The Atom(ization) Bomb - Hannah Arendt’s Warning, Critical Race Ideology and the Coming Totalitarian Nightmare04-23-2021
Seventy brief years have passed since the controversial political theorist, Hannah Arendt, published what many consider her seminal work, On the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Now, standing at the fiery dawn of the new Age of Victimhood, with collectivist ideology once again in the ascendency and the haunting spectre of identity politics looming large across the West, Arendt’s key insights are simultaneously as poignant and, one fears, prescient as ever.
Though actually recalled by precious few among the living today, most of us comprehend the economic and cultural malaise of 1920-30’s Europe as a kind of top down, dictatorial circus, in which charismatic tyrants lectured their legions from balconies and strongmen choreographed goose-stepping foot soldiers across vast arenas for all the world, to witness. Arendt, however, much as she was privy to such conspicuous machinations of the militarized state, sensed something else at work; something far more insidious, more viral, and against which it would prove near impossible to inoculate. It is chilling to consider that, as with so many who made by-the-fingernail escapes from the iron clenches of totalitarianism, the experiences that helped inform this key insight very nearly cost Arendt her life.
The young student was not yet 30 years of age when she began using her access to the Prussian State Library to investigate the extent of antisemitism in her native Germany. The year was 1933 and Adolf Hitler had just acceded to power as Reichskanzler (Chancellor). Shortly thereafter, she was denounced to the Gestapo by a librarian (“just doing his job,” no doubt) for engaging in “anti-state propaganda.” Arendt was duly arrested, along with her mother. After eight days in prison, the pair was released and a court date set. Their stint inside being apparently sufficient for the women to realize that the situation in Germany was untenable, they immediately fled the country, heading first to Czechoslovakia and Switzerland, and eventually on to Paris. There they would remain until 1940, when the younger Arendt was interned by the Military Governor of Paris as an “enemy alien between 17-55 years of age.” (Her mother, then 55, was permitted to remain in Paris.) It was only during the chaos and confusion of France’s haphazard, piecemeal capitulation, later that same year, that Arendt was able to secure her liberation papers and, along with her mother, embark on an eleventh hour passage to New York City... and the New World.
So it was that, a decade later, with the smouldering embers of the European theatrum belli over her shoulder, Arendt sought first to ask, then to answer, the question plaguing every thinking individual’s deepest conscience, then and since: If such unspeakable evil could flourish in Germany, the very acme of civilized society, what was to stop such a gruesome event from coming to pass anywhere else, including right here, in our own lands, during our own time, under our very own two feet?
After all, Germany was not some barbarian backwater of a bygone era, where one might reasonably expect to discover heartbreaking acts of wanton savagery and blind, ubiquitous violence, to encounter the life of man as, to borrow Hobbes’ famous phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This was post-enlightenment, über-industrialized Germany, birthplace of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms, the nation that had gifted the world Goethe and Nietzsche and Shopenhauer, Kepler and Heisenberg and Einstein. If cultural accomplishments, scientific achievement and aesthetic apices were to serve as bulwarks against bare-knuckled, pre-civilized, Hobbesian dystopias, what nation on earth was better equipped to stand sentry than Germany?
Twin Totalitarianisms, Ab Ovo
Of course, along with the aforementioned minds, Germany also bestowed upon the world Messers Marx and Engels, whose historical materialism posited, in place of individuals and their nettlesome, liberal “rights and ideals,” rather “modes of production” (they being the productive forces and the societal power hierarchies governing them), as the prime drivers of this thing we call the human project. It was this bastardization of Hegel’s dialectic that would come to embody one of the malformed political twins that matured into the utterly grotesque 20th century totalitarianism later visited upon the world: communism.
Many were those who saw this leftist extreme as the antidote to so-called right wing fascism. And yet, as Arendt well understood, communism and nazism were in fact fraternal in nature, nourished in the same ideological womb. While her contemporary thinkers allowed themselves to be distracted by partisan “divide and conquer” politics, Arendt remained exquisitely sensitive to the fact that totalitarianism itself swore no allegiance to such provincial, commonly held notions of “right” or “left,” that it was rather a self-serving entity, an organism unto itself, a parasitoid infecting unthinking hosts at both extremes of the socio-political spectrum. The relevant common genetic trait - or predisposition, we might say - was the tendency to elevate the collective above the individual, whether that collective concept be nationalist in nature (as in the case of the Nazis) or internationalist (as for the Communists).
Indeed, Hitler himself stated that nazism favored neither the right nor the left, as mistakenly depicted oppositions, but instead drew from the “pure” elements of both quarters: “From the camp of bourgeois tradition, [nazism] takes national resolve, and from the materialism of the Marxist dogma, living, creative Socialism.” He distrusted capitalism as being susceptible to rank “egotism,” preferring instead a socialist-style, state directed economy that could subordinate any individualistic impulses to the collective will of the Volk. Thus the Nazis maintained extensive social programs across the German Reich, including food programs for the poor and shelter for the homeless, many of whom were later recruited into the Brownshirt Sturmabteilung (SA – Storm Detachments).
And yet, as far as this line of inquiry had taken her, Arendt realized that collectivist dogma alone could not be to blame for the mass atrocities of the twentieth century, any more than an inanimate object could be blamed for committing a single murder. Ideology had to be utilized, mobilized, actualized by living, breathing humans. Instructions had to be carried out by “desk killers” like Adolf Eichmann, overseen by desensitized henchmen and apathetic bureaucrats, people who could claim to be “just doing their job.” The source, Arendt argued, the potential for such evil, must therefore reside somewhere within man himself, or at least the way in which he chose to organize himself within a given political context.
In addition to examining how evil operated at the individual level, therefore, Arendt sought to understand evil in what might be called the “macro” sense, how it rose to the societal level. She sought to apprehend the normalization, the conventionalization, the bureaucratization of our basest impulses. She was interested in the manner in which it “spread like a fungus,” as she put it, rabidly fecund but without need of deep roots. Malignant, in other words, infecting the population cubicle-by-cubicle, office-by-office, department-by-department, in much the same way a cancer works its way through the body, one cell, one organ at a time.
To get at the root of this, Arendt would have to go all the way back to the trial and death of Socrates.
An Unholy Alliance
Sifting through the ideological rubble of the devastated continent she left behind, and drawing on her keen historical knowledge as a student of the Greco-Roman classics, Arendt soon began to piece together a theory for how such a wide scale atrocity could come to pass. For totalitarianism to flourish, she posited, two requisite ingredients must coalesce, forming a kind of unholy alliance: Terror and ideology.
In order to effectively terrorize a population, Arendt contended, man must first be separated both from his fellow man and from his own, inner self. He must be isolated, cut off from his support networks, both external and internal, outflanked societally and infiltrated mentally.
At the societal level, Arendt followed the words and deeds of her philosophical mentors, Socrates and Aristotle, who contended that man is fundamentally a social - which is to say, a political - animal. Socrates, for his part, demonstrated this daily through avid engagement with his fellow citizens, the demos, in the ancient Athenian marketplace of ideas, known as the Agora. Though he never wrote anything down himself, he led what Arendt herself famously formulated as the vita activa - or the “active life” - in which he spoke truth to power, at least as he identified it, and called into question accepted dogma of the day. The resulting dialogues would form the basis for that eponymous and indispensable method with which we still associate the Father of Western Philosophy to this day. It is no small irony then that, the city which brought democracy to the world, voted by majority to have Socrates put to death on the twin charges of corrupting the youth and asebeia - impiety, or introducing new deities into the accepted pantheon.
After the trial and death of Socrates, the gadfly’s closest student, Plato, led the world of philosophy on a kind of inward journey, a detour which Arendt characterized as the vita contemplativa - or the “contemplative life.” This she viewed as a grave error, one that saw man eschew the objective reality of his natural surroundings, including the fellow individuals with whom he shared them, in favor of isolated theorizing, subjective abstraction and generally nihilistic omphaloskepsis. Thus, Arendt argued, did society become gradually atomized, composed of discrete individuals who were disengaged from the wider public discourse, the vita activa, that mighty Athenean aegis which shielded man against the lurking totalitarian impulse.
Aristotle, too, recognized man as a fundamentally political animal, able to most fully realize his own, individual freedom within the context of a community (from household to city-state) in which he could live and thrive. For Aristotle, although the concept of “political man” was a function primarily of his nature, specifically in his unique linguistic capabilities, which enables him to seek, discern and articulate truth and virtue, its ultimate expression was something entirely differentiated from mere biology, his flesh and bones and material makeup. From his very name to the will of his mind and the consequent actions that carry him through life, Aristotle’s idea of man as a political, social being was bound up with the understanding that this, too, guarded against the worst ills of his nature. “For as man is the best of the animals when perfected,” he wrote in Politics, “so he is the worst of all when sundered from law and justice.”
To reduce humans to apolitical animals, to alienate them from one and other, to number them, to tag them, and to dehumanize them. This is what Stalin meant when he said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic.”
Once man was rent from his community, “a clod washed away by the sea,” to marshal Donne’s famous words, he was left prone, exposed to still a more profound, insidious disjunction; the estrangement even from “the self” as an independent agent of reason. For Arendt, it was this interior citadel of the mind that represented the individual’s last stand against totalitarian ideological infiltration; the ability to hold an inner dialogue with one’s own conscience, to weigh countervailing impulses, to observe the same position from different angles, to entertain discordant ideas without necessarily subscribing to one or either of them. In short, to think for oneself. Socrates referred to his daimon or daimonion - literally “divine something” - as a kind of inner conscience with which he consulted, and which kept him from erring, from commission of evil and susceptibility to it. (We might think of this as the proverbial “voice in our heads” urging us to return the wallet we found in the back of the taxicab.)
Arendt’s Atomization Bomb
The effect of this dual severing, the simultaneous external (from society) and internal (from the mind) dissociation, was to leave the individual utterly, helplessly stranded... and longing desperately for a savior. By way of analogy, we might consider how an abusive spouse employs intimidation and panoptical invigilation to monitor and then suppress his victim’s contact with the outside world, gradually cutting them off from their critical support network of family, friends and colleagues. Once his victim is isolated, the predator can begin the far more intricate undertaking of incessant psychological attack, distorting his victim’s perception of reality, gaslighting them into accepting, even appreciating, their “new normal,” a condition sometimes referred to as Stockholm Syndrome. Having dashed the outside supply lines and emptied his victim of all self-confidence, the abuser is now in a position of absolute power, able to dictate terms and translate reality, to fill his prey with whatever narrative, whatever ideology, best serves his own interests. To dominate them, in other words, totally.
Consider the plight of the Russian clerk in the 1920s, who runs afoul of some arbitrary Party policy during the course of his quotidian duties and is accused of being a saboteur. He is brought to trial on trumped up charges and invited to defend himself. His interrogation goes something like the following...
“Have you engaged in acts of sabotage against the Party?”
“But you are a member of the Party?”
“And you agree that whatever the Party holds to be true is, in fact, true?”
“And does the Party contend that you are a saboteur?”
“Then you will please answer the question again. Have you engaged in acts of sabotage against the Party?”
During Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, which Arendt famously covered for The New Yorker magazine, she was astounded to discover that a man so pivotal, so vital to implementing Hitler’s Final Solution, the man who organized and oversaw the deportation of millions of Jews to concentration and extermination camps, could be utterly incapable of even a single act of independent thought. He was, Arendt observed, thoughtless, in the literal sense of the word. “[...] the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” As a keen linguist herself, Arendt recognized how Eichmann’s poverty of mind manifested itself in entirely unoriginal speech patterns. Immune to the reality of the objective world and consumed by its propaganda simulacrum, Eichmann had become the perfect totalitarian tool. “Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality,” wrote Arendt, “that is, against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence.”
Whether “right” or “left,” fascist or communist, Arendt understood that totalitarianism of all stripes found fertile matter in terrorized individuals, riven from their fellow man and inner self, and thus primed for mass indoctrination and ideological brainwashing.
Which brings us to today...
Divide, Conquer... and Repeat
In at least three ways are we being separated, cleaved, atomized from our fellow man and ourselves, rent from our most inner conscience and, once emptied, filled with an ideology rife with and defined by intolerance and unyielding in its totality.
First, we live in an age of unprecedented media ubiquity (mass media, we call it), in which artificial intelligence - in the form of unimaginably advanced computer algorithms - delivers us bespoke realities, tailor-made to appeal to our own, individual preferences and increasingly pronounced biases. Moreover, these 7.6 billion “Universes of One,” in which we are each actively directed from one page impression to the next along our own unique, discrete journey, are built to engage - and enrage - us more than inform us. And it shows. (One need only spend 5 minutes on Twitter for incontrovertible proof of man’s descent from once-common decency.) In the digital realm, reality itself has become a kind of “choose your own adventure” experience, where one can discover “facts” to support practically any world view imaginable... and plenty which might seem utterly unimaginable, too.
The result of this vast informational fragmentation is that, even two people living in the same house, with a lifetime of shared human experience, may come to harbor diametrically oppositional interpretations of exactly the same non-witnessed event, depending on the media sources/filters through which each person passively receives it. This is something akin to a phenomenon that mathematicians call parallax, whereby the position or direction of an object appears to change when viewed from different positions. Multiply this moment-to-moment separation by every single event consumed and you have a world of individuals moving further and further away from each other at increasing speed, like matter exploding outward from the Big Bang toward the distant corners of the universe. Thus, society is fragmented, its component parts isolated.
Barely three decades into this grand informational experiment, we have only recently begun to assess its deleterious effects on our collective consciousness. Preliminary attempts to measure the impact of ceaseless Social Media bombardment, particularly its effects on the malleable teen mind, have yielded horrifying results, to put it mildly. Trends in suicide, addiction, depression, self-harm and psychological aberrations of myriad descriptions are off the charts, having all hockey-sticked since the advent of the Internet and, especially, Social Media. And yet, the centrifugal expansion accelerates.
Terror, Meet Ideology...
Emerging around the same time as the Internet, and developing roughly in parallel with it, a curious doctrine of division began taking hold in the already self-serving, inward-looking academies of the west, namely: Critical Race Theory (CRT). One might say this is where, precisely as Arendt observed, “terror” meets “ideology.” As she had written in Origins... “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
Though an inquiry into the origins of CRT go beyond the limited scope of this essay, a few remarks will suffice to contextualize its inclusion here. Tracing its roots back through post-structuralism to Marxist historical materialism (see above), CRT defines itself as “anti-liberal” and is predicated on the idea that white supremacy is rife, systemic and forms an integral part of an oppressive power structure that must be dismantled, by force if necessary. Adherents contend that Enlightenment values, such as rationality, legal equality (what the Greeks called isonomia), constitutional neutrality and individuals rights, are impediments to their desired “equality of outcome,” or “equity.” Characterized in part by its rejection of “evidence-based knowledge,” which it views as part of an oppressive legacy of western patriarchy, CRT appeals instead to “storytelling,” “tradition,” and even “superstition” to undergird its wild claims and “political action,” often violent, to achieve its horrific ends. A pure contempt for facts, to borrow Arendt’s words, coupled with an absolute hunger for power. What could go wrong?
Mass atomization, in a nutshell
The grand irony of the so-called Critical Theorists is that there is nothing particularly critical about their theorizing at all. At best theirs is a pseudo-intellectualism gussied up as rigorous academic inquiry; at worst it is a divisive and hateful dogma, in which human beings are rent and siloed according to an arbitrary set of immutable characteristics - race, sex, etc. - then intersectionalized into the vast victim matrix which must, its evangelists myopically contend, characterize all aspects of the human experience.
Moreover, the CRT crowd traffic shamelessly in what psychologists call “projection,” accusing anyone who doesn’t conform to their appalling doctrine of exactly that which best defines their very own movement: bigotry in its most primitive, unalloyed, irreducible form.
For proponents of this most intolerant of creeds, there is only one line: The Party line. (“Aren’t you that saboteur?”) Anyone deviating from the accepted - nay, mandated - orthodoxy is canceled, deplatformed, silenced, doxxed or worse. In this way do the high priests of the allegedly “woke” crowd put the “total” back in totalitarianism, by acting as the self-appointed panjandrums of all that is true and sublime in the universe, the grand poohbahs of taste, ethics, morality and virtue. Not content with obliterating the here and now, they attempt a staggering act of hubris in demanding the cancelation of history, too, as if they themselves were cast into the world as fully formed, autochthonous beings, owing nothing to the mighty, elevated shoulders upon which they so blithely luxuriate in their own, special kind of ignorance, wholly unaware that they are not, as they assume, taken to flight on wings fashioned of their own omniscient genius.
By their clichés ye shall know them
When next you hear a mouthpiece for the CRT movement, recall for a moment our unthinking desk killer, Adolf Eichmann. Recall the little man’s conspicuous inability to think for himself and how his speech was thus confined to “cliché, stock phrases and adherence to conventional, standardized codes.” Think about this human-cum-automaton when you hear about some canceled celebrity “doing the work,” or “being an ally,” when you are reminded of someone’s “privilege” or “unconscious bias” or some act of “cultural appropriation,” when you are called upon to validate someone’s “lived experience” or “personal truth” or lectured about alternative “ways of knowing.” So too for the entire lexicon of prescribed Newspeak, including “micro-aggression,” “safe space,” “triggered,” “epistemic oppression,” “white fragility” and all the rest.
Such stock phrases and clichés form the backbone for a decidedly uncritical, narrow and idiomatic expression of the new, downloadable ideology known as “woke.” No thinking required, guaranteed.
[NB: Those interested in further reading might like to visit the New Discourses page, where author and scholar James Lindsay has (no doubt) painstakingly compiled a list of “translations from the woke.”]
Critical Race Theory training is now common - and in many cases mandatory and taxpayer funded - across academies, institutions, corporations and for both federal agencies and federal contractors throughout the United States.
Pestilence, meet Plague...
The unholy alliance between today’s terrorized, atomized minds and the latest iteration of arguably mankind’s deadliest, most divisive ideologies was daunting enough. Even before 2020, the seething flames of discontent burned white hot. Then came a pandemic.
Plenty has been written - and will be written - regarding the biological, political and economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but none of those are directly germane to this essay. We are interested here in what did not happen in 2020, as a result of either the virus itself, the national and international governmental responses to it, or some combination of the both.
At a minimum, we notice that people did not come together, as usual, to celebrate birthdays and weddings, to mourn at funerals and to cheer at stadiums, theatres and music halls. They did not travel, did not visit family, did not embrace one another at Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, Diwali, Festivus, what-have-you. They did not, in any normal sense of the term, come together at all. Not without some level of fear and trepidation, real or imagined. They did not attend the Olympics. Did not go on vacation. Did not congregate around the water cooler, gossip over happy hour martinis or strike up random conversations with strangers at the next table in the noisy, neighborhood bistro. Not the way they ordinarily do.
Whatever your political affiliation or spiritual persuasion, your team colors or country of origin, whether you say your prayers in Hindi or Urdu, English or Yiddish, or not at all, you likely spent more time apart last year than together. Our most common, overriding experience of 2020, something we all endured together in one way or another, was something entirely uncommon: our untogetherness.
It is difficult to imagine how such an unprecedented global upheaval will impact our already fragile social fabric. So many of the usual circuit breakers have been bypassed. The regular checks and balances that we take for granted have been suspended, perhaps indefinitely. The immediate price one pays for making an outrageous comment at a party, for example, the pushback one receives after floating an unsubstantiated theory over dinner, the friend who keeps us in line, checks our irrational impulses, steers us away from conspiracies, balances our neuroses, who brings out our best and inspires us to do better, for ourselves and those around us. Our group. Our network. Our mates. At what cost did we forgo that community experience?
We know how to measure the biological toll of the COVID-19 virus; we are reminded every moment of every day with a never-ending scroll of case numbers and fatalities, we are constantly updated as to news of dreaded variants and the progress of vaccine rollouts, we are notified of second, third and forth waves, crashing upon shores around the world.
As to the cost of the state-led, systematic breakdown of civil society, our inability to freely associate, to stand guard, shoulder-to-physical-shoulder, against the insidious creep of terrorizing ideology, and what this isolation portends for the days and years ahead, remains to be seen.
April, 2021 ~ Buenos Aires