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Amor Mundi: February 12th, 2017

The Leader of the Masses

Peter Baehr is one of our best Arendt scholars, and his work explicating Arendt’s thinking about totalitarianism is invaluable. In his essay “The Theory of Totalitarian Leadership,” Baehr argues that the totalitarian leader is only comprehensible as a mouthpiece of what Arendt calls the masses. The masses exist in all democracies, and they may even be an always-existing silent majority. They are the passive, apathetic, apolitical people who lack convictions—until they are suddenly mobilized. They are “the detritus of all social strata that have lost their former social identity and emotional bearings as a result of abrupt political, geopolitical and economic dislocation.” The totalitarian leader does not exist separate from the masses; the leader is necessarily a leader of the masses. The mass leader offers the people what they most need: a world they can believe in. Baehr writes,

“In Arendt’s long review of Hitler’s Table Talk ([1951–52]), and, more succinctly, in a footnote to Origins, she acknowledges Hitler’s “brilliant gifts as a mass orator,” while noting that Stalin, by contrast, who lacked such gifts, was “able to defeat the greatest orator of the Russian Revolution,” namely, Leon Trotsky. Now, it is in face-to-face encounters that witnesses have most often described the allure of Hitler’s personality. Arendt was unimpressed. Fascination is a tautological concept. People are fascinated by people who are fascinating. The secret to Hitler’s fascination, she responded, lay not in some ineffable, captivating quality, some “magical spell” that floored all listeners, robbing them of independent thought. Hitler’s appeal was rooted in something far more mundane: the social propensities of the audience to which he spoke. Her argument is thoroughly sociological. “Fascination is a social phenomenon, and the fascination Hitler exercised over his environment must be understood in terms of the particular company he kept”. On her account, Hitler’s entourage consisted of people whose capacity for discriminating judgment was all but obliterated. They had succumbed to the “chaos of opinions” that characterized the cynical and iconoclastic interwar years. But where others were indecisive and confused, Hitler was unwavering and clear, an obelisk of iron protruding from a trampled field of corn. Accordingly,

“The problem of Hitler’s charisma is relatively easy to solve. It was to a great extent identical with what Professor Ritter calls the “fanatical faith the man had in himself,” and it rested on the well-known experiential fact that Hitler must have realized early in his life, namely, that modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis. Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence therefore inspire confidence in others; pretensions of genius waken the conviction in others that they are indeed dealing with a genius.”

Two features in particular gave Hitler a stature that in other times and among other people would have been derided as dangerous nonsense. The first was his “apodictic tone,” convictions uttered with the utmost dogmatism. Hitler knew firsthand, Arendt explains, the maelstrom of opinions to which modern people are subject and that make them hunger for certainty. Hitler understood that “a role consistently played is unquestioningly accepted as the substance itself .” Second, he formulated this role in a form, logical consistency, which was literally compelling. Indeed, if “logic is defined as the capability to press on to conclusions with a total disregard for all reality and all experience, then Hitler’s greatest gift – the gift to which he owed his success and which brought about his downfall – was one of pure logic.”

Baehr’s essay is published in The Anthem Companion to Hannah Arendt (Anthem Press, 2017). We are grateful to Anthem Press for allowing us to republish the essay. You can read it here. You can also download a PDF of the essay in original formatting here. And as a bonus you can download another of my favorite of Peter Baehr’s essays, this one on Robert Nisbit’s “Totalitarianism in America?”

—Roger Berkowitz


A New Vision

By Unknown – President Donald J. Trump (from the White House) (direct link), CC BY 3.0

Jonathan Rauch asks, does President Trump pose a threat to the constitutional order? Rauch is cautiously optimistic.

“For this article, I set out to develop a list of telltales that the president is endangering the Constitution and threatening democracy. I failed. In fact, I concluded that there can be no such list, because many of the worrisome things that an antidemocratic president might do look just like things that other presidents have done. Use presidential power to bully corporations? Truman and Kennedy did that. Distort or exaggerate facts to initiate or escalate a war? Johnson and George W. Bush did that. Lie point-blank to the public? Eisenhower did that. Defy orders from the Supreme Court? Lincoln did that. Suspend habeas corpus? Lincoln did that, too. Spy on American activists? Kennedy and Johnson did that. Start wars at will, without congressional approval? Truman did that. Censor “disloyal” speech and fire “disloyal” civil servants? Wilson did that. Incarcerate U.S. citizens of foreign extraction? Franklin D. Roosevelt did that. Use shady schemes to circumvent congressional strictures? Reagan did that. Preempt Justice Department prosecutors? Obama did that. Assert sweeping powers to lock people up without trial or judicial review? George W. Bush did that. Declare an open-ended national emergency? Bush did that, and Obama continued it. Use regulatory authority aggressively and, according to the courts, sometimes illegally? Obama did that. Kill a U.S. citizen abroad? Obama did that, too. Grant favors to political friends, and make mischief for political enemies? All presidents do that.”

It is no doubt possible that in the wake of a major terrorist attack or as part of an intensified and expansive war against ISIS, President Trump would seek and be granted broad and authoritarian powers that would make the Patriot Act look liberal. But it is also possible, and more likely Rauch argues, that some combination of Congressional, judicial, libertarian, and civil society groups are more than strong enough to contain any authoritarian impulses the President may or may not have.

The real threat that President Trump poses, Rauch rightly argues, is less to the Constitutional order than to our moral and democratic norms.

“As Benjamin Wittes, a Brookings Institution expert on legal affairs, told me, “The first thing you’re going to blow through is not the laws, it’s the norms.” By “norms,” he means such political and social customs as respecting the law, accepting the legitimacy of your political opponents, tolerating speech you disagree with, performing civic duties like voting and staying informed, treating public office with dignity, and not lying. Fervently and frequently, the Founders warned that the Constitution would stand or fall on the public’s commitment to high standards of behavior—what they called republican virtue. James Madison said “parchment barriers” could not withstand the corruption of democratic norms. George Washington, in his farewell address, said, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” John Adams warned that “avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net.” When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the Constitution established, he replied: “A republic—if you can keep it.””

But how do we teach republican virtue, something that Montesquieu knew is nearly impossible to resurrect once it has been lost? What is needed, Rauch writes, is a way to re-enliven the values of republican constitutional democracy. He cites Yascha Mounk who argues that ““We need a positive vision of what politics can be after Trump. We need to build a new vision of how liberalism can improve people’s lives while pulling them together.”” Mounk, who will be speaking at the 10th Annual Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Crises of Democracy,” is at work at that essential and Sisyphean task.

—Roger Berkowitz


Dressing Falsehood Up as Truth

Leon Botstein argues that America’s colleges and universities must take the lead in the non-partisan struggle to resist the defactualization of the world.

“Not since the era of witch hunts and “red baiting” has the American university faced so great a threat from government. How is the university to function when a president’s administration blurs the distinction between fact and fiction by asserting the existence of “alternative facts”? How can the university turn a blind eye to what every historian knows to be a key instrument of modern authoritarian regimes: the capacity to dress falsehood up as truth and reject the fruits of reasoned argument, evidence and rigorous verification?

The atmosphere of suspicion and insecurity created by the undermining of truth provides the perfect environment for President Trump’s recent actions on immigration. The American university’s future, indeed its most fundamental reason for being, is imperiled by a government that constructs walls on the Mexican border, restricts Muslim immigrants and denigrates the idea of America as a destination for refugees.

Although American universities did not always welcome the huge influx of refugees after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, that intellectual migration transformed a provincial and second-rate higher education system into the finest in the world. Manufacturing may have fled our borders, but American higher education remains a powerful and competitive force, a destination for students and scholars everywhere and a vital engine of employment and economic health. An astonishingly large percentage of graduate students and professors in science today are foreigners and immigrants.

I am a Jewish immigrant who came here as part of a family that was stateless, and my deep patriotism is rooted in that experience. I benefited from American humanitarianism, and I have worked my entire life to give back to this country. An America inhospitable to immigrants and foreigners, a place of fear and danger instead of refuge, is unthinkable in the context of the nation’s history and founding principles. If a more practical argument is required, think of the consequences for the quality and future of our colleges and universities, and their highly prized superiority in science and engineering.”


The Monster Truck

P.J. O’Rourke argues that politics is the problem, not the solution.

“To soothe populist discontents politicians have only one piece of equipment—politics. In an attempt to get enough popular support to achieve or retain their elite status, politicians keep making the machinery of politics larger.

It is over when the fat lady sings. Politics has become an obese operatic performer, warbling so loudly that none of us bit players can be heard, and so fat that we’re shoved into the orchestra pit.

Political power has grown in expense. One-third of the world’s GDP is now spent by the politicians in governments. One out of every three things you make is grabbed by governments. If your cat has three kittens, one of them is a government agent.

Political power has grown in scope. Politics cast their net over every little aspect of life. Nothing is so private that it isn’t tangled up in politics. Transgender bathrooms! We all knew politics were crap. Now we discover that where we take one is a political issue.

When are voters in both political parties going to realize that politics is a two-way street? The politician creates a powerful, huge, heavy, and unstoppable Monster Truck of a government. Then supporters of that politician become shocked and weepy when another politician, whom they detest, gets behind the wheel, turns the truck around, and runs them over.

Make the truck smaller! Yank the engine and install foot pedals. Make it into a Kiddie Kar so that the worst it can do is smack you in the shin.”


The Most Corrupt Police Department in Louisiana

Nathaniel Rich tells the story of the racial murder of Victor White III by the most corrupt police department in Louisiana.

“No one would tell The Rev. Victor White how his son died. Everyone seemed to know — but no one would tell him.

When a detective from the Louisiana State Police spoke to him at sunrise on a Monday morning, she wouldn’t say much; she said his son was dead and his body transported to a hospital. White, in disbelief, did not give the full story to his wife, Vanessa, but he could tell she feared the worst. During the two-hour drive to New Iberia, where his son and his son’s infant daughter lived, neither parent spoke.

At the Iberia Medical Center, nobody would answer White’s questions. An administrator directed him to the admitting doctor, who directed him to the attending state trooper, who directed him to an investigator from the coroner’s office, who directed him back to the trooper. White left Vanessa sobbing in the waiting room and at last was taken to the morgue. He was allowed to view the corpse only from the neck up, but that was enough; he could see that his son had been beaten. A bruise extended from his left eyebrow to his jaw. His lips and nose were swollen, and, White says, his left eye was bashed in. When White returned to the waiting room, his wife was gone. She had been taken away to be sedated.

The coroner’s investigator approached White. “It was like he wanted to say something, without saying it,” White says. “He said: ‘I’m so sorry.’ ” White said the investigator mumbled this repeatedly for several minutes. “I can’t say anything,” the official said finally, “but you should look into your son’s death.” (A lawyer for the coroner’s office, citing litigation, declined to respond to questions for this article.)”


The Glass Half Full

“Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011.” by Mark Taylor is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Christopher Demuth argues that President Trump’s comfort with chaos, contestation, and tumult actually reflects a venerable tradition of American leadership.

“President Trump may be rediscovering a venerable method of leadership that has been forgotten in our era of ideological messaging. Rather than viewing disagreement as a problem, previous American leaders wielded it as a tool. They surrounded themselves with highly accomplished, strong-minded advisers, and used vigorous debate among them to generate fully considered options for confronting the intractable problems of the day….

Most of all, President Trump is comfortable with controversy and dissent, indeed often incites them to advantage. His tweets and pronouncements can be outrageous and overstated—Up to a point, Lord Copper!—but they demonstrate a healthy skepticism toward ossified orthodoxy and, critically, are designed to stimulate debate rather than close it down.

For instance, global warming is not a “hoax,” as Mr. Trump has said. But the public and scientific debates over climate change have involved several hoaxes, one of which is the deliberate conflation of causation, degree, consequence and policy response. Several of the president’s officials are now propounding the more nuanced view and disentangling the critical distinctions. Deliberation on an important, complicated problem is opening up.

The result may be similar with the fracas over Russian email hacking during the election campaign. Mr. Trump’s attacks on the official intelligence report, and his mischievous nod to WikiLeaks, helped show how overcentralized and fragile America’s intelligence establishment has become. It is indeed “politicized,” in the sense of being organized, at the top, by consensus-seeking committees. It employs bureaucratic verbiage to mask conflicts of fact and interpretation. It is increasingly vulnerable to unfiltered information from the outside, leaked or otherwise. We shall see what President Trump does with a system that asks him to make decisions based on distinctions between “probable” and “highly probable” intelligence estimates, while Stephen Bannon scours the internet for second opinions and counterfactuals.

Mr. Trump’s zest for debate and willingness to defer to subordinates (as he did to Mr. Mattis on the question of rough military interrogations) make him more transparent than his predecessors. He is not sphinxlike but garrulous and opinionated, not a raconteur but always smack in the argument. So far, he has been adept at indicating when the time for talk is over, as when he shut down the Republican debates over ObamaCare “repeal and delay” and the House’s overhaul of its ethics office. That suggests he will be decisive in informing subordinates when the moment has arrived to stand together. Time will tell, though, how he adjusts to reversals and instances of “mistakes were made,” such as the sloppy immigration executive order, which was a mistake, precisely, of inadequate internal ventilation.

The focus, for now, should be on the quality and diversity of views that inform President Trump’s decisions. For instance, his intelligence reforms are off to a good start but will encounter fierce bureaucratic resistance. Success will require pertinacious leadership from the White House. A key indicator will be whether the hard, granular conflicts, coming from agencies with radically different methods and assumptions, make it into the Oval Office without being homogenized by the director of national intelligence.”


Seeing What Is Intolerable

In an interview, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar discusses what is representable with fine art, and what is not:

“I have always said that I am a frustrated journalist. I feel that in a way my work tries to combine what I would hope journalism should accomplish with what I think art does best. That is why my objective has always been to inform and to touch people emotionally through visual mediums. Art at its best illuminates us and it should also move us. I aspire to do all these things at the same time, but I have struggled to find the perfect balance. Many times I am accused of being too didactic or that my work appears purely informative because of the need I feel to include a certain amount of information, which I believe cannot be ignored. While sometimes I fall on the other extreme in which the work becomes too aesthetic and beautiful in its form. Perhaps in that context the information is lost. I am always struggling with this balance between information and spectacle. Working in that space between ethics and aesthetics….

I think this is the conundrum we face. We must represent the intolerable in such a way that it can be visible. That is really the big question of our times. And I do not have an answer to that question. Again that is why I like the concept of exercises in representation. The entire Rwanda project, for example, was an exercise in dealing with the intolerable in one-way or another. Now I feel that most of the works failed. But it is also true that working on that project for six years taught me something, so the later works were, I think, more successful in their attempt to navigate this intolerable situation.”


Writing With The Man

Raoul Peck, the director of the recently released and widely acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about the writer James Baldwin, writes about the difficulty and importance of collaborating with his subject:

“In all modesty, I do not know of any other example of a film created strictly from the preexisting texts of one author. Especially when the texts came from sources as diverse as personal notes not intended for publication, letters, manuscripts, speeches, and published books. To begin with, I was theorizing, without any clearly defined guideline, about an inconceivable film.

So how to start concretely, practically?

After some blind wandering, I realized that without creating a first draft of a complete document, I would not be able to advance the realization of the film. But how to create such a text? It could not be an adaptation, nor a simple compilation, let alone a chronological narration. I needed a dramatic structure, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, as I would for any screenplay. Except that in this particular case the words already existed, as if in a large jar filled with unlabeled pieces of a precious mosaic. Each piece, a promising diamond. A diamond that must be set to reveal its unique value, positioned for proper resonance, to create layered meanings and stories that interweave, contradict, and even collide with one another. I wanted to make, as Baldwin wrote in his notes, “a funky dish of chitterlings.”

Like a composer of an opera crafting a libretto from the scattered works of a revered author, I began my own journey, respecting at all times and preserving scrupulously the spirit, the philosophy, the pugnacity, the insight, the humor, the poetry, and the soul of the long-gone author.

It was clear from the start that countless traps lay ahead.

To begin with, the material itself: several pages of notes typed, in no particular format, containing erasures, and the object of repeated corrections. Even if it was evident from the outset that “Notes Toward Remember This House” was to be the foundation of this libretto, it was going to be hard work to find and include the additional texts that I needed to complete the manuscript and to do this without betraying or second-guessing Baldwin’s thoughts or intentions.”


It Would Be Unwise To Act As If We Did

Author, Philip Roth, drinking a glass of beer as he pauses during work on manuscript. (Photo by Bob Peterson//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Judith Thurman trades emails with Philip Roth about the new President.

““I was born in 1933,” [Roth] continued, “the year that F.D.R. was inaugurated. He was President until I was twelve years old. I’ve been a Roosevelt Democrat ever since. I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But, whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

Roth retired from writing at seventy-seven, but, given Trump’s threats to muzzle journalism that is critical of him, what role does he see for American writers of today?

“Unlike writers in Eastern Europe in the nineteen-seventies, American writers haven’t had their driver’s licenses confiscated and their children forbidden to matriculate in academic schools. Writers here don’t live enslaved in a totalitarian police state, and it would be unwise to act as if we did, unless—or until—there is a genuine assault on our rights and the country is drowning in Trump’s river of lies. In the meantime, I imagine writers will continue robustly to exploit the enormous American freedom that exists to write what they please, to speak out about the political situation, or to organize as they see fit.””


Posted on 12 February 2017 | 9:00 am

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