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Amor Mundi: Defend Political Institutions

Defend Political Institutions

Simas Celutka interviews Timothy Snyder about why he reads Adolf Hilter and the contemporary Russian writer Ivan Ilyin so closely. As did Hannah Arendt, Snyder insists that to resist totalitarian and tyrannical ideas, you must first understand them. Channeling Arendt, who plays an important role in his argument, Snyder argues that Hitler was not a nationalist; he wanted, above all, to elevate the Aryan race and he sought to do so by setting the Aryans against the Jews. For that to succeed, it was necessary to destroy the institutions of the German state. That is why Snyder has also argued that one of the essential ways to resist rising tyranny in the world is to defend institutions.

“First of all, there’s a danger in separating intellectual and political history, where intellectual historians are concerned with ideas that are interesting, and political historians are not concerned with ideas at all. Often ideas that are most significant are bad ideas, i.e. ideas that are not interesting in and of themselves, but nevertheless exert psychological, sociological, and political power. And we don’t have to go all the way back to Hitler to see an example of this. In our own societies, we know perfectly well at least a few ideas that are significant, although they may not be good ideas. An intellectual historian 80 years from now may not be concerned with them, but they are nevertheless powerful.

That said, to understand Mein Kampf I think you have to have a certain amount of intellectual history background to realize how Hitler is working from Biblical traditions, from traditions of Victorian science, Darwinism etc. Not so much because he needs to be classified as a thinker, but in order to see and comprehend how Mein Kampf makes sense, how it holds together.

You’re right, it is very unusual to spend as much time on Mein Kampf as I do at the beginning of Black Earth. I put it at the beginning of my book because Black Earth is a book about the Holocaust of the Jews, and the history of the Holocaust of the Jews has to be understood as a realization of a particular worldview. The worldview, a vision of the world without Jews, is stated in Mein Kampf, and is realized in the history of Germany and also in the history of German actions towards states and societies beyond Germany. I don’t think you can understand the Holocaust without analysing the worldview.

There are many ways you can make this argument. One is the classical question of the different forms of extermination policies applied to Jews and Slavs.  If one ignores the ideology one easily falls into questions of comparison rather than questions of origins.  The difference between how Germany treats the Slavs and how it treats the Jews is ideological – it goes back to the difference between colonizing the Slavs and a world without the Jews. You can have massively murderous policies towards both groups of people, but at the end of the day there is a difference, and the difference is ideological. Slavs were to be colonized and Jews were to be removed from the planet because Slavs were seen as an inferior race whereas Jews were seen as a non-race that prevented the racial struggle from getting underway.

Or, in a case of my own central argument, I am saying that the Holocaust happened because of a certain kind of politically generated anarchy, in the course of which German power was used to get rid of traditional political institutions, and that created an environment that made mass killing in these stateless zones possible. It is easier for me to see that when I read Mein Kampf and realize that Hitler is not a German nationalist, that he is not a state-builder. Instead, he is someone who is trying to restore the world to its natural condition of being which is precisely a competition among races. Competition among races is not a political-institutional idea, it’s some other kind of idea. And so then it’s easier to see the German campaign in the East with its destruction of institutions as a normal part of the destructive process. If you ignore the ideas and start from the premise that it’s all about institutions and what institutions do, you cannot understand the destruction of other institutions as part of the argument.”

A Public Life Without Politics

Bonnie Honig shows how the alt-right marchers in Charlottesville were seeking the very kind of public belonging and public happiness that Hannah Arendt imagines is the treasure of public life. But because the alt-right wants to be able to belong together in public even as it excludes Jews, blacks, and others, Honig argues that the alt-right makes the mistake of wanting a public existence without politics.

“Images from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville depicted scenes of a different kind of public care: one man poured milk over another’s face to counter the effects of Mace, then gently tilted his fellow Nazi’s chin in his hand as if to ask: was that better? One of the things that drew the alt-right marchers to gather was the desire to enjoy such care in public. The Unite the Right organizers noted the importance of coming out, being seen, working together in real life. “We don’t have the camaraderie,” one alt-right marcher said, “we don’t have the trust level that our rivals do . . . and that camaraderie and trust is built up through activism.” Describing themselves as “showing up,” being “part of a larger whole,” and “having a great time,” the marchers made clear their desire to create the conditions for mutual care rather than private isolation: they wanted to see and be seen, together, in public. Claiming camaraderie, they were building trust, care, and concern.

The public they want to be part of is exclusively white and so the busy, messy, conflicted space of public life and activism now does not answer to their need, though it does offer some of what they crave. It is full of care for others, and care for the world we share with others, as the political theorist Hannah Arendt would put it. But to belong to that world, you have to be willing to take your place among others. And this, the alt-right marchers were not willing to do. Chanting “Jews will not replace us,” the men at that march in Charlottesville wanted the world without the share. They wanted a public just for themselves. This is the dangerous dream of all ethno-nationalists: they want the public, without the politics.

The alt-right demand for public life is part of a quest to retake the public they or their parents abandoned a few decades ago. After integration or desegregation, white disinvestment and abandonment of public things often comes next. One example, explored by Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, is public swimming pools, which were racially-desegregated in the late 1940s and the 1950s and then abandoned by whites. “In city after city after city . . . the overall attendance to the pool would plummet,” Wiltse says. Whites “didn’t stop swimming . . . They built private club pools, which were able to . . . legally discriminate against black Americans. Or they built at-home residential pools, so they could really enclose themselves off from the larger public and truly exercise control over who they were swimming with.””

Picturing Fascism

Seyla Benhabib introduces a series of photographs by Espen Rasmussen who has been documenting the rise of fascist movements throughout Europe.

“In part, the rise of far-right nationalism is a reaction to the European Union, which sparked a backlash from an older generation of people who fear the loss of their identities as white Christians. As refugees streamed into Europe, those diffuse sentiments for a vanishing past have found easily identifiable targets. Pundits and politicians on the right have placed Islamophobia firmly at the center of the new movements. In Italy, the journalist Oriana Fallaci popularized the phrase “Eurabia” to demonize the continent’s growing population of Muslim immigrants. Even in Germany, which has engaged in an exemplary reckoning with its fascist past, the economist and politician Thilo Sarrazin wrote a runaway best-seller called Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab — Germany Is Destroying Itself — arguing that the upsurge in immigration has created a lower class that is dumber and more dependent on the state. That outlook laid the groundwork for the swift rise of Germany’s far-right populist party, the AfD: Four years ago, it earned less than five percent of the vote in the country’s elections. Last weekend, it won nearly three times that, an astonishing coup that throws the growing power of nationalism and Islamophobia in Europe into sharp relief.

Photographer Espen Rasmussen has spent almost two years documenting the rise of far-right extremists not just in Germany, but all over Europe, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Some, like the National Front in France and Britain First in the United Kingdom, have entered the political mainstream. Many sit in the EU Parliament, using the funds of an organization whose destruction they seek. And all draw from the memories of Europe’s fascist past, in the period between the two World Wars, seeking answers to Europe’s contemporary problems. By putting the Nazi paraphernalia of these groups so vividly on display, Rasmussen’s photographs force us to confront the reality that there are forces that want Europe to fall apart rather than pull together. It is sobering to realize how far and fast such hatred can travel.”

All In The Timing

Jeffrey Isaac explains why he did not join the protest of Berkeley Law Professor John Yoo at the American Political Science Association Meeting earlier this month. [You can also read why Roger Berkowitz and Samantha Hill agree.]

“Let me be clear: I did not and do not “oppose” the protest, and I admire many of the protesters, and indeed count many among my friends. But I did not join in. A number of the protest organizers made statements at the time suggesting that anyone serious about torture, human rights or professional integrity would have joined in, and that those who refrained were in one way or another complicit in torture and perhaps even complicit in Trumpism. I am very skeptical that the APSA protest had any substantial effect on the practice of torture anywhere, even if it was covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In addition, I am inclined to believe that the time to protest John Yoo was the time when he served in government, and that little is to be accomplished by protesting him now (and while I acknowledge the links between the Bush “war on terror” and Trumpism, I also note that Yoo has been a public critic of Trump, and indeed published a February New York Times op ed piece entitled “Executive Power Run Amok.” This might be ironic. It is also true that political scientists ought to take such political differences seriously. Many supporters of Bush and his “war on terror” oppose Trump. This matters.) At the same time, I respect those colleagues who thought differently. While their tactics of protest pressed the limits of what might be called “professional collegiality,” they did not substantially disturb those limits (in my opinion Yoo’s obnoxious panel comments about the protesters, which referenced “open carry,” and thus implied a threat, however “joking,” were much more disturbing). And even if they had, there are values more important than “collegiality.” I agree with Jodi Dean and Paul Passavant that such tactics of protest are justifiable in principle, and that even if one believes in the importance of persuasion, such protests are sometimes necessary as part of the broader process of persuasion.

It was not the tactic of the protest that caused me to abstain, though I will confess that I am personally disinclined to participate in disruptions of academic speakers, even when the disruptions are relatively silent and “civil,” as the protests of Yoo appear to have been. It was, at the margins, the timing: John Yoo is “low-hanging fruit” for those who wish to seriously agitate for a more responsible and just professional association, and protesting him now, a decade after his time in government, seemed questionable to me. But it was, more centrally, the venue and the principle behind the protest that troubled me. The venue was not a governmental office, or even a university or other public setting. It was a professional conference. The protestors were expressing outrage that John Yoo could be “given a platform,” and thus a kind of support, by APSA. And they articulated the idea that if APSA had integrity, then Yoo would have no such “platform” — that the standards of professional ethics, and the procedures for organizing annual meetings, would make it impossible for John Yoo, and others like him, to speak.

I find this problematic.”

The Faces of the Health Care Debate

Atul Gawande talks to people at the center of the fight over the repeal of Obamacare:

“Monna considered herself a conservative. The notion of health care as a right struck her as another way of undermining work and responsibility: “Would I love to have health insurance provided to me and be able to stay home?” Of course, she said. “But I guess I’m going to be honest and tell you that I’m old school, and I’m not really good at accepting anything I don’t work for.”

She could quit her job and get Medicaid free, she pointed out, just as some of her neighbors had. “They have a card that comes in the mail, and they get everything they need!” she said. “Where does it end? I mean, how much responsibility do tax-paying people like me have? How much is too much?” She went on, “I understand that there’s going to be a percentage of the population that we are going to have to provide for.” When she was a young mother with two children and no home, she’d had to fall back on welfare and Medicaid for three months. Her stepson, Eric, had been on Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance before he died. Her eighty-three-year-old mother, who has dementia and requires twenty-four-hour care, was also on Medicaid. “If you’re disabled, if you’re mentally ill, fine, I get it,” Monna said. “But I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don’t work. They’re lazy.” Like the Duttons, she felt that those people didn’t deserve what they were getting.

But then we talked about Medicare, which provided much of her husband’s health care and would one day provide hers. That was different, Monna told me. Liberals often say that conservative voters who oppose government-guaranteed health care and yet support Medicare are either hypocrites or dunces. But Monna, like almost everyone I spoke to, understood perfectly well what Medicare was and was glad to have it.

I asked her what made it different.

“We all pay in for that,” she pointed out, “and we all benefit.” That made all the difference in the world. From the moment we earn an income, we all contribute to Medicare, and, in return, when we reach sixty-five we can all count on it, regardless of our circumstances. There is genuine reciprocity. You don’t know whether you’ll need more health care than you pay for or less. Her husband thus far has needed much less than he’s paid for. Others need more. But we all get the same deal, and, she felt, that’s what makes it O.K.

“I believe one hundred per cent that Medicare needs to exist the way it does,” she said. This was how almost everyone I spoke to saw it. To them, Medicare was less about a universal right than about a universal agreement on how much we give and how much we get.

Understanding this seems key to breaking the current political impasse. The deal we each get on health care has a profound impact on our lives—on our savings, on our well-being, on our life expectancy. In the American health-care system, however, different people get astonishingly different deals. That disparity is having a corrosive effect on how we view our country, our government, and one another.”

What Are We In This Game For?

In an interview, the author Junot Diaz considers the important role vulnerability in building and maintaining strong political discourse:

“I can’t speak to anyone else, but if you’re — if someone tells me there’s no love in the universe, I’m — well, what interest is there in the universe, then? What’s interesting about the universe? For me, perhaps overly simplistically or perhaps overly sentimentally, love matters. I do believe that human beings are, without question, social creatures. Our biology seems to dictate that.

But I would also say that there is a challenge, in being human, that we have vulnerable needs, but we also have minds that can deceive us that these needs are unimportant. And for many of us, to be able to trust somebody else, to be able to have faith that someone else or that the future or that the community can take care of us, that we will not be destroyed when we lower our defenses, for many of us, that’s a challenge. And yet, you can’t have any kind of love, whether we’re talking about civic love or we’re talking about interpersonal love, without first dropping those defenses, without first making yourself vulnerable.

I mean ultimately, when you look at it — you don’t want to be too simplistic, but the nature of having these chats is, you oversimplify — but when you think about it, look at the whole debate around climate change. The whole debate around climate change is a bunch of lying fools sitting around, almost all male, but whatever — a bunch of lying fools saying, “The earth is not vulnerable. There is no injury.” And there’s just a repetition here; there’s this mantra that comes out of these hegemonies, which is: “We are invulnerable. We’re not vulnerable. There is no loss. We don’t need to change anything” that just is — it’s just destroying us, man. And it’s so dull and wearying, and yet, we’re all caught up in this madness, simply because of our pride, our inability to be like, “Hey, man, that hurts. Hey, man, that’s scary. Hey, sister, that’s humiliating.”…

When I constitute my community, I think in a generative way, where I include the people who come before me, and I include the possibility of the people who will come after me.

That opens up a lot more room and a lot more space. If your community is no further than your injury, then it doesn’t seem like any agency is possible. But if your community extends more generously, more capaciously — well, certainly there’s a lot of grounds for hope there, just by the way you framed your history, your reality. Framing is as important as anything. And so when I include my grandparents, who didn’t have one-tenth of what I had, and yet who labored super-heroically, when I include my great-great-grandparents, who lived on the edge of these ex-plantation systems and were, at any moment, at the danger of the violences and the politics of these ex-plantation systems, and yet they labored super-heroically towards a better life — when I include them in what I consider my community or my compass of thinking and of being and of feeling, possibilities open that might not have been there if my gauge was very narrow.”

Posted on 30 September 2017 | 6:00 pm

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