Holocaust. She was called a traitor and a self-hating Jew; an arrogant and emotionless woman who used a tragedy to make an esoteric philosophical point.

Trying to make drama out of a philosopher’s work is a formidable task, but one director Margarethe von Trotta achieves ably with smoke-filled rooms and acid dialogue. There are a few moments where it comes off a bit fake, but the circle around Arendt is entirely believable, and Janet McTeer makes a superb Mary McCarthy. The flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful affair with Martin Heidegger, the brilliant existentialist who became an unrepentant Nazi, add another dimension; they run the risk of making her brilliance seem like an offshoot of an old flame gone bad, but they also reveal a greater commitment to an idea, a belief in the centrality of human reason that not even Heidegger could sustain other pressure. He caved to the Nazis, banally accepting his role as university rector under the totalitarian regime. Arendt did not, twice escaping their clutches only to suffer a final exile imposed by many of her old friends for publishing what she believed. But fifty years later, she is the one who achieved immortality, exactly the worldly end she thought public figures should aim for in The Human Condition. Her speech to before a hall of skeptical Princeton students at the film’s climax hearkens to some of the great moments of courtroom dramas, her oratory an impassioned defense and rallying cry for her belief.

The film verges on hagiography, though I’ll leave it to critics who don’t think Arendt was one of the Twentieth Century’s two or three greatest minds to say if it goes too far. It shows the value of her relentless quest, not just to identify the nature of evil but also the pursuit of truth; the recognition of good and evil and beauty and ugliness and other such terms that thoughtful contemporary discourse is often afraid to use for fear of being judgmental. The young Arendt tells Heidegger that the split between reason and passion is a mistake: she believes in impassioned reason, the search for something approaching reality. It’s not hard to see why her political theories tend to reach back to the Greeks. Arendt is on the same fundamental mission for truth, asking questions where others take things for granted, her loyalty only to that truth and those who join her in her search.

A film about spoiled, horny teenage Mexicans may seem as far as one can get from grand philosophical debate about why it is we’re here, but the message of Y tu Mamá También (2001), in the end, isn’t wildly different. In some ways it’s a necessary antidote: “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” one of the boys intones, and they settle for an adolescent manifesto that collapses before them. It taps into a psyche run down by the banality of it all; a narcissistic pursuit of instant gratification. (In one delicious moment, a mutual lover tells the two boys their exploits aren’t worth bragging about because they both come so quickly.) This is banality epitomized, even as it’s dressed up as adolescent swagger.

The story rises above the sex jokes in the character of Luisa, but even then, it’s smart enough not to let them fade into irrelevance. It’s all intermixed, a crucial recognition that those base drives don’t go away. Once again, impassioned reason: we need to understand this side of the human psyche as well, not to repress it but to understand it, and channel it in ways that fuel the fire. The boys are extremes, but they captivate because they hit a bit closer to home than many of us would like to believe. A full life takes these appetites, tames them, guides them, and makes sure there is a place for everything.

This is, of course, a wickedly difficult balance; even those who aspire to it find themselves caught in cycles of blind passion and limp detachment, stronger or weaker depending on their temperaments and personal histories. I have no idea what the end state will look like, if there even is such a thing. But the pursuit is on, and nothing else compares.

On the Intellectual World

25 Jan

I embarked on my second semester of graduate school this past week. My degree program, urban planning, is a fairly practical one, and the general tenor of most (though not all) classes is entirely different from the high intellectualism I explored as an undergraduate at Georgetown.

I have a complicated relationship with that intellectual world. I was probably as excited as anyone in my Intro to Planning course over opportunities to debate phenomenology and critical theory and Marxism and whatnot, and as a person who comes at all of this from a fairly different philosophical background from most of my classmates, I rather enjoy the occasional opportunity to push the envelope. (They mostly come at things from somewhere on the political left; I come from here, wherever that is.) I’m the sort of person who will, upon seeing someone like Hannah Arendt on my syllabus, stay up two hours later than I intended so as to read her.

Despite my obvious nerdiness, I’ve never self-identified as a nerdy person, and am rather proud of this. This is in part due to my interests outside of intellectual pursuits—as a kid, I much preferred sports to video games, and never got into the faddish card games that came along—but I think there was something deeper at work. It was one of the great benefits of being formed by a high school where it was perfectly normal for kids to pursue academic greatness and still be well-liked, and by a family where reading fat, heavy books was a routine activity. I might have taken it to an extreme, but I was allowed to do that without anyone criticizing that, and am eternally thankful. It’s just one of the things I do sometimes as I play around with this world around me.

Make no mistake: I do think it is crucially important. It’s an essential foundational block without which culture, society, and civilization itself have no true basis. These questions are essential because they are the ones that lead humans to reach toward great heights, dream great dreams, perhaps even quest for utopia. It’s impossible to do so without some idea of where one is going, or at least a vague idea of how to get there. Debating these things with other well-versed people is one of the fires of life, and anyone with any hope of molding the surrounding world must understand what is at stake. This is why I venture in: there is no alternative. I need answers, or, perhaps better said, I need the right questions.

Too many people interested in that intellectual world, however, can get far too wrapped up in it. When I’ve done that, I rarely look back on those periods of time with fondness unless the philosophical inquiry was done in partnership with other people. Along with the very first philosophers came their very first critics, with the likes of Aristophanes and Diogenes pointing out the all-too-real shortcomings of their way of life.

To find out why, we might as well circle back to Hannah Arendt, who made a distinction between active and contemplative life. Both are clearly essential, and Arendt must no doubt have spent many long hours in the contemplative realm to emerge with the insights she found. She likewise accords due respect to private life—another sphere I value greatly—and the need to take care of business at home. Any complete conception of life must include a defense of the mundane, daily things we do, including some simple and even some of the world’s less refined delights. They are part of the human condition as well. But beyond this lies an active, public life, and this is the only realm where humans can find greatness. All of that contemplative thought is useless if it’s never shared with anyone; the private life alone becomes tautological, life for life’s sake and nothing more.

The active life is not always an easy one for those whose first instincts trend inward. I choose my words carefully so as to avoid coming off as a miserably self-absorbed intellectual, and I don’t always pull it off. My abortive novel-writing attempts have, on a certain level, been attempts to take all the philosophy and political theory and filter them down into readily understandable terms, spoken through characters who are nothing like an ancient Greek philosopher, but manage to convey a few of their thoughts in a coherent way. Sooner or later, it had to come out. That call into the arena can’t be written off, despite the many philosophical and religious traditions that try to bracket it, and put it aside.

There are risks, of course: hubris, pride, and a failure to slide back into the reflective cycle. But if the foundation truly is in place, then—and only then—is the well-ordered mind ready to venture out, channel it all in the right direction, and take the lead; with humility, certainly, but also enough confidence to know that, somewhere, things do hold together and make sense, and it’s all being channeled in the proper direction.

Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

15 Jul

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.

How Is Evil Banal?

11 Jul

I have not seen the new “Hannah Arendt” movie, but I am enjoying the recent outburst of commentary on her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is her account for the New Yorker of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Israel. The work is most famous for describing Eichmann’s brand of evil is “banal,” a wonderfully pithy phrase that has inspired generations of political thinkers to completely misunderstand her work. Writes Roger Berkowitz of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities:

Perhaps Arendt has been so violently misunderstood because her thinking is both provocative and demanding. Her blessing, and her curse was a facility for quotable aphorisms that, like Nietzsche’s, require whole books to reveal their unconventional meaning. It is easy to cite the “banality of evil.” It is much more difficult to make sense of what Arendt actually meant.

The common misunderstanding, says Berkowitz, stems from testimony at parts of the Eichmann trial Arendt did not attend, in which Eichmann’s anti-Semitism was on full display. Surely, her critics argue, had she heard his very willing embrace of Nazism, she would not have found anything banal in Eichmann. Berkowitz again:

The problem with this conclusion is that Arendt never wrote that Eichmann simply followed orders. She never portrayed him, in Cesarani’s words, as a “dull-witted clerk or a robotic bureaucrat.” Indeed she rejected the idea that Eichmann was simply following orders. She emphasized that Eichmann took enormous pride in his initiative in deporting Jews and also in his willingness to disobey orders to do so, especially Himmler’s clear orders — offered in 1944 in the hope of leniency amid impending defeat — to “take good care of the Jews, act as their nursemaid.” In direct disobedience, Eichmann organized death marches of Hungarian Jews; as Arendt writes, he “sabotaged” Himmler’s orders. As the war ground to an end, as Arendt saw, Eichmann, against Himmler, remained loyal to Hitler’s idea of the Nazi movement and did “his best to make the Final Solution final.”

The banality of Eichmann came not from his blindness, but from his idealism; his grandiose belief that he was a part of some movement that gave meaning to an otherwise fairly dull, bourgeois life. Arendt does indeed make Eichmann sound rather pitiful—not because he was an automaton, but because he had a desperate need to conform in his search for meaning. He abdicated his moral agency by accepting the ideas of others uncritically.

This argument could very easily turn into a rejection of all politics, for fear that it inevitably corrupts people and drives them to commit terrible deeds. Arendt, however, goes in an entirely different direction—one that is alien to the contemporary framing of politics as a fight between the state and the individual. In the words of Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez in Mexico’s Nexos magazine (translation mine):

What is notable about this theoretical construction is that, despite being a vehement denunciation of the voracity of totalitarianism and all nationalization, Arendt does not find refuge in the defense of the private or the apolitical. On the contrary, she restores the value of politics better than anyone. Far from distancing herself from this sphere, she was convinced that it was necessary to recover it, or occupy it, as we say today. In politics she did not see a prolongation of the war, nor a nest of bureaucrats or proxy representatives. Politics, for her, was a cultural treasure that permitted men to find themselves, and find they were truly human. Only in the common realm of politics could man find his authentic existence. He is not the man in private isolation, in the monotonous echo chamber of commercialism. Citizenship could not be the occasional episode of voting, but a daily experience of one exercising liberty with others.

The work that should have been titled Amor mundi [The Human Condition] sustains precisely this necessity to revitalize the public space and find means to act in concert. It does not look for refuge in the private realm but instead in the plaza, in places of deliberation and encounter. In the face of historical determinism and manufactured inertia, it offers a route of imagination and creativity. The most essential thing about man is his “talent to create miracles,” that is, “his capacity to initiate, to achieve the improbable.” Conformity is the negation of liberty. In this way, Hannah Arendt led the fight for a notion of liberty that has little to do with the normal sense of the word in our day in age. Beyond liberating us from exterior constraints, being free means becoming engaged with the world. Her vision of liberty is republican, and densely political. In his room, isolated, man cannot be free. He is, if he goes out the door and enters the city and acts within it. Arendt restored the liberty of the ancients, the liberty within the city, among others. Totalitarianism is the most radical negation of liberty because it not only prohibits action; it also negates man. It negates the victim but also the executioner: one or the other, nuts and bolts within the imposed machinery of power. There are no individuals, only the species; there is no man, only humanity.

Totalitarianism is no longer the existential threat it was when Arendt wrote, but her work is no less relevant today. Due to a long list of factors I won’t delve into here, political participation has declined, and it’s not uncommon to hear laments over the collapse of civic participation. On the other side of the coin, there are still plenty of mass protests and advocacy campaigns, but many of them operate in ideological echo chambers. People get together to fight for a cause, but there is little in the way of dialogue, save mutterings about “those people” on the other side and shaking one’s fist (or worse) at the counter-protesters. In Arendt’s reckoning, this is not only an impoverished view of political life; it is a negation of human freedom.

To be sure, it is easy to pine for “dialogue” and “civil debate,” but it isn’t always easy to make it happen, and proponents of such debates are often not all that interested in hearing what other parties have to say. Arendt’s politics, however, goes back even further. It involves such simple things as families around the dinner table, friends at the bar, and co-workers acting in concert. It involves casual give-and-take, a slow learning that builds a culture out of which one defines one’s individuality. Politics conducted in good faith within a community is anything but banal; it is absolutely essential to the formation of a free human being. Only through such a dialogue can a person learn to consider alternatives to the ideological conformity that so enthralled Eichmann.

It isn’t the answer to everything that plagues politics in this day in age, and it takes effort. The design, however, is startlingly simple, and it is a start.

The Reading List

3 May

I have been lax in blogging, so it’s time to get back into the game. What follows is a list of some of the works that have most profoundly affected me over the years. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things that I probably shouldn’t, but here you go: 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Some classics can be dry, certainly, but some immediately reveal why they have endured for centuries, and deserve to endure for many more. Few works are more universally applicable to most any situation, and often in ways that conflict with the popular image of the title character, thanks to Cervantes’ sharp wit. I had the added benefit of taking an entire college course on this one that was taught by a brilliant professor, which probably helped me see a few more things than I would have if I’d picked it up on my own.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. With graduation season upon us, I’ll be writing a longer post about this one in the coming weeks.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read both of these in high school and haven’t really touched them since, so I’m not sure if they’d have the same impact today. The styles are radically different–one is a lyrical and very real story of racial tension and forgiveness in South Africa, while the other is a punchy work with absurd layers of allegory, but both did a lot to expand my consciousness about the world around me.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What is it about Latin American writers and solitude? At any rate, this book is best known for its exploration of the Mexican identity, but I though it was at its more profound in the later chapters, when it opens up in an even deeper meditation on human nature. On the intellectual side of the ledger, this was my most rewarding discovery during the semester I spent in Mexico City as an undergraduate.

The Bill James 1984 Baseball Abstract. Yes, seriously. As it is, Bill James is (with apologies to Roger Angell) the most insightful baseball writer out there, and there are plenty of bits of brilliance about the game. But this is more than a baseball book; it is a book about how to think about things on different planes, and for a young sports fan, it presented its ideas in a way that was clear and easy to apply to a real-world scenario. I revisit parts of it time and time again.

Honorable mentions: Freedom and “Farther Away” (a New Yorker essay) by Jonathan Franzen; Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; the New Yorker‘s collection of reflection essays on 9/11 (most notably, Roger Angell’s); “Leaving Washington” by Patrick Deneen; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’m curious to see the new movie version); The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt; and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I’ll also throw in the “Harry Potter” series; I know it’s not great literature, but I did grow up with the books and draw certain insights out of them, so they deserve to be acknowledged.

I grew up generally indifferent as to whether books were considered classics or not, but I’ve been finding those so-called canonical works more and more relevant of late. For example, I read The Odyssey when I was fairly young, and though I enjoyed it, only in the past few years have I come to appreciate how far it reaches. I read War and Peace when I was way too young to get most of it–it was more so I could be That Kid who read War and Peace in 6th grade–and have not gone back to it yet, but from what I gather in reading about it since, I’m guessing I would really like it. Some day. It’s a similar story with The Bible. I was not raised within the Christian tradition, and I think that let me have some critical distance from it; as a result, I have only ever found it richly layered and compelling, and I think most intelligent readers should be able to appreciate its merits, even if they don’t believe it. Classics often get dismissed these days as stuffy or unrelated to contemporary life, and while many have their limits (what doesn’t?) and certain works are not for the faint of heart, tackling them with the right mindset can be very rewarding. I’d advocate for a healthy balance between past wisdom and present insight, but there’s little point in forcing oneself to read something that one does not want to read, and one never knows where one might stumble across the most relevant works.

That should do for my list, at least until I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “how could I forget Book X?!” Feel free to share your own in the comments.