Amor Mundi: The Radical Camp
Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
The Radical Camp
Yesterday, tens of thousands of Poles marched in Warsaw as many “chanted “fatherland,” carrying banners that read “White Europe,” “Europe Will Be White” and “Clean Blood.””
“The Radical Camp’s followers argue, on their social-media accounts and in their literature, that the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe is part of a conspiracy driven by Jewish financiers, who are working with Communists in the European Union to bring Muslims into Europe, and with them, Shariah law and homosexuality. The group has regularly held events to mark a 1936 pogrom against Jews. Its symbols were displayed on a banner that appeared over a Warsaw bridge, reading: “Pray for Islamic Holocaust.”… “This march is just an expression of a bigger social phenomenon, which is definitely very troubling, and is the growing acceptance of extreme nationalism and xenophobia among young people in Poland,” said Rafal Pankowski, a political-science professor at private university Collegium Civitas in Warsaw. “It is a contrast: Polish parents and grandparents are paradoxically more liberal than their young.”
The Australian Plan
The one issue that unites the rising nationalist, neo-fascist, and far-right parties around the world is the influx of foreigners including immigrants, illegal immigrants, and refugees. Sasha Polakow-Suransky has an exceptionally reported essay on the way European nativist parties have modeled their anti-immigrant and anti-refugee criticisms on Australia’s refugee policy.
“In October 2015, six weeks after Tony Abbott was deposed as Australia’s prime minister in a fit of intraparty backstabbing, he arrived in London to give the Margaret Thatcher memorial lecture at Guildhall. Standing before an audience of Conservative party luminaries, he praised the Iron Lady before launching into a spirited defence of Australia’s controversial immigration policy. According to Abbott, his government’s harsh measures – forcibly turning around refugee boats to prevent them landing, and sending asylum seekers to detention camps on remote Pacific islands – had ended the arrival of unwanted migrants in Australia.
After a summer when more than a million asylum seekers had streamed into Europe, Abbott lectured the assembled Tories about the perils of loving one’s neighbour as oneself, calling it a “wholesome instinct [that is] leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”. Due to “misguided altruism”, Europe was weakening itself, argued Abbott, and the only way to reverse the tide, he insisted, was emulating Australia’s policy.
Whether those turned away died in another country’s waters or back in the countries they initially fled did not figure in his equation. By removing images of boats capsizing off Australia’s shores from local television and ensuring that more migrants seeking asylum did not arrive in the country, his work was done. Nor was he bothered by the fact that the offshore camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea were still operating, at a cost of billions of dollars.
The core of Abbott’s argument was that refugees seeking asylum were simply trying to cheat the system by travelling to wealthier western countries. “In Europe, as with Australia,” he said, “people claiming asylum – invariably – have crossed not one border but many; and are no longer fleeing in fear but are contracting in hope with people smugglers. However desperate, almost by definition, they are economic migrants,” – even though many asylum seekers arriving in Europe and Australia have passed through countries that are unsafe or do not offer asylum because they are not party to the UN refugee convention.
“Our moral obligation is to receive people fleeing for their lives. It’s not to provide permanent residency to anyone and everyone who would rather live in a prosperous western country,” said Abbott. He denounced the EU and Nato rescue missions in the Mediterranean as too kind. For Abbott, rescuing migrants on capsizing boats was “a facilitator [for migration] rather than a deterrent”.
But as the rest of his speech made plain, the real allure of Australia’s offshoring policy was ideological, not simply logistical. For Abbott, the seas surrounding Australia and Europe were fronts in a new battle, in which desperate asylum seekers appeared as an invading horde threatening western civilisation itself: “It will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it for ever.” An anonymous Tory minister labelled the speech “fascistic”. Nigel Farage called Abbott “heroic”. Although it rarely makes the news, Australia’s immigration policy has become a beacon for Europe’s far right.”
At the center of the Australian Plan is the denial that those desperate persons seeking entry to Australia are indeed refugees. By claiming that most of the asylum seekers are actually economic migrants seeking to jump immigration queues, Australia justifies a brutal strategy that detains all who claim refugee status in large off-shore internment camps. This is the new model for the right around the world.
The Australian plan is easy to criticize, but alternatives are hard to find. In a world of nation-states, the first right of the state is control over borders and immigration. The great difficulty with refugees is that there are only two solutions to the refugee problem: repatriation or naturalization. Repatriation is impossible as the refugees are not welcome back in their countries and international law rightly forbids refoulement, sending refugees back into a dangerous situation. And naturalization fails when confronted with masses of refugees in numbers unmanageable. The result of this “problem” is the rise of mass internment camps for refugees.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that refugees are, “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.” She saw that refugees had become a class of illegal aliens, people living in countries yet deprived of citizenship, the right to work, and the right to residence. “The stateless person, without the right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law.” And for such people who are in essence “illegal” residents, the temptation for nation states is to follow the inexorable logic of illegality and submit refugees to the unimpeded authority of police — the creation of refugee camps that are concentration camps, that concentrate refugees in defined spaces where they can be controlled, a policed no-man’s land that exists between the two impossible solutions of repatriation and assimilation. The political danger of the rise of masses of refugees is that they would justify and normalize the increasing reliance on police and military forces in political life. Arendt saw with uncanny clarity the way that the arrival of refugees in a free country could, quickly, lead that country down the road toward totalitarianism.
Perhaps the best thing to happen in the last year of American politics is the rise of new political groups under the rubric of the Resistance. Judith Shulevitz takes the occasion of last week’s victory for the Resistance to dig a bit into the composition of this exciting new American political movement.
“Probably the greatest misconception about the resistance is that it’s a youth movement. By an overwhelming majority, the leaders of the groups are middle-aged women—middle-aged white women, to be exact. A great many of them have never been involved in electoral politics before. Many never even went to a protest before they got on a bus to the Women’s March back in January. All this describes the make-up of my own Indivisible branch—even though it’s in Harlem. Skocpol found the same general demographic profile among the groups she is interviewing in “Trump country” for her recent research (which is largely white to begin with) ….
Resistance groups usually revolve around “a pair of women who are friends,” says Skocpol. “Maybe they weren’t friends before, but they’ve become friends” since Trump’s election. Maybe they were in Pantsuit Nation, and when Clinton lost, they spent a month grieving, then went to the Women’s March. “One may be the charismatic one, and the other the nuts-and-bolts one,” says Skocpol. “They’re in touch all the time, they form a node that the others build around.” As parents and often churchgoers, they have broad networks of family and friends. Maybe they recently retired and have time on their hands. Their groups shrank a bit over the summer, but Trump’s belligerent tweets and reckless executive orders have served as a kind of reveille, rallying at least some of the troops back to the flag.
According to conversations I’ve had or lectures I’ve listened to (including a webinar about a nationwide Indivisible “listening tour”), the big issues for the resistance are health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money in politics, education, and the environment. (Voters in Virginia cited health care as their top concern in Tuesday’s exit polls, and Maine’s successful referendum to expand Medicaid suggests similar apprehensions.) Immigrant rights are on the list, although immigration activists tend to skew younger. On the whole, identity issues do not seem to be top-of-mind. Some of the women in anti-Trump groups in Trump country are “avowed progressive feminists,” in Skocpol’s words, but others see themselves simply as good citizens, and they resent national organizations coming in and trying to impose litmus tests of progressive values.”
An Enemy of the Cause
If you’re not with us, you’re against us. This seems to be the ideology of political actors on all sides. One consequence is that anyone who tries to think independently is accused of political deviance. Those who go their own path or seek to raise questions about political movements are isolated and censored. This is a dangerous political moment, but one with a long history. David Satter celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution by thinking about how Bolshevism has hollowed out morality not only in communist countries, but throughout the world.
“The Bolshevik coup had two consequences. In countries where communism came to hold sway, it hollowed out society’s moral core, degrading the individual and turning him into a cog in the machinery of the state. Communists committed murder on such a scale as to all but eliminate the value of life and to destroy the individual conscience in survivors.
But the Bolsheviks’ influence was not limited to these countries. In the West, communism inverted society’s understanding of the source of its values, creating political confusion that persists to this day.
In a 1920 speech to the Komsomol, Lenin said that communists subordinate morality to the class struggle. Good was anything that destroyed “the old exploiting society” and helped to build a “new communist society.”
This approach separated guilt from responsibility. Martyn Latsis, an official of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police, in a 1918 instruction to interrogators, wrote: “We are not waging war against individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. . . . Do not look for evidence that the accused acted in word or deed against Soviet power. The first question should be to what class does he belong. . . . It is this that should determine his fate.”
Such convictions set the stage for decades of murder on an industrial scale. In total, no fewer than 20 million Soviet citizens were put to death by the regime or died as a direct result of its repressive policies. This does not include the millions who died in the wars, epidemics and famines that were predictable consequences of Bolshevik policies, if not directly caused by them.”
Crises of Democracy
It is now one month since Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times. In what follows, we provide a series of comments by people who attended the Arendt Center Conference and Marc Jongen’s talk. For those who would like to read more about the controversy surrounding the Arendt Center’s inclusion of Marc Jongen, we have established a website that collects all the essays and letters taking a position on the conflict. You can read all about it here.
The Truth of Who Someone Is
“It was pure coincidence that, on the afternoon of Jongen’s morning appearance at the conference, my Bard literature class met to discuss Gitta Sereny’s journalistic masterpiece, Into that Darkness.
A book-length interview with Franz Stangl, the former Kommandant of the Treblinka extermination camp (where an estimated 1.2 million people were killed), Sereny’s book is based on conversations conducted in the German prison where Stangl was held after his capture in Brazil, and on interviews with Stangl’s loved ones, associates, and with Treblinka surviviors….
My class’s response to the Sereny book was even stronger. One student saw a warning in the way in which the Nazi leaders and their minions viewed themselves as victims. Another spoke about Sereny’s ability to make us consider whether one person can decide that another should make a moral decision that will likely result in death.
A student noted the confusing compassion he felt for so many of the people (even the evil ones) with whom Sereny spoke. And they kept returning to the book’s subtitle: An examination of conscience. What did Stangl tell himself? How could he do what he did?
A quarter of my students had been to hear Marc Jongen that morning, and the discussion was different than it otherwise would have been. Unlike the academics and Gessen, they noticed that Jongen was not alone on stage, ranting and waving his arms, but was engaged in conversation with Buruma, who impressed the students with his civility, knowledge and, above all, his ability to make Jongen reveal what he was (“a Nazi”, they said) and not what he claimed to be (a thoughtful German citizen concerned about his nation).
A Muslim student said that despite Jongen’s anti-Muslim ideology, he wanted to hear him; he didn’t want him shut down. Another suggested that what Buruma did was akin to what Sereny accomplished. They’d both tried get at the truth of who someone was: what he thought, and why.
None believed that Jongen’s presence had legitimized his ideas; he hadn’t been awarded an honorary degree. Being invited to address a conference at a college, they agreed, was not like being asked to speak at a public rally. They were proud to be associated with a school that trusted their ability to weigh unpopular ideas, an institution brave enough to invite Jongen: an educational institution. They felt that hearing Jongen had been part of their education.”
Self-Pitying Salonfähig Rightists
“Until recently, figures on the extreme right had no prestige at all. Driven to the margins of most societies by collective memories of Nazi and fascist horrors, such men (there were hardly any women) had the grubby air of middle-aged patrons of backstreet porno cinemas. Stephen Bannon, still a highly influential figure in Trump’s world, seems a bit like that – a crank in a dirty raincoat.
But much has changed. Younger members of the far right, especially in Europe, are often sharply dressed in tailor-made suits, recalling the fascist dandies of pre-war France and Italy. They don’t shout at large mobs, but are slick performers in radio and TV studios, and are savvy users of social media. Some of them even have a sense of humor.
These new-model rightists are almost what Germans call salonfähig, respectable enough to move in high circles. Overt racism is muted; their bigotry is disguised under a lot of smart patter. They crave prestige.
I had occasion to encounter a typical ideologue of this type recently at an academic conference organized by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College in the United States. The conference was about populism, and the ideologue was named Marc Jongen, a politician from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party with a doctorate in philosophy. The son of a Dutch father and an Italian mother, born in Italy’s German-speaking South Tyrol, Jongen spoke near-perfect English.
Self-pity lay close to the surface. Jongen described Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to give shelter in Germany to large numbers of refugees from Middle Eastern wars as “an act of violence” toward the German people. He called immigrants and refugees criminals and rapists (even though crime rates among refugees in Germany are far lower than among “natives”). Islam was robbing the German Volk of its true identity. Men like Jongen were always being called Nazis. And so on.
I had been asked to furnish some counterarguments. I did not call Jongen a Nazi. But I did my best to point out why I thought his claims were both wrong and dangerous. We shook hands at the end. And that, as far as I was concerned, was that.
Then a minor academic storm broke out…. The protest against inviting Jongen was not only intellectually incoherent; it was also tactically stupid, because it confirms the belief of the far right that liberals are the enemies of free speech, and that right-wing populists are victims of liberal intolerance. I like to think that Jongen left the Bard conference politely discredited. Because of the protest, he was able to snatch victory from defeat.”
Political Correctness Is Not Strategy
Wilmot James, a former member of the South African Parliament, was at the Arendt Center “Crises of Democracy Conference” and asked Marc Jongen a question. James’ letter about the controversy surrounding Jongen’s visit argues that it is imperative we take those like Jongen very seriously.
“Coming from South Africa, the land of apartheid, Jongen’s narrow-minded German chauvinism offended me, and I said so. I have had bitter experience with the consequences of rigid uni-cultural nationalistic thinking in a heterogeneous society. But Jongen said a few things that anyone concerned about the future of democracy should take very seriously indeed.
Firstly, Jongen noted that he does not represent the populist right, a segment with which it is very difficult to hold a rational discussion because they have no real ideas and are basically anarchists. He leads a more thoughtful tendency with fairly clear programmatic objectives with which one may agree or disagree. Politics are a fight over ideas about resource distribution and a smart politician must know what that fight is about.
Secondly, Jongen was aggrieved that German citizens were not consulted as to whether 1 million refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict should be resettled there. How deeply that feeling resonates in German society is not obvious, but that level and kind of leadership decision, right as it was in my outsiders’ view, requires widespread consultation and buy-in from the local people who have to act as a welcoming committee to strangers.
Thirdly, Jongen claimed that he is no nazi and no mad hatter populist. He is a right-wing conservative politician who abides by constitutional values and pluralistic party politics. The challenge to moderating forces in democratic politics is to accept his credentials and hold him to it. Calling him names does not help. Describing him as someone he is not is dishonest. Prohibiting him to speak, as they do in Europe, merely silences a voice.
The risk of alienating the rational right is national break-up and fragmentation. Germany is not South Africa, but that was the risk Nelson Mandela as President had to manage. He defused right wing conservatives by taking them seriously, listening to their views and taking measures (such as having a pure proportional representative electoral system with no thresholds) to include rather than exclude.
We should become equally strategic. Political correctness is not strategy. If we wish to defeat the conservative right, we must take them seriously, hear what they have to say and come up with a compelling set of alternative ideas that resonates in the marketplace of votes in elections. That is why it is important to listen to people like Jongen, so that we know and understand what we need to counter and replace.”
He Was Just Lost
Matt Harris, a student who attended the Arendt Center “Crises of Democracy” Conference, published a letter in which he explained why hearing Marc Jongen speak was so important.
“I attended the conference at Bard College and heard Dr. Jongen speak. I can say that my stomach hurt when he spoke; I felt physically ill. His perspectives run counter to many of my political opinions and values. Yet, I am glad to have been in the audience to have seen the productive and critical discussion that arose as Dr. Jongen was critiqued, questioned by the audience, and confronted with facts. It was very valuable for me to see this exchange. We must hear the other side speak and understand how they view the world in a setting where the perpetrators of hateful rhetoric can be deliberately examined and perhaps dismissed. Yes, Dr. Jongen was given a platform, but he was not given support, no one walked out of that conference committed to the AfD party’s values.
Islamophobic, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments exist in our world, and are increasingly incorporated into mainstream political thought and the discourse and decisions of our leaders. Not only would censoring these ideas run counter to liberal democracy, but it also turns a blind eye to the development of hateful and xenophobic rhetoric that we see so blatantly in mass politics today. Make no mistake, Dr. Jongen, in my opinion, is wrong and harbors dangerous viewpoints. But, placing him on a podium and allowing the audience, moderator and critic to publicly question him gave us the opportunity to consider his arguments, and as a collective, wholly disregard them. Dr. Jongen, who has a doctorate in philosophy, quite frankly embarrassed himself. He was not given privilege, he was overtly critiqued. He was not “legitimized” and his opinions did not threaten the plurality, for his opinion is part of the plurality which the Hannah Arendt Center rightfully presents.
After the conference, a few of my peers and I approached Dr. Jongen and discussed the proceedings of the conference. He seemed visibly shaken by them, as if he had just run a marathon with little training and not enough water. This, of course is an apt metaphor for what he had just done: He spoke expecting to be lightly critiqued, but instead his views were soundly dismissed as foolish. He even thought he might find a few allies, but there were none. No one, but the four of us, undergraduates at a neighboring college, even spoke with him afterwards. No one reinforced his worldview, no one offered him directions, no one wished him goodbye.
To be clear, he was not dehumanized; he was just lost. I was actually saddened by our exchange; I felt sorry for him. I kept looking for him to be mean or cold, but all I found was a lost man with dreary, watery, grey eyes smelling slightly of cologne in a grey suit and looking, with darting eyes, for people to talk to; I found a lost human in front of me.”
Posted on 12 November 2017 | 4:32 am
Light in Dark Times
Donna Johnson gets at the heart of what Arendt Center Conferences do.
“I attended the “Crises of Democracy” conference at which Marc Jongen spoke. It was the fifth Hannah Arendt annual conference I’ve attended at Bard College. I am a Canadian — neither an academic nor an Arendt scholar — who comes to these conferences because I am concerned about the dismal state of U.S. and world politics, and because I have found in the Hannah Arendt Centre a light in the darkness.
The annual conference is a place where thoughtful Americans gather to think — and learn to think better. It is a place where difficult conversations regularly take place — conversations that attempt to go beyond positions, isms, parties, and ideologies in search of ways for human beings to live together in the political sphere, with all our differences of standpoint and opinion, without killing each other.
Whatever the hot-button topic, Roger Berkowitz, the center’s director, makes a point of inviting speakers with divergent points of view. Berkowitz invites controversy, not for its own sake, but in an effort to help us understand the thinking of people on various sides of the political spectrum and to grapple with the implications for living in a common world. It’s one of the things I value most about coming to Bard. Progressive values are reinforced and thinking is expanded. Sometimes I hear things I don’t want to hear, but it keeps me alive to the challenge of sharing the planet with people committed to a very different vision. The question before us always is this: How shall we live together in the political realm?
There is always a large and diverse presence of high school and college students at these forums. The conference is a laboratory for respectful listening and speaking and for the hard work of understanding and judging. Given the level of rancor in American politics it is heartening to see young people — our future leaders — exposed to an elevated discourse and models of civil communication. They are given tools and the opportunity to use them. The microphone is open following each presentation. They — we — are never told what to think. We are taught how to think; encouraged at every turn to develop skills to analyze and evaluate what we read and hear.”
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