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Amor Mundi: Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism

Roger Berkowitz has been teaching a semester-long course on Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism for more than a decade. He is currently leading the Hannah Arendt Center’s Virtual Reading Group sessions on the book. In a long essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Berkowitz argues that Arendt’s brilliant insights into totalitarian movements is an essential guide to today’s political world.

“THE ASTONISHING STATEMENT Donald Trump made at a January 2016 campaign rally in Iowa seems like the essential moment in his unexpected rise to power: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody,” he said, “and I wouldn’t lose voters.” In saying that he could kill in broad daylight and remain popular, Trump did more than draw a logical conclusion from polls showing that his supporters demonstrated unprecedented loyalty. He understood that he was not running a political campaign but was the leader of a mass movement. Most importantly, he understood something that his critics still fail to understand: the essential nature of loyalty in mass movements.

Mass movements, writes Hannah Arendt in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, are one of the core elements of totalitarianism. Arendt does not say that all mass movements are totalitarian; to take seriously President Trump’s claim to be the mouthpiece of a movement is not to claim that he is a totalitarian leader or that he is leading a totalitarian movement. He has not mobilized terror, concentration camps, arbitrary arrests, a secret police, and a party apparatus that rises above the state — all of which were essential parts of Arendt’s description of totalitarianism in power. Mass deportation of illegal immigrants — disgusting as it is — is not the same thing as de-naturalization, imprisonment, and deportation of citizens. Common sense insists that we not abandon reality and imagine that the United States is experiencing totalitarianism.

It is equally irresponsible, however, to ignore the important similarities that the president’s self-professed movement shares with totalitarianism. President Trump has repeatedly asserted he leads “a movement like the world has never seen before.” He has shown a willingness to assert his personal control over reality. And he has positioned himself as a Janus-faced figure who can present one version of reality to his followers and another version to the outside world. These are all characteristics Arendt attributes to leaders of totalitarian movements.

There is always a temptation to rationalize what is happening in politics, to say: this has all happened before. There is a voice in each one of us, wheedling us with common sense, telling us that Trump is simply another instantiation of American populism. That voice is likely correct. But we should be wary of such voices, Arendt warns, for “the road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages for which we can find numerous analogies and precedents.”

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The Marcusian Downshouters

ARCHIV–Herbert Marcuse im Alter von 72 Jahren waehrend eines Interviews in den USA im Oktober 1970. Der am 29. Juli 1979 in Starnberg verstorbene Philosoph waere am 19. Juli 1998 hundert Jahre alt geworden. (AP Photo/Archiv)

Stephen Carter does not think that the “downshouters” at Middlebury, Berkeley, and other college campuses are junior Nazis or proto-Stalins, as is so often and irresponsibly asserted in the conservative press. Instead, Carter argues that the “downshouters” make the same mistake made by Herbert Marcuse, to embrace “repressive tolerance” in the misplaced conviction that they know the truth.

“Instead, I want to say a word about the ideology of downshouting. Students who try to shut down debate are not junior Nazis or proto-Stalins. If they were, I would be content to say that their antics will wind up on the proverbial ash heap of history. Alas, the downshouters represent something more insidious. They are, I am sorry to say, Marcusians. A half-century-old contagion has returned.

The German-born Herbert Marcuse was a brilliant and controversial philosopher whose writing became almost a sacred text for new-left intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays, his best-known work is the essay “Repressive Tolerance.” There he sets out the argument that the downshouters are putting into practice.

For Marcuse, the fact that liberal democracies made tolerance an absolute virtue posed a problem. If society includes two groups, one powerful and one weak, then tolerating the ideas of both will mean that the voice and influence of the strong will always be greater. To treat the arguments of both sides with equal respect “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society.” That is why, for Marcuse, tolerance is antithetical to genuine democracy and thus “repressive.”

He proposes that we practice what he calls a “liberating” or “discriminating” tolerance. He is quite clear about what he means: “tolerance against movements from the Right, and tolerance of movements from the Left.” Otherwise the majority, even if deluded by false consciousness, will always beat back efforts at necessary change. The only way to build a “subversive majority,” he writes, is to refuse to give ear to those on the wrong side. The wrong is specified only in part, but Marcuse has in mind particularly capitalism and inequality.

Opening the minds of the majority by pressing one message and burdening another “may require apparently undemocratic means.” But the forces of power are so entrenched that to do otherwise — to tolerate the intolerable — is to leave authority in the hands of those who will deny equality to the workers and to minorities. That is why tolerance, unless it discriminates, will always be repressive.

Marcuse is quite clear that the academy must also swallow the tough medicine he prescribes: “Here, too, in the education of those who are not yet maturely integrated, in the mind of the young, the ground for liberating tolerance is still to be created.”

Today’s campus downshouters, whether they have read Marcuse or not, have plainly undertaken his project. Probably they believe that their protests will genuinely hasten a better world. They are mistaken. Their theory possesses the same weakness as his. They presume to know the truth, to know it with such certainty that they are comfortable — indeed enthusiastic — at the notion of shutting down debate on the propositions they hold dear. Marcuse, as I said, was a brilliant philosopher, but on this question he was simply wrong. My own old-fashioned view is that a “truth” that will not debate is a truth that deserves to lose.”

You guys have been messing with these people for 200 years! Stop!”

Tyler Cowen interviews Malcolm Gladwell about everything from Gladwell’s white father’s run-in with segregation to the irrationality of university endowments. And Gladwell also offers a sharp criticism of the usually sacrosanct ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

“Well, the great book on this is Daryl Scott’s Contempt and Pity. He’s a very good black historian at Howard [University], I believe. Yes, he’s the chair of history at Howard. And he has much to say, so I got quite taken when I was doing this season of my podcast with the black critique of Brown [v. Board of Education]. And the black critique of Brown starts with some of that psychological research because the psychological research is profoundly problematic on many levels.

So what Clark was showing, and what so moved the court in the Warren decision, was this research where you would take the black and the white doll, and you show that to the black kid. And you would say, “Which is the good doll?” And the black kid points to the white doll. “And which doll do you associate with yourself?” And they don’t want to answer the question. And the court said, “This is the damage done by segregation.”

Scott points out that if you actually look at the research that Clark did, the black children who were most likely to have these deeply problematic responses in the doll test were those from the North, who were in integrated schools. The southern kids in segregated schools did not regard the black doll as problematic. They were like, “That’s me. Fine.”

That result, that it was black kids, minority kids from integrated schools, who had the most adverse reactions to their own representation in a doll, is consistent with all of the previous literature on self-hatred, which starts with Jews. That literature begins with, where does Jewish self-hatred come from? Jewish self-hatred does not come from Eastern Europe and the ghettos. It comes from when Jewish immigrants confront and come into close conflict and contact with majority white culture. That’s when self-hatred starts, when you start measuring yourself at close quarters against the other, and the other seems so much more free and glamorous and what have you.

So, in other words, the Warren Court picks the wrong research. There are all kinds of problems caused by segregation. This happens to be not one of them. So why does the Warren Court do that? Because they are trafficking — this is Scott’s argument — they are trafficking in an uncomfortable and unfortunate trope about black Americans, which is that black American culture is psychologically damaged. That the problem with black people is not that they’re denied power, or that doors are closed to them, or that . . . no, it’s because that something at their core, their family life and their psyches, have, in some way, been crushed or distorted or harmed by their history.

It personalizes the struggle. By personalizing the struggle, what the Warren Court is trying to do is to manufacture an argument against segregation that will be acceptable to white people, particularly Southern white people. And so, what they’re saying is, “Look, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s black people. They’re harmed in their hearts, and we have to usher them into the mainstream.”

They’re not making the correct argument, which was, “You guys have been messing with these people for 200 years! Stop!” They can’t make that argument because Warren desperately wants a majority. He wants a nine-nothing majority on the court. So, instead, they construct this, in retrospect, deeply offensive argument, about how it’s all about black people carrying this . . . and using social science in a way that’s actually quite deeply problematic. It’s not what the social science said.”

CSI: Forensics

Brandon L Garrett digs deep into the pseudoscience of criminal forensics, and the role it plays in the American carceral state:

“Forensics has turned Victorian detective stories into modern nonfiction, with lab-coated analysts flexing their Holmesian ability to zero in on tiny clues. The smallest detail—a stray crime-scene particle, a trace of biological evidence—can reliably nail the most serious of criminals, according to prosecutors, august professional associations, and other legal authorities. Our TV police procedurals reinforce that idea in primetime, as frenetic, brightly lit jump cuts serve up damning physical evidence in the form of fingerprints or strands of hair.

Popcult fables aside, the examination of physical crime-scene evidence is a solemn civic obligation. We incarcerate vastly more people than any other country in the world, and criminal sentences in the United States are substantial. We should expect the evidence that our turbo-charged criminal system relies upon to be as close to airtight as possible. To abuse such basic standards would be to feed the corrosive suspicion that our criminal justice system obeys bureaucratic efficiency and local bias in preference to the patient collection and interpretation of evidence.

It comes as no small shock, then, to learn that the supposed empirical bulwark of forensic courtroom science rests on what is, at best, a creaky empirical foundation—and that in far too many successful criminal convictions, forensic evidence has been misinterpreted and manipulated to obtain swift, efficient convictions. Last fall, the White House’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) codified these findings in a remarkable report that called on prosecutors to stop using unreliable forensics and to suspend all unscientific claims about the value of such techniques. PCAST officials described how even DNA testing—now hailed as the gold-standard method for placing suspects at a crime scene—can easily produce false or uncertain results when scientists are charged with interpreting mixed, contaminated, or small DNA samples.

Meanwhile, PCAST investigators found that other commonly used techniques, such as firearms identification and fingerprint matching (which has enjoyed an unassailable status for the past century-plus), rest on an inadequate research foundation. The track records of these methods reveal surprising error rates that, the PCAST report urged, must be presented to jurors as a matter of course. What’s more, the PCAST team concluded that some forensic evidence, like bite-mark evidence, is so grossly unreliable that it should not be used at all, unless it is supported by substantial independent research. The report was just the latest shot across the bow from the scientific community, which for decades now has been loudly condemning the complacency of a prosecutorial establishment that has been content to rely on dubious science even as it deprives people of life and liberty.”

Language and Sight

Julian Lucas takes stock of the career of Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who died this week. In the wake of the poet’s recent collaboration with the white, Canadian born, Trinidadian painter Peter Doig, Lucas reflects on why Walcott placed such a heavy importance on the sense of sight:

“Derek Walcott has spent a lifetime learning how to see the Caribbean. The archipelago’s history is for him a tale of perspectives in parallax: of the eyes that have beheld the islands, and those with which the islands have beheld the world. The story begins with the willful blindness of colonialism, a misapprehension of the people and the natural environment. In his 1992 Nobel lecture, the poet decried “that consoling pity…[in] tinted engravings of Antillean forests, with their proper palm trees, ferns, and waterfalls”—the prelude to an aesthetic indictment charged with moral force: “A century looked at a landscape furious with vegetation in the wrong light and with the wrong eye.”

Across his work Walcott has sought a rectification of vision, a way of contending with those who, inverting the crime of Lot’s wife, sin by refusing to look. The tourist with postcards printed on the insides of his eyelids, the Afrocentrist whose motherland mirage rejects the Creole culture around him, the Naipauline exile who measures his home by the tape of another world—all are heretics in Walcott’s universe, which is governed by values similar to those enumerated in St. Lucia’s motto: “The land, the people, the light.” Another Life (1973), Walcott’s first long poem and the story of his birth as an artist, remembers the exuberance with which the poet and his friend “Gregorias” (the painter Dunstan St. Omer) devoted themselves to the St. Lucian landscape, swearing “that we would never leave the island/until we had put down, in paint, in words/…every neglected, self-pitying inlet.”

This geography in art was also an assumption of prerogative, Walcott’s identification of his own artistic maturity with St. Lucia’s independence from the British Empire. Consecrating his homeland in paint and verse, the poet located himself at the beginning of a Caribbean tradition. He counted as peers and forebears all those painters who, regardless of origin, “got the light right”: Winslow Homer, Paul Gauguin, the Trinidadian watercolorist Jackie Hinkson, and the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, subject of Walcott’s long poem Tiepolo’s Hound (2000). A biography in verse, the book traces Pissarro’s gifted eye and transformative influence (he taught both Cézanne and Gauguin) to his childhood in St. Thomas.

It is also a lament that Pissarro rarely painted his birthplace. (Walcott’s own paintings, most of them watercolors of Trinidad and St. Lucia, are reproduced alongside Pissarro’s story in mute reproach.) Near the poem’s end, Walcott addresses a moving plaint to the prodigal of Charlotte Amalie, who abandoned the West Indies for Paris and Pontoise, and deprived his homeland of a genius. His judgment is unsparing: “You could have been our pioneer.””

The Big Meaning of that Little Hyphen

In an interview, the writer Elif Batuman considers the tricky distinction between fiction and non-fiction and, crucially, the way that that distinction matters not only to writing books, but also to selling them:

“It’s actually kind of an accident that I established my career as a nonfiction writer. From childhood I wanted to be a novelist. I actually wrote the first draft of The Idiot in my early twenties, many years before either The Possessed or The New Yorker. In fact, I originally wanted The Possessed to be a novel: I was pitching it as a fictional retelling of Dostoevsky’s Demons [often translated as The Possessed] set in the Russian literature program of a Stanford-like university. For some reason, nobody wanted to publish this novel. There was more interest in a memoir about my own Dostoevskian experiences studying Russian literature. The basic idea was: nobody wants to read a whole novel about depressed grad students, but with a nonfiction book, some people might read it in the hope of learning about the Russian novels they never had time to read themselves. It was supposed to be sort of a time-saving device.

It isn’t actually obvious to me that people are less able to learn about Russian novels from reading a novel about grad students than from reading a nonfiction book about grad students. But anyway, that’s how The Possessed ended up nonfictionWith The Idiot, I wrote it first and then told everyone it was a novel, and was really relieved that nobody told me to call it a memoir just because it’s about someone with the same national/educational/cultural background as me.

My feeling is that, if you’re writing a book where you want to make a positive truth claim—you know, like, “This really happened, and it’s important that it really happened, and you can call up everyone mentioned in it on the phone and they will tell you it’s true”—then you should absolutely call it nonfiction or memoir. If you don’t want to make that claim—if that’s not what’s important to you; if you’re more interested in storytelling and interiority and interpersonal relationships than in objective, checkable facts about the world—then why wouldn’t you call it a novel, and take advantage of what that gets you, of the extra freedom, of belonging to the tradition of the novel?”

What Is To Be Done?

Philip Auerswald suggests a capacious– perhaps even evolutionary– idea about the importance of coding to the history of humanity:

“The word “code” derives from the Latin codex, meaning “a system of laws.” Today “code” is used in various distinct contexts—computer code, genetic code, cryptologic code (such as Morse code), ethical code, building code, and so forth—each of which has a common feature: They all contain instructions that describe a process. Computer code requires the action of a compiler, energy, and (usually) inputs in order to become a useful program. Genetic code requires expression through the selective action of enzymes to produce proteins or RNA, ultimately producing a unique phenotype. Cryptologic code requires decryption. Ethical codes, legal codes, and building codes all require processes of interpretation in order to be converted into action.

“Code” as I intend it incorporates elements of computer code, genetic code, cryptologic code, and other forms as well. But, as I describe in my book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History, published this year, it also stands as its own concept—the algorithms that guide production in the economy—for which no adequate word yet exists. Code can include instructions we follow consciously and purposively, and those we follow unconsciously and intuitively. Code can be understood tacitly, it can be written, or it can be embedded in hardware. Code can be stored, transmitted, received, and modified. Code captures the algorithmic nature of instructions as well as their evolutionary character.

The word that comes closest to “code” in this economic context is “recipe.” There has been code in production literally since the first time a human being prepared food. How important has this capacity been to human advance? Substantial anthropological research suggests that culinary recipes were the earliest and among the most transformative technologies employed by humans. We have understood for some time that cooking accelerated human evolution by substantially increasing the nutrients absorbed in the stomach and small intestine. However, recent research suggests that human ancestors were using recipes to prepare food to dramatic effect as early as 2 million years ago—even before we learned to control fire and cooking became common, which occurred about 500,000 years ago. Simply slicing meats and pounding tubers (such as yams), as was done by our earliest ancestors, turns out to yield digestive advantages that are comparable to those realized by cooking. Cooked or raw, increased nutrient intake enabled us to evolve smaller teeth and chewing muscles and even a smaller gut than our ancestors or primate cousins. These evolutionary adaptations in turn supported the development of humans’ larger, energy-hungry brain.

The first recipes—code at work—literally made humans what we are today.”

Thomas Sowell Talks Education

Tunku Varadarajan sits down for an interview with the famed economist and social critic Thomas Sowell. Now 86 years old, Sowell opines on American life, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe Louis. And he offers this optimistic appraisal of education policy.

“Having dodged a calamitous education solely on the advice of a worldly child, it isn’t surprising that Mr. Sowell—who went on to earn degrees from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago before teaching at some of the country’s finest universities—has had a lifelong distaste for the “ideologues” who have come to run America’s schools.

The nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, and the possibility of promoting charter schools nationwide, so energized Mr. Sowell that he “briefly came out of retirement to write two columns in support—because I thought that this is a moment that might not come again in our lifetime, and I mean even the younger people’s lifetime. If we lose it now, we may have lost it forever.”

Mr. Sowell has what he calls “my reservations” about Donald Trump, but he gives the president credit for being “the first Republican who’s made any serious attempt to get the black vote by addressing problems that affect most blacks who are trying to do the right thing—such as education, which is such low-hanging fruit.” Republicans have “no reason whatever to be worried about teachers unions, because the teachers unions aren’t going to vote for them anyway,” he says. “They’re spending millions of dollars trying to get Democrats elected.”

But the good that can be done is obvious to Mr. Sowell. “The most successful schools for educating black kids have been a few charter schools,” he says. “There are literally tens of thousands of kids on waiting lists for charter schools in New York alone. You needed somebody who was going to fight to break through these caps that have been put on the number of charter schools.”

Mr. Sowell has stopped swiveling in my chair, and he looks straight at me to make his next point. “You see, in order to get these reforms, you would have to go against the dogmas not only of educators, but of the American intelligentsia in general,” he says. “The teachers unions complain that charter schools really have skimmed off the cream. Of course that’s nonsense, because people are chosen by lottery. In another sense, there’s a point there, because these are the parents who care about what’s going to happen to their kids. These people are just desperate to get into the charter schools. They don’t want to be raising a bunch of little thugs.”

If a Republican could manage to enact school choice, Mr. Sowell says, “he would have some hope of beginning the process of peeling away black votes from the Democrats. It doesn’t have to be a majority of the black vote. If there’s a narrow race for Congress, and you can reduce the black support for the Democrats from 90% to 80%, that could be the difference.””

Posted on 19 March 2017 | 9:00 am

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