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Amor Mundi: How To Respond to the Alt-Right

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.

How To Respond to the Alt-Right

Timothy Garton Ash asks how we are to understand and respond to the rise of right-wing nationalist populism in Germany. Garton Ash argues that populism in Germany is not about the economy. Instead, he argues it is based on resentment. “There is also a resentful feeling among East Germans that they have been treated as second-class citizens in united Germany: not given enough attention, not paid due respect. When a street protest in a small town in Saxony was totally ignored by the visiting -Chancellor Merkel, a protester complained, “She doesn’t look at us even with her ass!” One can imagine a Trump voter saying something similar about Hillary Clinton. In explaining the populist vote in many countries, the inequality of attention is at least as important as economic inequality. And then, to add insult to injury, these bloody foreigners—Muslims to boot!—are welcomed in Germany with open arms and “get everything for nothing.” As in other European welfare states, the knowledge that “everything” includes generous welfare provisions only sharpens the resentment.”

Garton Ash then suggests that one key to understanding German nationalism is the recently deceased academic turned populist provocateur Rolf Pieter Sieferle. Sieferle’s book Finis Germania is a bestseller in Germany, but it was “disappeared” from the bestseller lists by the liberal press, which did not want to acknowledge its popularity.

“Sieferle’s book was, explained Spiegel deputy editor Susanne Beyer, “right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic, and historically revisionist,” and since the news magazine sees itself as a “medium of Enlightenment,” and the best-seller listing might be mistaken for a recommendation, they had removed it. So Finis Germania was consigned to an Orwellian memory hole, made an unbook. It was not a best seller. It had never been a best seller. Weil nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf—for what may not be, cannot be—as the poet Christian Morgenstern once put it.”

For Garton Ash, Sieferle’s book is mix of trashy cultural pessimism and profound reflections on the pain and meaninglessness of modern life. An engagement with Sieferle, Garton Ash argues, shows the promise and the danger in engaging with new nationalist right.

“Sieferle reaches far too often for Nietzsche-like profundity and usually misses the mark, tripping over his own rhetorical shoelaces into a puddle of absurdity. But occasionally, when he pulls together his life’s work on modernity, ecology, and German history, a genuinely thought-provoking formulation emerges. Referring to the “project of the modern,” he writes that “the history of the projects of the eighteenth and nineteenth century is, then, one of a total failure, which became apparent in the twentieth century: morally, from World War to Auschwitz, technologically and economically, in the environmental crisis of the end of the century.” (Not, I think, the remark of an Auschwitz denier or routine anti-Semite.) And again: “The twentieth century can be seen as a period of vast profligacy…profligate with everything: with natural resources, but also with people, with ideas, with cultural reserves.”

Finis Germania raises in helpfully sharp form the question of how one should respond to such ideas, in a country where one in eight voters just chose a right-wing populist party, motivated mainly by concerns about culture and identity.

Der Spiegel’s extraordinary vaporizing of Sieferle’s book from its best-seller list is an extreme example of an approach characteristic of contemporary Germany. If you go beyond a certain point in expressing what may be seen as right-wing extremist or anti-Semitic views, you are banished from all respectable society, branded with a scarlet, or rather a brown, letter. Nazi insignia, Holocaust denial, and hate speech are banned by law (as Facebook is finding to its cost), but there is also this broader social, cultural, and political enforcement of the taboo.

Now many would argue that this has contributed significantly to the civilized, centrist quality of German politics and public debate—and they have a point. I find that many young Germans support this approach wholeheartedly. And would the rest of the world have been happier if Germany did not have this taboo on any hint of a revival of the worst that modern humanity has produced?

Yet this whole approach comes with a price, and the electoral success of the AfD shows that the price is going up. Sieferle’s Finis Germania is a late, slight product of a sad, disordered, but undoubtedly fine mind. Simply to say “right-wing extremist, anti-Semitic, historically revisionist—therefore get thee behind me Satan and off the best-seller list you come” is a woefully inadequate response. Indeed, subjecting Sieferle to the taboo treatment actually supports his contention that this really is a taboo—that is, something put beyond the realm of rational debate.

For right-wing ideologues, such bans are wonderful free publicity, enabling them to pose as martyrs for free speech. Kubitschek, the publisher, gloated that the row at the Frankfurt book fair was “heathen fun.”

For the rank-and-file, it is yet more evidence that the liberal elites have so little time and respect for them that they “won’t look at us even with their asses.” Worse still: they won’t even let ordinary people say what they think. In a poll conducted in spring 2016 for the Freedom Index of the John Stuart Mill Institute in Heidelberg, only 57 percent of respondents said they felt that “one can freely express one’s political opinion in Germany today.”

It’s therefore encouraging to see a growing number of German intellectuals advocating John Stuart Mill’s own response. Take on these arguments in free and open debate. Subject them to vigorous and rigorous scrutiny. Separate the wheat from the chaff. For as Mill famously argued, even a false argument can contain a sliver of truth, and the good sword of truth can only be kept sharp if constantly tested in open combat with falsehood. Otherwise the received opinion, even if it is correct, will only be held “in the manner of a prejudice.”

-Roger Berkowitz

Speaking and Thinking Freely

Ionia Italia considers the efforts of Canadian Universities to censor a young professor who showed their class a video by Jordan Peterson, a humanities Professor opposed to a Canadian law that criminalizes the use of traditional gender pronouns when speaking to trans students. The professor in question used the video to ask the class to develop arguments against Peterson’s position. For Italia, this is precisely how universities should teach students to think and argue with positions they find disagreeable and offensive.

“We can never control what people think: only what they are permitted to say and write. If they aren’t allowed to speak freely, we will never be able to convince them of anything because we will not know what ideas their minds are harboring. All we will know is the mendacious version they feel safe offering us. This is especially true of students, many of whom already feel timid about voicing their opinions in class. Stimulating a lively classroom debate is an art. Lecturing is easy: we know and love our subjects and have much to say about them. It’s getting the students to talk passionately about them that is hard. One absolutely crucial factor in this is creating a “safe space” in which students feel free to say anything they want about the topic under discussion. If they say things that are irrelevant, you can guide them back onto the subject at hand, sure. And if they hurl personal insults at each other, you can rebuke them. But, in my experience, that is very rare. It’s far easier to intimidate students and make them clam up than to encourage them to talk.

University trains us to question others and ourselves. There’s no better material on which to exercise this than the popular ideas students are likely to encounter online and in the outside world. If you really want to debunk Peterson, for example, let him make his strongest case. Don’t tell students how they are supposed to think or feel about him: they won’t obey. People are often less malleable than you might think. People are perverse. Trump’s election should have taught us that. Almost every major media outlet supported Hillary. But the voters didn’t allow the media to decide for them.”

Oh To Be A Monster

Claire Dererer argues that all writers are selfish. Their selfishness makes them monstrous. Men have typically taken the liberty of being monstrously selfish, but as women take that liberty, how will that change our judgment of the relation between biography and art. Dererer offers a meditation on the feminine desire to cultivate the monstrosity of the artist.

“The critic Walter Benjamin said: “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism.” My own work could hardly be called major, but I do wonder: at the base of every minor work of art, is there a, you know, smaller pile of barbarism? A lump of barbarism? A skosh?

There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.

I have to wonder: maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?

Every writer-mother I know has asked herself this question. I mean, none of them says it out loud. But I can hear them thinking it; it’s almost deafening. Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.

Jenny Offill gets at this idea in a passage from her novel Dept of Speculation—a passage much shared among the female writers and artists of my acquaintance: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.”

I mean, I hate licking stamps. An art monster, I thought when I read this. Yes, I’d like to be one of those. My friends felt the same way. Victoria, an artist, went around chanting “art monster” for a few days.

The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous. They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: “I wish I had a wife.” What does that mean, really? It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.

What if I’m not monster enough?

In a way, I’d been asking this question privately, for years, of a couple male writer friends I believe to be actually great. I write them both charming emails, but really I am always trying to find out: how selfish are you? Or to put it another way: how selfish do I need to be, to become as great as you?

Plenty selfish, I learned as I observed these men from afar. Lock-the-door-against-your-kid-while-you’re-working selfish. Work-every-day-including-Thanksgiving-and-Christmas selfish. Go-on-book-tour-for-weeks-at-a-time selfish. Sleep-with-other-women-at-conferences selfish. Whatever-it-takes selfish.”

Moral Violence

It has become natural to link violence and monstrosity, to argue that those who commit terrible acts of violence are monsters who dehumanize their victims. Paul Bloom argues it is tempting but a mistake to link cruelty and dehumanization. Bloom looks at recent scholarship and argues that the opposite may be the case: Perpetrators of horrific violence are rarely monsters, but they frequently imagine themselves to be rational and moral actors. Calling them monsters actually enables such violence by excusing them from moral critique. Much like Hannah Arendt’s argument against collective guilt—that it excuses the truly guilty—the claim that perpetrators are monsters overlooks the fact that they are more rightly seen as cold and calculating political actors.

“But “Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships” (Cambridge), by the anthropologist Alan Fiske and the psychologist Tage Rai, argues that these standard accounts often have it backward. In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solution to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often a motivating force: “People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering or death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.” Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners. For Fiske and Rai, actions like these often reflect the desire to do the right thing, to exact just vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson. There’s a profound continuity between such acts and the punishments that—in the name of requital, deterrence, or discipline—the criminal-justice system lawfully imposes. Moral violence, whether reflected in legal sanctions, the killing of enemy soldiers in war, or punishing someone for an ethical transgression, is motivated by the recognition that its victim is a moral agent, someone fully human….

In a masterly and grim book, “One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps” (Little, Brown), Andrea Pitzer articulates some of the perplexities of her subject. A concentration camp exists, she says, whenever a government holds groups of civilians outside the normal legal process, and nearly all nations have had them. They can be the most savage places on earth, but this isn’t an essential feature. During the Second World War, American camps for the Japanese weren’t nearly as terrible as camps in Germany and the Soviet Union. There are even some camps that began with noble intentions, such as refugee camps set up to provide food and shelter—though they tend to worsen over time, evolving into what Pitzer describes as “permanent purgatory.”

When concentration camps are established, they are usually said to exist to protect the larger population from some suspect group, or to be part of a civilizing message, or to be a way to restrain some group of civilians from supporting hostile forces. From this perspective, concentration camps are a means to an end, an example of instrumental violence. Typically, though, the camps do have a punitive aspect. Pitzer tells of how, after the First World War, Bavaria’s Social Democratic premier, Kurt Eisner, was slow to demand that Germans be released from French and British camps; he wished instead to appeal to the Allies’ sense of humanity. Eisner was Jewish, and Hitler fumed about this “betrayal” in a speech in 1922, saying that the Jews should learn “how it feels to live in concentration camps!”

Certainly, Pitzer’s description of various concentration camps contains so many examples of cruelty and degradation that it’s impossible to see them as a mere failure to acknowledge the humanity of their victims. As the scholar of warfare Johannes Lang has observed of the Nazi death camps, “What might look like the dehumanization of the other is instead a way to exert power over another human.”

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality—by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.”

Trauma Survivors All

Joseph Darda argues that the roots of the white male identity movement are to be found in the rise of the claims that Vietnam Veterans were suffering from trauma and post-traumatic stress.

“IN MARCH 1982, after months of heated negotiations among veterans groups, officials, and donors, a construction crew broke ground on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The sloping black granite walls may never have been built if not for the deft politicking of Jack Wheeler, the chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund responsible for planning and financing the memorial. Wheeler, a well-connected white West Point graduate, found that he could unite critics from the left and the right by separating the service and sacrifice of vets from the divisive politics of the war. He turned the Vietnam Veterans Memorial into a monument to the trauma suffered by American men who, dead or alive, never received the homecoming they deserved. “The Vietnam veteran was the nigger of the 1970s,” Wheeler wrote, in 1984, describing the motivation behind the memorial. “You create a nigger by depriving a person of part of his or her personhood. Ignoring that person or inflicting traumatic hurts is the traditional way to treat a nigger.” Suggesting that the neglected veteran must be a white man, Wheeler added that, before the mistreatment of the Vietnam vet in the 1970s, “woman was the nigger of the 1960s” and “the black was the nigger of the 1950s.” The civil rights and feminist movements had overcorrected, he contended, transforming the most deserving among us — white war heroes — into a subordinate social class. White men suffered “traumatic hurts” as well, and that hurt was embodied by the veteran’s war wounds.

Wheeler, a conservative who later served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, marshaled liberal ideas about trauma and representation to remake whiteness for a multicultural age. Emerging from the civil rights era but containing its more radical dreams, liberal multiculturalism traded material redistribution for cultural representation. Universities promoted and taught plural histories of the United States, adding new, but rarely well-funded, programs in Asian American studies, Latina/o studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Syllabi became more diverse as structural inequalities persisted. Late-20th-century multiculturalism encouraged the recognition of subnational communities and the historical traumas they had endured and to which they bore witness. Trauma became a central part of how Americans of different racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual backgrounds and identities asserted their cultural inheritance and their place in a diverse nation. But the discourse of trauma and the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder were bound to the memory of the Vietnam War and the soldiers who served in Southeast Asia. The idea of group-based or collective trauma, which gave rise to the liberal-multicultural ethic of “achieving representation,” was modeled on the push by mental-health professionals in the 1970s to acknowledge the struggles of Vietnam vets. The American Psychological Association added PTSD to the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 as an anxiety disorder that entailed “reexperiencing the traumatic event” and “numbing of responsiveness to, or reduced involvement with, the external world.” That diagnosis was based on the experience of white vets whose psychic injuries offered white men like Wheeler a way to leverage their own identity politics against demands for racial, gender, and sexual equality.

From the Vietnam War to the Trump era, the combat veteran has emerged as the protagonist of a new white racial politics….

Far from an outlier, the antiwar vet functioned, for Lifton, as a window onto the soul of post–civil rights America. Lifton had studied under the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who coined the term identity crisis in his 1950 book Childhood and Society and, some have argued, “invented” modern identity by redefining it as the psychopolitical category we know it as today. Erikson’s influence shows in Lifton’s account of the Vietnam vet as having suffered a severe dislocation that reflected a national culture that had been transformed by struggles for civil rights and women’s and gay liberation. The country was undergoing its own identity crisis as the dominance of whiteness, masculinity, and heterosexuality came under attack. Lifton treated the white vet as the embodiment of that national identity crisis. All Americans, he argued, felt a sense of existential loss, and the traumatized vet testified to that disintegration. His marginal status reinforced rather than undercut his Americanness. He testified to a broader sense of disillusionment with the national ideals on which he was raised, among veterans but also non-veteran Americans. Amid calls for black, brown, and yellow power and women’s and gay liberation, Lifton and Shatan set the white male veteran at the center of a new group-based politics of trauma and identity.”

At the conference “Crises of Democracy” last month, Walter Russell Mead observed that “minority identity politics sooner or later leads to majority identity politics, and that is bad for everyone.” Darda shows that identity politics actually grew up alongside the discourse of trauma that was developed as a way to politicize the suffering of white American Vietnam Veterans. Trauma can be and is claimed by white men just as much as by minority groups. The language of trauma, as Darda shows, has infiltrated every corner of contemporary cultural discourse in the United States. What is more, whiteness has been increasingly defined as a traumatic category of experience.

Second Thoughts

Comedian Al Franken performs for military members at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during the Secretary of Defense Holiday Show 2000, on December 17th, 2000.

Michelle Goldberg wrote a follow-up essay in the New York Times “When Our Allies Are Accused of Harassment”, questioning her own quick leap to judgment in condemning Al Franken, which I wrote about here. Goldberg wrestles with the space of uncertainty that is opened up socially and culturally when an otherwise good man commits punishable offenses.  

Last Thursday, after a photograph emerged of Senator Al Franken either groping or pretending to grope a sleeping woman, Leeann Tweeden, with whom he’d been traveling on a 2006 U.S.O. tour, I wrote that he should resign. Almost as soon as it was published I started having second thoughts. I spent all weekend feeling guilty that I’d called for the sacrifice of an otherwise decent man to make a political point.”

How do we deal with, make sense of, otherwise decent men who have engaged in questionable behavior? Goldberg seems to be moving past her initial flood of anger into a more nuanced space of reasoning, confronting the fact that just because someone does something we might consider wrong doesn’t mean they’re a bad person who should be condemned.

But even as I made the case for resignation, I was relieved that it seemed as if Franken might stick around, because I adore him as a public figure. It’s easy to condemn morally worthless men like Trump; it’s much harder to figure out what should happen to men who make valuable political and cultural contributions, and whose alleged misdeeds fall far short of criminal. Learning about all the seemingly good guys who do shameful things is what makes this moment, with its frenzied pace of revelations, so painful and confounding.

Personally, I’m torn by competing impulses. I want to see sexual harassment finally taken seriously but fear participating in a sex panic. My instinct is often to defend men I like, but I don’t want to be an enabler or a sucker. I try not to be a hypocrite, while being aware that the right plays on the media’s desire to seem fair-minded, which is part of what led to wildly excessive coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails during the presidential campaign, among other distortions.”

-Samantha Hill

Posted on 26 November 2017 | 7:44 am

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