Amor Mundi: Hypocrisy and Fascism
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.
Hypocrisy and Fascism
We live in an age of hypocrisy. For President Trump who both condemns hypocrisy in others and personifies the hypocrite, examples of hypocrisy are legion: The election was rigged, until it wasn’t; the swamp must be drained, but filled with swamp creatures; the rich must be pilloried, but also made even richer; he didn’t write a memo spinning a meeting with Russians at Trump Tower, but he did; media creates fake news, but Fox News tells the truth. The President dazzles by his imperviousness to consistency. And yet, the charge of hypocrisy seems to do little to damage the President.
As Zach Biondi writes, hypocrisy may not be a problem for the President; instead, hypocrisy is at the very essence of the President’s power. Biondi argues that there is a close relation between hypocrisy and incipient fascism and that charging the President with Hypocrisy, therefore, may be a fool’s game.
“The attitude Trump promotes about the media is nothing if not deeply incoherent. Some outlets are characterized holistically as fake… and yet trusted when the news is advantageous. The hypocrisy is exasperating. Trump supporters engage in doublethink with respect to the media. Arendt captures the phenomenon in a chilling passage:‘The whole hierarchical structure of totalitarian movements, from native fellow-travellers to party members, elite formations, the intimate circle around the Leader, and the Leader himself, could be described in terms of a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member, depending upon his rank and standing in the movement, is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders and the central unchanging ideological fiction of the movement.A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became and everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, thinking that everything was possible and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for the superior tactical wisdom. (p. 382)“Everything and nothing”-the epitome of incoherence and inconsistency. We fail to understand Trump’s weaponizing of “fake news” if we do not notice its incoherence. The term “fake news” is itself incoherent: news, by definition, cannot be fake. Thus fake news exists only by reference to objective reality. The fake is opposed to the real and genuine. By calling news fake, the whole concept of objective reality collapses into polarization. When a leader both does this and denies doing it, and then annihilates and preserves the whole distinction, we get incoherence and a mark of fascism.”
Biondi ties hypocrisy to fascism because “A feature of fascism is its incoherence and internal inconsistency.” He asks:
“What should we make of these inconsistencies? Liberals typically resort to charges of hypocrisy. Yet calling out hypocrisy assumes that consistency has value, that the Trump GOP cares about acting in accordance with principles, and that, in general, our public discourse should be held together with standards of logical coherence. Yet in point of fact, charges of hypocrisy are doing nothing. The Trump GOP nevertheless persist. Why?We are tempted to think that it is because, deep down, the Trump GOP holds other, more nefarious principles, and their actions are perfectly consistent with those principles. If they would simply be honest and sincere, all of their behavior would become explainable. In short, the worldview is actually coherent and their actions consistent with it. They simply lie about the worldview.We are striving to find consistency and coherence because surely it must be there. Fundamental logical principles require it. Yet our assumptions risk mischaracterizing the reality in a dangerous way.My concern is that the incoherence is not a bug. It is a feature. The inconsistency is becoming an end in itself. This is a sign of a creeping fascism. The charges of hypocrisy fail because what appears like hypocrisy is in fact an integral part of the Trump GOP system of belief. The assumptions in an accusation of hypocrisy are becoming politically nontrivial.As history teaches, charging a fascist with hypocrisy is especially pointless.”
Hypocrisy, as Hannah Arendt writes, is based upon the Greek word for “play-actor.” The hypocrite “falsely pretends to virtue.” He or she “plays a role as consistently as the actor in the play who also must identify himself with his role.” What distinguishes the hypocrite is that his or her duplicity “boomerangs back upon himself, and he is no less a victim of his mendacity than those whom he set out to deceive. Psychologically speaking, one may say that the hypocrite is too ambitious; not only does he want to appear virtuous before others, he wants to convince himself.” The hypocrite, in convincing himself of his goodness, populates the world with “illusions and lying phantoms” and expunges from the world the incorruptible self, “the only core of integrity from which true appearance could arise again.” This is why Arendt calls the hypocrite “rotten to the core” and says of revolutions that they look like “the explosion of an uncorrupted and incorruptible inner core through an outward shell of decay and odorous decrepitude.” What revolutionaries promise, above all, is to tear “the mask of hypocrisy off the face” of a corrupt society, to tear “the façade of corruption down” and expose “behind it the unspoiled, honest face of the people.” The appeal in truthtelling is that it speaks from the heart; it is founded upon the fear of hypocrisy.
Arendt worries, however, that the “hunt for hypocrites” and the desire to unmask the hypocrite “would leave nothing behind the mask.” What those truthtellers and revolutionaries who would unmask the hypocrites forget, Arendt writes, is that all persons appear in public wearing a mask. The word “person” from the Latin “persona” means that which sounds through a mask. The Roman “person” was a citizen, someone granted the public mask of citizenship and thus someone in whom the law sounded through. To appear unmasked is to appear naked, exposed in one’s raw humanity-someone reduced to a biological or zoological body without any human qualities. In short, the hunt for hypocrites may not emancipate citizens, but it might reduce all citizens to mere natural humans, shorn of the “protecting mask of a legal personality.”
The hunt for hypocrites is a dangerous game, not least because no one can stand to have their private motives exposed to the light of day. Even more dangerous, however, is that the hatred of hypocrisy idealizes a kind of ‘natural’ person, someone who is “nothing behind the mask.” Such a nothing, Arendt argues, may help root out deception, but it also obliterates all truth, insofar as truth too can only sound through a mask. One way to understand President Trump is as the affirmation of modern reality that there is nothing behind the mask. It is just such nihilism that is one of the conditions of the possibility of fascism.
Speak For Yourself
Kwame Anthony Appiah has some really sound advice. Stop speaking “as a…” and speak for yourself.
“As a white man,” Joe begins, prefacing an insight, revelation, objection or confirmation he’s eager to share – but let’s stop him right there. Aside from the fact that he’s white, and a man, what’s his point? What does it signify when people use this now ubiquitous formula (“As a such-and-such, I …”) to affix an identity to an observation?
Typically, it’s an assertion of authority: As a member of this or that social group, I have experiences that lend my remarks special weight. The experiences, being representative of that group, might even qualify me to represent that group. Occasionally, the formula is an avowal of humility. It can be both at once. (“As a working-class woman, I’m struggling to understand Virginia Woolf’s blithe assumptions of privilege.”) The incantation seems indispensable. But it can also be – to use another much-loved formula – problematic.…Ever since Donald Trump eked out his surprising electoral victory, political analysts have been looking for people to speak for the supposedly disgruntled white working-class voters who, switching from their former Democratic allegiances, gave Mr. Trump the edge.But about a third of working-class whites voted for Hillary Clinton. Nobody explaining why white working-class voters went for Mr. Trump would be speaking for the millions of white working-class voters who didn’t. One person could say that she spoke as a white working-class woman in explaining why she voted for Mrs. Clinton just as truthfully as her sister could make the claim in explaining her support for Mr. Trump – each teeing us up to think about how her class and race might figure into the story. No harm in that. Neither one, however, could accurately claim to speak for the white working class. Neither has an exclusive on being representative.So we might do well to ease up on “as a” – on the urge to underwrite our observations with our identities. “For me,” Professor Spivak once tartly remarked, “the question ‘Who should speak’ is less crucial than ‘Who will listen?'”But tell that to Joe, as he takes a sip of kombucha – or is it Pabst Blue Ribbon? All right, Joe, let’s hear what you’ve got to say. The speaking-as-a convention isn’t going anywhere; in truth, it often serves a purpose. But here’s another phrase you might try on for size: “Speaking for myself…”
Truth and Politics
Ashoka Mody considers Arendt’s thinking about Truth and Politics.“A final theme that I take up here is Arendt’s passionate advocacy of public spaces for dialogue. In this, her views were shaped by her narrow escape from totalitarianism. For that reason, perhaps, she was deeply concerned about the fragility of democracy.In one of her most famous essays, “Truth and Politics,” she opened with a dramatic statement: “Truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” She emphasized that not just the demagogue but even the statesman regards lies as “justifiable tools” of the trade. As a result, “The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; not only for a time but, potentially, forever.” She asked, poignantly and rhetorically, “What kind of reality does truth possess if it is powerless in the public realm?”For Arendt, the antagonism between truth and politics always lies latent in public discourse. If facts “oppose a given group’s profit or pleasure,” it is all too easy to disdain the facts or regard them with “hostility.” Even well-established facts can be dismissed as merely “opinions.” Skilled politicians can exploit “rhetorical” devices to promote their favored opinion and thus garner ever-larger numbers of supporters. “Mass manipulation of fact and opinion” then lead to “rewriting of history” and “image-making,” a phenomenon that the cognitive linguist George Lakoff would call “framing.” In psychologist Irving Janis’s terminology, discourse and decision-making fall under the spell of “groupthink.”This antagonism between truth and politics, Arendt warned, can degenerate into tyranny. Truth, she explained, is “hated by tyrants.” To oppose the “infuriating stubbornness” – indeed, the “coercive power” – of truth, authoritarian rulers hold on to their power by propagating “plain lies.”The echoes into the present are all too evident. Lies are justified as plausible opinions, “alternative facts,” by authoritarian populists and by their followers who are in search of saviors to better their lot. Donald Trump’s ascent to the American presidency and his hold on a core group of supporters fits the pattern exactly. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has placed Mahatma Gandhi on a pedestal while his supporters engage in wanton violence against Muslims and other minorities. Modi’s surrogates continue to portray his demonetization initiative – which outlawed bank notes worth 500 rupees or more – as a great success, while all evidence points to severe human and economic distress with little gain in rooting out ill-gotten wealth held in cash.Because her analysis led her to this inherent conflict between truth and politics, Arendt was deeply suspicious of large nation-states, in which, she feared, authoritarian leaders could manipulate facts to sway large numbers of people. Seeking to “recover the dignity of politics,” Bernstein writes, Arendt was guided by the same vision that led her to advocate “local Arab-Jewish councils organized in a federated state.””
Anti-Semitism Is Racism
Batya Ungar-Sargon offers an important response to the argument that racism can only be expressed against powerless groups. When the New York Timesappointed Sarah Jeung to its editorial board, some complained that Jeung had made racist tweets against white people and men. Others responded that it is impossible to be racist against whites and males because racism is by definition an ideology against the powerless. Ungar-Sargon turns to anti-Semitism to argue that by that definition, anti-Semitism would not be racism.
‘Racism is about prejudice, but it is also about power imbalance,’ wrote Sarah Jones in The New Republic. “No reasonable person would entertain a comparison between a woman of color, who occasionally loses her temper at her trollers, and a neo-Nazi… because [women of color] belong to a class subject to centuries of institutional violence and social marginalization.”Jones goes on: “The word societies for centuries have used for punching up is satire. The word we generally use for punching down is bigotry.” This point of view – that one can’t be bigoted against someone who has institutional power – is mainstream in the left today.And yet, we Jews know how inadequate, and even dangerous, defining racism as contingent on power can be, precisely because anti-Jewish racism is always based on the belief that Jews have power, and are therefore deserving of hate.Unlike racism against people of color, which stems from white people believing they are superior to people of color, hatred of Jews stems from the belief that Jews have supernatural powers, controlling the rest of the world from a secret cabal that is almost mystical in its structure and influence. In other words, anti-Semitism is based on the notion that Jews are dangerously and despicably superior to whites, using their evil powers to the detriment of white society.As John-Paul Pagano wrote in these pages, “anti-Semitism differs from most forms of racism in that it purports to ‘punch up’ against a secret society of oppressors, which has the side effect of making it easy to disguise as a politics of emancipation. If Jews have power, then punching up at Jews is a form of speaking truth to power – a form of speech of which the left is currently enamored.”Indeed, in Jones’ definition of racism, all forms of anti-Semitism would always be viewed as legitimate forms of satire, rather than ugly instances of racism.”
Should A Racist Speak on Campus
Zack Beauchamp argues that there is no crisis of orthodox ideas on college campus.
“The American college campus, we are led to believe, is a dangerous place: If you say what you really think, particularly as a conservative, a mob of young social justice warriors will come for your faculty position or invitation to speak on campus. Entire books and online magazines are premised on the idea that political correctness is sweeping the American university, threatening both higher education and the broader right to free speech.
But a brand new data analysis from Georgetown University’s Free Speech Projectsuggests that this “crisis” is more than a little overblown. There have been relatively few incidents of speech being squelched on college campuses, and there’s in fact limited evidence that conservatives are being unfairly targeted.”
Similarly, Matt Yglesias argues that college students are actually supportive of free speech and that that popular view that universities are hostile to diverse opinions is wrong.
“Except robust data suggests that maybe it isn’t. Overall public support for free speech is rising over time, not falling. People on the political right are less supportive of free speech than people on the left. College graduates are more supportive than non-graduates. Indeed, a 2016 Knight Foundation survey showed that college students are less likely than the overall population to support restrictions on speech on campus. Among the public at large, meanwhile, the group whose speech the public is most likely to favor stifling is Muslims.”
Robby Soave brings some needed clarity to a controversy that has flamed up, over whether there is or is not a crisis around free speech. Most of all, Soave helps us understand what the controversy is really about.
“Sachs and Yglesias both cite the General Social Survey (GSS), which has measured the public’s opinion on a variety of questions-including tolerance for offensive views-since the 1970s. The findings strongly suggest that the public is growing more tolerant, and that young people are the most tolerant of all, according to Sachs:On almost every question, young people aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to support free speech. Check out the data for yourself. Not only are young people the most likely to express tolerance for offensive speech, but with almost every question posed by the GSS, each generation of young people has been more tolerant than the last.To his credit, Sachs also mentions the GSS’s significant limitations: The data include 18- to 34-year-olds who are notstudents, and it specifically excludes students who live in “group quarters,” i.e. dorms. Additionally, the wording of some of the questions is outdated. A much larger proportion of the U.S. population is in favor of letting “homosexuals” and “communists” speak in public today than in 1975. But tolerance of homosexuality is (thankfully) at an all-time high, and communist speech doesn’t invoke the same fears as during the Cold War. Put another way: The kind of speech people find offensive may have changed, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are more willing to tolerate the kind of speech they do find offensive.Case in point: racist speech. In 1976, 73 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 34 thought a racist should be allowed to make a speech in public, according to the GSS. By 2015, that percentage had fallen to 56 percent. Young people went from being the age group most tolerant of racist speech to the age group leasttolerant. On the question of “should a racist book be removed from the public library,” the findings were similar: Youth support for censoring such a book increased from 25 percent to 39 percent.”
Calling the situation on university and college campuses a crisis of free speech is a misnomer. While some faculty and students have come to be suspicious of free speech rhetoric, most still support free speech. But what has happened is that an alternate discourse has emerged that argues that some speech is dangerous, traumatic, and violent and thus should not be allowed. We can call this a debate about free speech, and on one level it is about whether freely hearing divergent and offensive ideas is worthwhile. But the disagreement is not about the constitutional question of free speech.
The real disagreement around speech on campus is about whether divergent and potentially offensive views are allowed in a learning environment. One side says ‘no,’ because such views silence and even traumatize often powerless groups and thus deprive them of an equal opportunity for an education. Another side answers ‘yes,’ since hearing opposing views and having to test and defend your own views against them is the very essence of what it means to be educated.
A number of years ago I was approached and asked if the Hannah Arendt Center and Bard College would house a burgeoning institute dedicated to studying anti-Semitism. Since Hannah Arendt thought so deeply about anti-Semitism, I was intrigued. But the potential collaboration fell apart when I insisted that the institute would be expected to cosponsor speakers on related topics, even speakers that its director viewed to be anti-Semitic. My reasoning was simple: how can you study anti-Semitism without listening to and arguing with anti-Semites? We need to listen to those whom we find wrong and even offensive.
For that same reason, Arendt read and cited anti-Semites in her writing about anti-Semitism, for which she is heavily criticized. But her willingness to read what anti-Semites wrote distinguished her approach and led her to insights that those who ignored the anti-Semites could never see. She understood that anti-Semitism is an ideology, that it is distinct from the hatred of Jews, and that it is imperialist rather than nationalist. Arendt knew that even when we disagree, it is imperative to listen to others, even those who are racist. We may find we are wrong, in whole or in part. At the very least, we will be forced to hone our own arguments.
Of course, speech that targets individuals or groups in ways that are threatening or harassing is afforded neither the legal nor the academic protections of free speech. Such speech is not at issue here. But encountering offensive arguments is a necessary part of understanding and responding to the world.
Hannah Arendt is helpful in thinking through the current campus debates for two reasons. First, Arendt argues that respect for plurality is the basic foundation of politics. For Arendt, free speech is the necessary condition for plurality.
“We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.”
Freedom of speech is not simply an abstract constitutional constraint; the freedom to speak one’s opinion guarantees that each of us will encounter divergent and opposed opinions that remind us of the basic plurality of the world. Free speech reminds us that our own view of the world is partial; it compels us to listen to the opinions of others and protects the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance. That is why free speech is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking. “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.” The world is not something that can be true or false; the human and political world is plural in its essence and must be enjoyed and also preserved in that plurality. Freedom of speech is what defends that plurality.
The second reason that free speech matters is that politics is not about truth. Politics is about opinions. There is never one truth to which politics strives. Instead, politics is the activity of free and equal citizens who together must build a common world, a world in which they can live together amidst their real and important differences. Politics does not aim at truth; it aims, instead, to allow unique and distinct peoples live together as they pursue their particular truths.
Arendt did not believe that free speech is justified because it would lead to the embrace of truth. The world is not something that can be true or false; it is plural and must be enjoyed and also preserved in that plurality. Freedom of speech is what defends that plurality.
“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it “really” is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another.”
For Arendt, the freedom to speak one’s opinion is the root of politics and that is why it is important as a civil right, the right to say what one thinks. Free speech is also necessary to prevent the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance. And free speech, finally, is also a human right-it is the right to speak and act in ways that are meaningful within a community. If mankind is characterized by the ability to create and live in man-made, meaningful, and lasting artificial communities, the freedom to speak and act in public is the fundamental right that guarantees our humanity.
When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view-his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history-was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.
In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only natural to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw. It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.” Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in-and-with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs.
The Arendt Center is Hiring
We are pleased to welcome a new member of the Hannah Arendt Center Team. Roger Normand has joined the Arendt Center as the Director of our new Polis Forum, promoting the liberal arts, free speech, and critical thinking in a democratic society.
In addition, we are hiring a new Part-Time Communication Coordinator. You can read the job description here. Or email email@example.com for more information.
The Communication Coordinator is a part time position at the Hannah Arendt Center (HAC) at Bard College. The Coordinator creates and manages marketing and membership materials to effectively promote the programming and events at the Center. This position requires excellent, demonstrated written, visual, and verbal communication skills, superb attention to detail, and the ability to manage multiple projects effectively. Intellectual curiosity and experience in an academic setting is a plus. This is a part-time position, but may transition into a Full-Time position beginning in January 2019.
Posted on 12 August 2018 | 7:56 pm
Hannah Arendt, Charlottesville, and The Crises of Democracy
One year ago, Professor Bill Dixon has asked Samantha and I to talk with you about Chapters 24-26 of Arendt’s book The Human Condition. My understanding is you’ve read these chapters. The way we’re going to do this is we’re going to talk about a couple of quotes, mostly from the readings that you’ve done from this book. We are also going to talk to each other about them as a way of talking you through some of the main ideas of this book and then open it up to questions. Given that the topic of the readings today are plurality and politics they intersect in important ways with the events of the last year, last six months, and last three or four days in Charlottesville, Virginia. We are going to try and highlight how what you’re reading very much relates to the events of the last few days and last six months in ways that will both affirm many of the things you believe, but I also believe very strongly they will challenge and provoke you in many ways that you might find difficult. So, I ask you to be open to that and try and understand why we emphasize the ways that Arendt is provocative, not for the sake of being provocative, but for the sake of getting us all to think clearly and deeply about these issues.
This is an excerpt of an conversation between Roger Berkowitz and Samantha Hill that will appear in Volume 6 of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center. Read the rest of this journal feature here on Medium.
Subscribe to HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center here.
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