Hannah Arendt is a thinker who insists that we make distinctions. One of Arendt’s most controversial distinctions is that between racism and what she alternatively will call “race thinking” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and then "prejudice" in many of her later essays. In the wake of the shooting in Buffalo last week, John McWhorter made his own distinctions while trying to understand the place of racism in U.S. society. McWhorter argues that we use the word racism today to mean too many things. He states that we need to distinguish between different aspects of what we call racism in order to think more clearly about the problems and prevent such tragedies as the shooting in Buffalo.
I’m often asked what I most like about Hannah Arendt. It is one of those annoying questions, such as: what is your favorite book? And yet, the answer I usually give to the first question is that reading Arendt is a constant surprise. There is no other writer and thinker who constantly provokes me and surprises me in ways that make me question my own prejudices and my own settled convictions. Reading Arendt is, for me, a spur to being a better thinker.
As the Presidency of Donald Trump comes to an end (and it will end on January 20th), it is time to think about what has happened. The worries about President Trump being an authoritarian, fascist, or totalitarian leader have proven overblown. The conspiracy theories about collusion with Russia were always just that, conspiracies. With the exception of his abuse of power trying to cajole and bribe the Ukranian President into investigating his political...
As I write this on Thursday morning, the United States still does not know who will be its next president. A few thoughts: First, after four years of Donald Trump, over 60 million Americans still believe it is acceptable to be governed by a con man and fraud, a broken human being, someone who fundamentally believes that he has the power to define, redefine, and build the reality that suits his own political and personal interests.
Lying in politics is nothing new. Many rehearse this basic Arendtian insight and nevertheless go on to condemn President Trump as a liar. But when Hannah Arendt began to explore political prevarication, first in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and then in a series of essay following the Vietnam War and the controversy surrounding her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, she was not interested simply in the pedestrian fact that politicians lie.
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...