Masha Gessen on Language, Loneliness, and the American Story03-13-2021
In the latest Amor Mundi Podcast, I speak with Masha Gessen and begin by asking her about her recent statement,
The central object of (Arendt’s) study is what happens to society when there’s too much distance, or not enough distance. . . . It is so important in her thinking that people think with one another. In order to think with one another, they have to feel their separateness from one another. You have to be an individual capable of forming an opinion, and expressing it, and exchanging it, and seeing the reflection of your ideas in the eyes of others.
Moving from the pandemic to loneliness and isolation, we speak about how, even amidst the rise of subjectivism—what Hannah Arendt calls world alienation—there has somehow remained a commitment to a common or shared world. It is precisely that common world that today seems endangered. Much of Gessen’s project in recent years is to ask how language is used in anti-political ways to undermine the world we share. If the common world is shattered or shattering, the question is whether a new story can be told and constituted to rebuild a common world. Our conversation continues to explore what it would mean in the wake of both the Trump Presidency and the Black Lives Matter Movement to retell the American story and rebuild a common world?
The conversation turns to the question of what the story of America might be. Is it the unfulfilled story of Langston Hughes’ “Let American Be America”? Is it Joe Biden’s story of competent management and technocracy? Or is it the story Hannah Arendt imagines, that of decentralized and local government, a humbler and more anarchic amalgamation of plural and different people who come together around an embrace of freedom? Finally, the conversation raises one of Arendt’s more controversial claims about politics, the importance of hypocrisy.
Listen to the Amor Mundi podcast here. Or download it on your favorite podcast player.