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Amor Mundi: Plurality and Charlottesville

Plurality and Charlottesville

By Evan Nesterak – After the clash, CC BY 2.0

Roger Berkowitz and Samantha Hill spoke this week to incoming First Year students in Bard’s Language and Thinking program about Chapters 24-27 of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Arendt’s chapters are about the centrality of plurality to politics, so Berkowitz and Hill took the opportunity to bring Arendt into the conversation around the rise of neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence. The Arendt Center has published a transcript of their conversation.
Samantha Hill: How’s everyone doing? Has everyone been following what’s been going on politically? It’s kind of hard to miss, but not everyone reads the newspaper. It’s been occupying a lot of our thoughts for the past couple of days, and I know yesterday-to me, at least-felt like Inauguration Day. And so I found myself last night going through some of Arendt’s older essays, and I came across one I remember she wrote for a symposium in The New York Times in 1968 responding to the question, Is America By Nature a Violent Society?
Arendt’s contribution was titled “Lawlessness Is Inherent in the Uprooted.” In that essay she takes on questions of race, the Civil Rights Movements, and the use of violence in political movements. She repeats one of her central thoughts about American politics, that “Freedom of Assembly is among the most crucial and cherished and, perhaps, most dangerous rights of American citizens.” We should all take this seriously and think about how freedom of assembly is both central to American democracy and dangerous. Democracy, according to Arendt, is not safe. It is a contest and an engagement. And she celebrated the fact that in the 1960s students others were engaged and became active in politics. She says in this essay, they became “de-alienated” from politics.
But after celebrating the power and success of the peaceful and non-violent Civil Rights Movement, Arendt adds a caution. The power of freedom of assembly and the success of the Civil Rights Movement should not, she writes,
“make us forget that the Ku Klux Klan and the [John] Birch society are also voluntary associations, and no one will deny that the outbreak of violence can be greatly helped by such groups. It is difficult to see how this danger could be eliminated without eliminating freedom of assembly; it is not too high a price to pay for political freedom.”
What Arendt is saying in this quote is that we have to remember that the KKK and other organizations we often associate with words like racism, or bigotry, or hatred, that these are volunteer associations that people join because they have political opinions. And we might really disagree with their political opinions, but they choose to join these organizations. And Arendt is saying that with these organizations, with the freedom of assembly, comes the threat of violence. Further, that the only way we can insure that this violence does not exist is by getting rid of the freedom of assembly; and that’s too high a price to pay. It’s very provocative to think that allowing these organizations to exist and thrive is the price of freedom and democracy.
So, why is Arendt making this argument? For Arendt plurality and politics necessitate one another; they go together. Plurality is a condition of politics, it’s a condition of small ‘d’ democracy, of a democratic society. She defines plurality in The Human Condition and it’s a key part of the first three chapters on action that you’re reading for Language & Thinking. In these passages, she talks about how we appear before one another in as distinct individuals in a public realm, who have the ability to engage one another, and the world around us, with speech and action. And it is this condition of plurality, our distinctness and difference, that is essential to the public, political realm. We cannot foreclose the appearance of individuals, because they might have contentious political views, we must find a way to engage with difference as a democratic practice.
At the beginning of the book Arendt writes:
Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
The Human Condition, 8
And at the opening of Chapter 24, which you’ve read for today, she adds:
Human plurality, the basic condition of both action and speech, has the twofold character of equality and distinction.”
The Human Condition, 175
I think the quote that we started with that Sam read must be understood within the context of Arendt’s thinking on plurality and politics. Voluntary associations are essential for both plurality and politics. So when she says that the KKK and the John Birch Society are voluntary associations, what does she mean?
Arendt has a very important belief about the centrality of voluntary associations to democratic politics.  These voluntary associations and the right to public assembly-the right to act and speak in public in ways that matter-are for her the essence of democratic freedom. For people to come together and act together in politics to pursue their ends is what it means to be free. And this is to her the essence of democracy. It’s participation, it’s engagement, it’s acting in concert.
And so when she says that even though the KKK – and we could add now the neo-Nazis – are racist, and clearly violent in the sense that they envision a society built on oppression, exclusion, and violence, they are also expressions of voluntary associations and thus democratic. These fringe groups are at the root of what it means for a group of people who share a common opinion to get together and express that opinion. We need to understand and even appreciate the pluralistic spirit of these protests even as we have the right, and I think, responsibility, to oppose that opinion if we don’t agree with it and to argue strenuously against it; but that doesn’t mean eliminate it.
Arendt’s argument in her essay reminds me of the quote she knew well from Federalist Paper 10 by James Madison, perhaps the most famous quote from our founding era: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” You can’t have fire without air, right? And you can’t have liberty without faction, without disagreement. To seek to abolish faction by taking away liberty is always a seduction, especially when those factions are dangerous and offensive. But the faction that comes from liberty is, in Arendt’s words, “not too high a price to pay for political freedom.”
It is important for us today that we remind ourselves that you can’t have action and speech, you can’t have politics, without plurality. And that means that in all plurality, in all faction, in all disagreement, in all action and speech, there’s going to be both equality and distinction. That means that we are distinguished from the KKK and the neo-Nazis, but we’re also equal to them in a certain way, and we have to hold onto both those ideas. We are, as Arendt says in the quote from the Human Condition, “all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”
This is not to say at all that the KKK and the anti-fascist groups are the same. Plurality does not affirm sameness or equivalency, which is the mistake President Trump made in his initial remarks and then again on Tuesday. Plurality does, however, affirm both our sameness and our difference. And affirming both is important.
I think a good comparison here is that Hannah Arendt later, in 1963, published a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem. One of the things she said in that book is that the Jews who worked in the concentration camps for the Nazis, and the Jews who worked in the ghettoes for the Nazis, were wrong to do so. And people went nuts and said to her, “How can you blame the Jews for the Holocaust?” And she said, I’m paraphrasing here: “I never blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. I said they were wrong. That doesn’t mean they were at fault for the Holocaust. The Nazis are at fault for the Holocaust.” It’s not an equivalence. And yet she also wanted to say the Jews were wrong. And I think there is a parallel to what’s going on today. We can and should say that those on the left who are engaging in violence are wrong without in any way saying they’re responsible for what’s going on or that there’s an equivalence.
And why are those on the left engaging in violence wrong? That’s an important question. The Arendtian answer, is that to engage in violence in order to try and eliminate faction, or eliminate disagreement, or eliminate plurality is anti-pluralistic. It is to suggest that politics is not about dissent and opinion, but about one truth that has to be violently imposed. And the core of Arendt’s thinking throughout her entire life emerges from this idea of plurality, that if we really want difference, uniqueness, distinction in the world, we have to be willing to let plurality exist, even amidst those people we find offensive.” 

Fascism and the Partisan Press

A few days before the marches and violence in Charlottesville, Robert Leib published a long essay arguing that one important cause of the rise of Nazism was the increasingly common rhetoric of civil war that helped discredit the press and militarize Germany’s public debates.

“What might an analogy with Nazi Germany look like in a cultural register? We might begin to lay our contemporary scenario over historical accounts in the following way:

Throughout the 1930 campaign, the Nazis had tried every stereotype, and the increasingly divided press had taken the bait, legitimizing their talking points. As historian Bernhard Fulda (2009) writes, “Years of hostile press coverage had undermined the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy in the eyes of a substantial part of the electorate” (168). This era of ‘alternative facts’ proved ripe for an assault on the Republic itself. The story of the next two years shows what is possible when the culture of a free press is unprepared to declaim a political discourse built upon fears of violence and salacious consumer appetites.

From 1930 into 1931, violence was increasingly present at right wing events, and, in one case, directly responded to an article published by Goebbels in his newspaper, Angriff. This led to the first in a series of regional newspaper bans throughout the Reich. Central to this controversy was the language chosen by the press in covering these incidences, evoking ‘civil war’ with increasing frequency. As Fulda argues, “compilations of long (and one-sided) chronologies of political clashes… conveyed the impression that contemporaries were already experiencing the first signs of… a fully-fledged civil war” (173). Addressing street violence in a non-partisan way became almost impossible.

By mid-1931, President Hindenburg issued an emergency decree compelling newspapers to print replies from the government, intended to prevent “concealment and distortion of true [facts] and the assertion of false facts” (176). While proclaimed on the basis of perceived necessity, and without explicit political inclination, by 1932 Hitler had convinced the president that his ministers were using the press decrees to the advantage of the left-wing KDP. Hitler’s portrayal of the Nazi party as victims of the decree, along with his own promise to abide by the Republic’s laws, led to his appointment by Hindenburg to the chancellorship in 1933.

A cluster of rhetorical moves here signals the deterioration of the media’s credibility and status as a free press. This, I think, is an analogy that does not rely on direct comparison between Trump and Hitler or the alt-right and Nazism. A political disjunction in the press can be a primary cause of social instability and the impetus for a restriction of free speech among citizens. Political leaders exist in a symbiotic cultural relationship with the press that covers them, and executives can find legal reason to silence them if this balance becomes too precarious.

I am not prepared to suggest let alone predict that Trump would issue an executive order against the press without broad support, but the more divisive right and left wing politics become, the greater this possibility. Increasingly, the issue of censorship could fall into the hands of a person who takes criticism personally, is erratic and vengeful in his invocations of necessity. It may not even be Trump but a successor who takes this step.”

Take 'Em Down

After New Orleans removed four 19th century Confederate monuments earlier this year, Mitch Landrieu, the city’s mayor, spoke eloquently on why he believed actually honoring the history of the city required it to change the symbols it uses to identify itself:

“This is however about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes with violence.

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present, and it is a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed. It cannot be moved like a statue. What is done is done. The Civil War is over, and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.

And in the second decade of the 21st century, asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd. Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart.

Indivisibility is our essence. Isn’t this the gift that the people of New Orleans have given to the world? We radiate beauty and grace in our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death; in everything that we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, the most uniquely American art form that is developed across the ages from different cultures. Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.”

Moral Complexity Set In Stone

Harry Stein disagrees about the need to take down statues celebrating confederate heroes. While it is true that many of these sculptures were erected in the era of Jim Crow and with a political purpose, it is also true that these statues served many purposes. To say, as for example John Marshall does, that “A statue of Lee in uniform, mounted on a horse in a southern town square has only ever had one meaning: white supremacy,” contains an important truth, but is a rampant oversimplification. For Stein, the war on the statues is evidence of a flat and simplified view of history.

“As a Red Diaper baby, I came from a different tradition. My parents never saw Gone With the Wind—they were outside the theater, picketing. But I, too, felt the pull of that history, in all its messiness and grandeur. It was our history, as Americans.

Maybe that’s all over now. Maybe, as my colleague Kay Hymowitz once observed, for kids today American history runs from the oppression of the Indians to the oppression of blacks to the oppression of women, with nothing ennobling in between. Not long ago, talking with several people in their twenties, I was startled to learn that, until the movie came out, none of them had heard of Dunkirk. How, then, could we expect them to know about figures like Richard Kirkland, “the Angel of Marye’s Heights,” the Confederate soldier who, during the abattoir that was Fredericksburg, emerged from the safety of the commanding Southern lines to tend to dying Union soldiers on the killing field below?

Our history is rife with moral complexity. My wife and children exist only as a result of two near-misses. One ancestor, on her mother’s side, whose descendants would include several prominent abolitionists, nearly drowned after falling overboard on The Mayflower, while her great-grandfather on her father’s side, at 12, was nearly shot down from a rooftop in Fort Smith, Arkansas, by an occupying Union soldier after shouting “Long live Jeff Davis!”

All of which is a preamble to saying that, in his exchange with the churlish and ignorant press corps in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Donald Trump got it right when he said: “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” He may not have been the ideal messenger—with his combative style, manic egotism, and casual relationship with facts, he never is—but he laid out a case that for months has cried out to be made, and he did it so clearly that the refusal of the media and the elites of both parties, not just to credit it, but even to acknowledge it, speaks volumes. Though Trump has never quite defined what his notion of making America great again actually means, preserving that which needs no fixing—including the history that is our common legacy—is a key part of it.”

Understanding Whiteness

In an attempt to explain the ongoing turn to working class white identity as a means of understanding the historical conditions that lead us to the Trump presidency, Joseph Darda marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Playing in the DarkToni Morrison’s book on the idea of whiteness in American literature:

One of Morrison’s most enduring arguments is that we are all in some sense “raced,” that, “living in the wholly racialized society that is the United States,” no one writes, thinks, or lives apart from racial knowledge. Although the white writers she discusses imagine themselves as unraced authors of the universal, their fiction also engages dominant racial ideologies. Morrison wished to “avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject,” to turn our attention from black America to white America as it is constituted through an Africanist presence that suffuses our national literature. Vance’s book indicates how the idea of the United States as a “wholly racialized society” has been reframed to mean that white folks also suffer for their race, that race names a kind of ahistorical woundedness. Vance’s “working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent” are raced, too, and, as raced, don’t profit from their whiteness. Or so he suggests. But racialization is, Morrison stresses, an uneven process that creates and sustains social hierarchies rather than equivalent categories of difference. Being white and poor in the United States is not the same as being black and poor.

In rereading the 19th-century American gothic romance as defined by what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” Morrison shows how American Africanism gave white writers a means of “organizing American coherence” and achieving a “new cultural hegemony.” American romanticism distinguished the young nation not just from the Old World but also through a difference emergent within the New. This radical new form of freedom was made known to white Americans by its contrast to the “not-free” and the “not-me.” The white settler’s claim to freedom depended on what Morrison describes as “the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment — the critical absence of democracy, its echo, shadow, and silent force in the political and intellectual activity of some not-Americans.” The association between whiteness, Americanness, and freedom was achieved through the association of blackness with un-Americanness and unfreedom. Morrison’s corrective to the isolated treatments of whiteness found in Hochschild’s and Vance’s studies, and of course in Heinemann’s fiction, is that whiteness can’t exist apart from that which it is not. The haunted world of white veterans that won Heinemann the 1987 National Book Award, for example, gets told in white-voiced black vernacular. One character is described in a flashback to Vietnam as “booming out some gibberish mumbo jumbo in his best amen-corner baritone and laughing that cool, nasty, grisly laugh of his, acting the jive fool for all those housecats.” Heinemann’s new new white man — the down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet — articulates his hurt in the voice of an abstracted blackness. He claims the center of American culture against blackness and the margin through it.

Playing in the Dark motivated a generation of ethnic studies scholars and students to make whiteness visible. It was critical, they argued, that we not let whiteness continue to go unacknowledged and unexamined as a social norm. Now, with the Trump White House and liberal media focused like never before on the struggles of the white working class, whiteness has been made visible, but as an identity left behind in a nation transformed by immigration and global trade. From the beginning, critical whiteness studies has risked recentering whiteness in the act of indicting it. The critical and commercial success of books like Vance’s memoir points to the limitations and pitfalls of making whiteness visible in the 21st century. The challenge for writers now will be making whiteness visible as part of a social structure that divests nonwhite Americans of resources and opportunities rather than as another minoritized cultural identity. It is a difficult thing to do because a social structure doesn’t make a very compelling protagonist.”

The Vulgarity of Donald Trump

Harvey Mansfield focuses on President Trump’s overwhelming vulgarity and ties it to the politics of white resentment.

“The most striking aspect of the rise and reign of Donald Trump has been his unabashed display of vulgarity and the ease (so far) with which he gets away with it. “Vulgar,” a term of condescension, is not often heard in democracies, where it most applies. It certainly applies to The Donald. The brazen insults he strewed along his path to the presidency were more than enough to deserve the plain name of vulgar. His success despite them suggests something even more upsetting than Trump himself: that his vulgar manliness was not a drag but an advantage.

The whole Trump phenomenon, both the man and the people he appeals to, reminds us of the vulgarity in democracy. Or more, of human vulgarity—since disrespect for the high and mighty can have universal appeal.

We now treat democracy as unquestionably the best, sometimes as the only, form of government. That was not the case in the classical political science of the Greeks. They held democracy in far lower esteem. For Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, and Plutarch, democracy was typified by the figure of the demagogue, the democratic leader. This man was hasty, angry, impulsive, brash, and punitive; he sought the favor of those like himself, the demos, the hoi polloi (the many). He opposed men of quality, nobles, aristocrats, or gentlemen, and accused them of being enemies of the people, the majority for whom he spoke. The “people” was considered in the classical conception to be just a part of the whole, the majority part to be sure, but it was not a term that included everyone: The demos was quantity against quality, the many versus the few, in practice the poor versus the rich….

As Trump had it during his election campaign, our parties are together against us, yet so divided against each other as to be unable to act. He seems quite uninterested in the liberal/conservative debate, or indeed in any debate. But he found one point to attack that no other politician had seen: political correctness. Here was a well-known mind-set with practices and policies carried out and defended by Democrats, often criticized, but not by politicians. No Republican had had the cleverness to see and the boldness to exploit the weakness in political correctness. This was the name Trump gave to the general political strategy of Democrats to designate vulnerable groups, “minorities and women,” for special favor in jobs, honors, and benefits. This strategy of inclusiveness was designed to help win elections by the simple addition of vulnerable groups taught to vote by their identity, following the example of black voters.

Trump noticed that the policy of inclusiveness, in cases such as affirmative action, was actually including some by excluding others not officially identified as vulnerable—particularly white voters. Without saying so—for in this Trump was cautious and prudent—he began to mobilize a white community to match the long-existing “black community,” thus turning the strategy of identity against itself. It was now Trump voters who were encouraged to think themselves marginalized. One could call this racism only if the “inclusive” policy of the Democrats were also termed racism. Surely, however, Trump was not calling on the finer feelings of the electorate. In a democratic age without nobles to serve as targets, the demagogue has to operate against some of the people in order to claim to act on behalf of those forgotten. Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, has made a study of forgotten whites in Bayou Louisiana that nicely describes Trump voters before they voted for him. They were resentful, like departing airline passengers, of having to stand in line and watch other preferred groups waved ahead of them.”

Other Rural Americans

Since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president, many valiant journalists have gone into the American heartland to attempt to discover what the stereotypical white, poor, rural, Trump voter thinks of him now, after a given speech or policy proposal, or why they voted for him despite his clear distaste for programs, like Medicaid, that serve their interests. Becca Andrews, in the meantime, has gone out and sought out rural people of color, whose mere existence is a check on the short-sighted notion that the parts of the US that aren’t its major metropolitan areas are all one thing:

“Since Trump’s election, there has been ample coverage of white people—the rise of white nationalism, the white working class that makes up Trump’s core constituency, the 53 percent of white women who voted him into office. Much less has been written about the people of color who live and work amid the rising tide of white nationalism in rural red states.

I grew up in a town called Bells, one of the five small towns that make up Crockett County in West Tennessee. The county is 83 percent white—I am also white—14 percent black and 10 percent Hispanic. (For comparison, according to 2016 Census data, Tennessee’s population is only 17 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic.) The median household income is $35,000, and 19 percent of the county’s 14,411 residents live below the poverty line. Most of the people I went to school with are still there. The area is deeply rural—the main highway that winds through the county is framed by cotton fields and pastures where cows keep a lazy watch over passing cars. Friday night football reigns supreme; game attendance is only second in importance to church. Many families have been here for generations, passing down their farmland and businesses to their children and grandchildren.

It can be a lovely place to live, but in counties like Crockett, it’s hard to be anything other than white. So I decided to go back home and talk to the people I should have been talking to all along—people of color who live and work and go to school with white Trump supporters. They told me how it feels to live among neighbors who voted against their best interests and—worst case—their basic existence.”

In Praise of the Obscure

Siddhartha Deb elegizes the Urdu language author Naiyer Masud, who died last month:

“But obscurity, or what to the frantic metropolitan mind appears to be obscurity, can also be a kind of blessing. It imparted to Masud’s work its stamp of distinctiveness, resulting in a cult following among those who discovered him, even if they did so, like me, only in translation. Often featuring haunted male narrators, Masud’s stories range across the terrains of desire, fear, sexuality, loss, and time. Family relationships, especially between parents and children, frequently provide a narrative impulse to the stories, but without psychological realism ever being deployed in explaining the cracks in these relationships. Characters leave their homes, become wanderers, die suddenly, have strange compulsions, but they are not driven by the trauma of existence as post-Freudian individuals as much as by a kind of collective haunting, perhaps a sense of shock at being visited by modernity.

In fact, the middle classes, upward mobility, technology, media—everything associated with today’s unraveling, globalized world—have barely any presence in Masud’s fiction, which consists largely of fading aristocrats and the drifting poor, the two groups often intersecting with one another. There is a careful attention to realistic detail in the work some of the characters do, from women whose eyes give out because they carry out patterned needlework in poor light to people living in a “destitutes compound” who make boxes for sweets, but there are also characters who interpret the interiors of houses and heal snake bites and who take Masud’s fiction to the edge of the fantastic. The material infrastructure of modernity, apart from the sudden appearance of a railway station, is completely absent, and yet the world of this fiction seems oddly contemporary in its sense of destitution, of a precariat at loose in decaying mansions, slums, and settlements that are daily covered in dust storms of astonishing color.

In an interview given in the nineties, Masud addressed the telling absence of details in his work, admitting that he was deliberately sparing in the use of personal names for characters, cities, and as markers of religious identity. The absence extended to his use of language, and Menon, his principal translator, notes “the terse and highly-clipped Urdu prose . . . so stark in its suppression of qualifiers that it unsettles the mind. No or few idioms, no verbal pyrotechnics of any kind. It is Urdu all right, but it does not read like ordinary Urdu . . . and is evocative of absence.””

Posted on 20 August 2017 | 8:00 am

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