Hannah Arendt has become the thinker of the present moment, cited in hundreds of essays and think pieces seeking to explain our current predicament. There are some good reasons for her newfound relevance. Arendt’s fearless thinking insisted on confronting reality. She understood the uniqueness of totalitarianism, but also its origins in imperialism, bureaucracy, racism, loneliness, and the decline of the nation state.
We in the United States are preparing to vote—some have already voted—in what many call the most important Presidential election of our lifetimes. Voting in a democracy is a sacred right. It is through voting that we elect representatives. And it is by elections we can hold those representatives responsible. Perhaps most importantly, it is in voting that we signal our involvement and engagement in the act of self-government, thus announcing that in the end it is us, and not our elected representatives, who are answerable to ourselves.
William Foege, one of the leading epidemiologists in the world, sent a private letter to Robert Redfield of the Center for Disease Control urging him to create a written record acknowledging that the CDC had responded poorly to Covid-19. Foege writes: “I start each day thinking about the terrible burden you bear. I don’t know what I would actually do, if in your position, but I do know what I wish I would do. The first thing would be to face the truth.
Hannah Arendt never tired of reminding us that politics is about power. The only way to prevent a tyranny of the majority, she argued, is by dispersing power through institutions and across the population. She valued greatly the American Constitutional tradition because it sought to create multiple and competing power centers. In part this happened through the embrace of federalism, which pitted the states against the Federal government.
In 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, and during the Republican decision to block a vote on President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Senator Lindsey Graham made what appeared to be a principled statement. "I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever...
Gershom Scholem called them “plastic hours.” Hannah Arendt called them “Revolutionary situations.” George Packer argues we are likely now living through such a moment when “an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable, prolonged stasis gives way to motion, and people dare to hope. Plastic hours are rare. They require the right alignment of public opinion, political power, and events—usually a crisis.
Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by three police officers as he was reaching into his car with his three children in the back seat. All cautionary rhetoric aside—we don't know the full story, he may have been reaching for a weapon, he was clearly not listening to the police—one fact is not in dispute to anyone watching the video of the attempted murder: Jacob Blake did not deserve to be shot seven times from behind and paralyzed.
Politics and truth, Hannah Arendt reminds us, have never been on good terms. "Lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician's or the demagogue's but also of the statesman's trade." And yet, Arendt raises the question of "what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth."