Interview with an Independent Thinker11-11-2011
Independent thinkers are rare. Nothing perhaps distinguishes Hannah Arendt from her peers than the radical independence of her thought, her identity as a "conscious pariah," one who eschews all alliances and categories and thinks for herself. Neither left nor right, neither capitalist nor socialist, and neither liberal nor conservative, Arendt looked at every issue from radically fresh viewpoints. That independence is in large measure the secret of her continuing appeal.
So who are the independent thinkers today? Painfully few. But one candidate is Paul Berman, who will be speaking on Alexis de Tocqueville as a guest of the Hannah Arendt Center on Monday, November 14th, at 7 pm (RKC 103).
In the recommended weekend read for this week, we offer an interview of Berman by Alan Johnson, published in Dissent, a journal for which Arendt herself was a contributor. Berman tells of his break with the New Left and of how he found a spur radical independence in the anarchist communities of the period.
The old Anarchists in New York were brave. Anti-Castro on one hand, and opposed to the gangsters in their own unions on the other hand. They were indifferent to the rest of the left – really, to everybody: faithful only to their own judgments and opinions – and I found this really inspiring. I learnt a habit of independence of mind, or I like to think that I did.
Berman's 2003 book Terror and Liberalism is a classic effort to think deeply and philosophically about contemporary political events. Berman sets the 9/11 terrorist attacks within the context of an internal struggle within liberalism, one that is epitomized by Albert Camus. In the rebellion against God, tradition, and order that one witnesses in paradigmatic modern figures like Camus' Rebel and Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov discover that in the name of freedom "everything is possible." This insight that in the name of liberation struggles "everything is possible" is the motto that Hannah Arendt ascribes to the essence of totalitarian movements, movements that will do literally anything and everything in the pursuit of a single and totalizing cause. Thus Berman, very much in the spirit of Arendt, argues that Islamic terrorism behind 9/11 is to be understood as the latest version of a western ideology of rebellion and totalitarianism. In his own words:
At one level I was trying to interpret the events of September 11. At a deeper level I was proposing an interpretation of modern history. And the whole of the interpretation is really contained in the title – there is a dialectic between terror and liberalism. I offer a theory of terror – I draw some aspects of this from Camus – that sees terror as an expression of a larger idea, which can be described as totalitarianism, admittedly a vexed label. Totalitarianism, of which terror is an expression, is a rebellion against liberal civilization and the liberal idea. It is an anti- liberal rebellion which is generated by liberalism itself. Sometimes the rebellion is generated by liberalism’s strengths and sometimes by liberalism’s shortcomings. The rise of liberalism over the last few centuries and the rebellions that have been inspired by that rise can account for the rise of the great totalitarian movements of one sort or another. That’s the theoretical idea expressed in the book. It’s a pretty simple idea, in the end. I don’t think that my simple idea explains everything in the world. But it does explain some things.
Berman's book is well worth a read. But so is this wide-ranging interview. Enjoy. And we hope to see you Monday at his lecture.
Click here to read the interview with Berman.