The Uses and Abuses of Hannah Arendt10-22-2020
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. Arendt also saw the profound danger of a technocratic elite that would believe itself to know some non-existent political truth that it would impose upon a disempowered democratic people. And yet, as Samuel Moyn writes, it is also the case that Arendt has become a convenient citation for those who would use her for their own political purposes. Moyn writes:
Soon after Donald Trump was elected, Arendt became the most used and abused philosophical source to interpret his presidency. Earnest think-pieces appeared about the “lessons” Arendt taught, most of questionable relevance to understanding Trump’s ascendancy. And her work The Origins of Totalitarianism, a 1951 summa that culminates in a quickly written study of Nazi rule, became a bestseller for years….
In the eyes of the American “Resistance,” Arendt became a commonplace liberal, a critic of the excesses of violent states, offering warnings about the dangers of mendacious leaders. States are often horrendous in their policies and their leaders prevaricate, but no one needed Arendt’s authority to say so. Arendt became a privileged citation for those not so much ignorant of as uninterested in her work, and who canonised her for a new age at the price of reducing her to utter conventionality. Referencing her gave many a think piece the patina of a famous name and pseudo-profundity. Her words opportunistically provided revulsion towards Trump with the imprimatur of a supposed philosopher of fascism, for those who were less willing to think about where he came from and how he was possible. It helped, of course, that Arendt—who fled to America—was among the most renowned analysts of the Nazi and Soviet foes that her new country put down one after another in the 20th century, before Trump so rudely tarnished its reputation and self-conception.
In their invocations of Arendt as a theorist for a new age of “post-truth,” her new fans missed that she argued that truth and politics have never mixed. On the contrary: politics is a realm of appearance, not one of correspondence with fact. For Arendt, we have always been post-truth. She acknowledged that fascist lies were unique, but their novelty—and that of later American ones, like the defence of the Vietnam War that the Pentagon Papers revealed to be so deceptive—allowed no “moralising,” since “the background of past history” is “itself not exactly a story of immaculate virtue.” That same belief guided her refusal to moralise once Nazism fell.