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Thinking in dark times

An interview with Roger Berkowitz, Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College. Interviewer: Simona Merkinaite.

April 6, 2020 - Roger Berkowitz Simona Merkinaite - Interviews

Roger Berkowitz. Source: Private

SIMONA MERKINAITE: Could you maybe start with a bit of your personal story about how you came to Arendt and what she means to you?

ROGER BERKOWITZ: I read Hannah Arendt in grad school, wrote a small paper, but I hardly was an Arendt scholar. I have a PhD in law and jurisprudence. Then I came to Bard to teach. Arendt taught there, just like her husband Heinrich Blücher. Both are buried there and Arendt left her personal library to the college. So I thought we should mark this somehow and in 2006 on the 100th anniversary of her birth, I organised a conference called “Thinking in Dark Times: the Legacy of Hannah Arendt”. Not being an Arendt scholar myself, I did not invite Arendt scholars and in all honesty, I never liked the scholarly approach to Arendt. She always inspired me as someone who thought provocatively and boldly and confidently about the world. So, I invited public intellectuals, novelists, theatre people and philosophers. I asked them all open questions: about the meaning of Arendt for them, about politics, about revolution, about Jewishness, etc. It was quite unique, and afterwards her literary executor Jerome Kohn approached me and said that of all the conferences dedicated to her, this is in fact the one she would probably have liked the best. He asked that we bring the Arendt Center then at the New School to Bard.

Quite simply what I like about her work is its intellectual and political power of provocation. On every page of her writing she forces me to think differently about the world. Every time I read an article or a newspaper, I ask myself, is this person’s thinking predictable or is this person thinking anew? Finally, Arendt wrote about a lot of things: education, regimes, revolution, democracy, town halls, privacy, free press, and so what I found is when something happens in the world you can usually find something in Arendt. Her work will not (and should not) give you the answers, but rather can give you an unexpected and thoughtful approach to the issue.

The relevance of Arendt seems to have risen in the last couple of years. I think it is related to the feeling of uncertainty, like we are on the verge of some paramount change, so we try to employ the reflections from the last century. Arendt herself was suspicious of the possibility to apply what we already know in understanding our own time as we risk missing what is new, as she herself understood totalitarianism as a radically new form of government that existing understanding of tyranny was unwilling to explain. How do we use philosophy as a tool for understanding the world and truth, yet do not turn big ideas small by being impatient with them, using them for political reasons and causes? 

I think there is a renewed interest in Arendt. I would say it started even before 2016. I can speak to that as we started the Hannah Arendt Center in 2006 and even then people had a very intense interest in Arendt. As you suggest, there are reasons why. Most of the interest in Arendt after 2016 is around the idea of totalitarianism and I think it is largely misguided. I think (at least at this point) the United States is not a totalitarian or fascist country, not even close. Some of the use of Arendt has been therefore very simplistic, political and that does not do her any justice.

What is interesting, though, is that in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism and in her other work, she identifies what she calls “the elements of the totalitarianism”. She doesn’t say what caused it, because there is no simple cause, but she says that totalitarianism is radically new. And so she asked the question: What is it that allowed a radically new form of government to emerge in the 20th century? And she has a number of answers to that. One of the themes that she develops in series of essays in 1950-1955 is loneliness. She separates solitude, isolation and loneliness. Solitude refers to being by yourself, but in a way that is thoughtful, when you are thinking and you question yourself. Solitude therefore, is a prerequisite for being a thoughtful human being. Isolation is how people often existed under dictatorships or tyranny where the tyrant would not allow you to organise in public and have a public life. And then there is loneliness. It means not only being isolated in public, but even alone in your private life as well. It refers to being completely abandoned as a human being.

Loneliness used to feel like something one faces at the end of life, or something that is experienced by pariahs. Arendt says that somehow the loneliness has become a mass phenomenon, when a huge amount of people feel like there is no reason to live. The reasons for that are vast, historical and complicated. The feeling of loneliness creates an incredible human need to belong, to feel that the world is meaningful and it predisposes a person in the modern age to political, religious, social movements that promise us meaning. And when you find meaning, it becomes a part of who you are. This is why, according to Arendt, people start to favour the fictional coherence over the messiness of reality. For me, the core of the totalitarian movement is a fictional, coherent claim to meaningfulness based on some characteristic: race, religion, class, etc.

I do not think that totalitarianism is the danger of our time and Arendt rightfully says that what happened in the past will probably not be the danger of the future. Yet many of the same elements – loneliness, the need for fictions, the loss of truth and of facts, and the rise of mass movements – these are alive in the 21st century and there is a good chance that they will lead to new forms of politics that we have not yet experienced.

Speaking of loneliness, it seems like the generation of war has experienced the most extreme form of it. Arendt herself experienced her whole life being disrupted when she had to flee her home. When she finally got to US, she continued as a stateless person, as she got her citizenship only in 1950. For someone who saw political and public life as a paramount human experience that must have been extremely difficult. And yet, she never questions and always defends the human world and her political thought remains to be very hopeful. Do you think it is the strength of the human spirit or that optimism is something that came out of the political thinking as a philosophical concept?

I think both. She has a brilliant essay titled “We Refugees”, where puts herself in the category of refugee. She was arrested and put in the detention camp (in Gurs) and escaped while most people in that camp ended up in Auschwitz. Eventually she ended up in the US. How did she maintain her optimism during all this time? On one hand it is the human spirit. But I already mentioned solitude and how for her, it means to be in conversation with oneself. Not everyone can live in solitude, but Arendt certainly could and she most certainty did. She was always in conversation with herself as her notebooks show. She constantly wrote ideas, worked on them for months and months. Another thing that needs to be mentioned is friendships. One of the things I find insightful today is reading her correspondence. She wrote an enormous amount of letters and they are serious, thoughtful letters, sometimes love letters, sometimes just documenting what she is up to, but they are thinking documents, engaging in a two-in-one conversation and also in a conversation with others.

She doesn’t have an aristocratic view, she never says that thinking is for philosophers, for the privileged few; she says everyone is capable of thinking, yet most people will not think, they will choose to do anything, but think. This is because thinking involves questioning your own fundamental beliefs and confronting them. So it is for the people who don’t think that we need banisters, moral codes, traditions and customs, as they keep us on the path of general public goodness. When these banisters are destroyed, as they were during the course of 19th and 20th centuries, we then are faced with the question of how to respond to this new situation? And this leads us back to the need for new movements, for new banisters.

What seems to reappear as a challenge in political thought and philosophy is the tension between the philosophical way of life (questioning and seeking truth) and the political way of life (engaging with opinions and seeking practical change). What is your take on it?

There are different layers in approaching this question. Let me start with Hannah Arendt. She considered philosophy to be a great danger to politics, because philosophy introduces the search for truth in the world and truth, as she says in her essay Truth and Politics, is not on friendly terms with politics. The obvious way to think about this statement is that politicians lie. The less obvious way to understand it is that that politics is not about truth but about opinion. It is about my opinion, your opinion, persuading each other. And philosophy, as a search for truth, always was dissatisfied with politics.

This tension led Plato to entertain the idea of the philosopher king. Today we have a different version of that. Today we might call it “the managerial elite”, which consists of the social scientists and educated social engineers who think they know how to run the economy, domestic and foreign affairs and make things better. And this seems like a fundamentally false assumption about politics. Arendt reminds us over and over again is that as soon as you start speaking about truth in politics it risks sounding tyrannical. Politics has to be about facing up to the fact that the world is plural. It doesn’t mean that we are all different only because of the colour of our skin or religion, it means that we will have different ideas and opinions about the world. We still think that we have to have basic [political] agreements about the truth, and what Arendt says is that politically this is not how people are. For one thing, she is a strong defender of privacy. Liberals hate privacy despite all that they say. They tell you how you should live your lives, how you should educate your children. In one of Arendt’s most controversial essays called Reflections on the Little Rock about the effort to desegregate the schools in the 1950s, she argues against government enforced policies on education. Arendt believed fundamentally that blacks and whites should be allowed to go to school together, but she did not think that the government should be able to tell people who their kids had to go to school with. Her answer was this: if you believe in privacy, there is nothing more private than the question of how to raise your own children. And so, you have to let people have prejudices in private life, to discriminate, for example, to be able to decide who can and cannot come into your home. It is essential because this is where plurality comes from, this is how we develop our unique personalities, and we have to deal with that reality in politics and this is what ultimately politics is about. She, rightfully, was very wary of bringing the truth as a standard into politics.

For the United States, the question of race is a difficult subject matter for genuine dialogue, especially now that race has become a political battle ground. In Europe, however, the issue of antisemitism is re-emerging. What is your take on it, does it rise to the level of systematic antisemitism which as a political strategy Arendt separated from prejudice? 

The rise of antisemitism is deeply worrisome around the world, not only in Europe but the US as well where there was a shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. If you look at Hungary today, Viktor Orbán seems like someone who really embraces the language and symbols of antisemitism and he also became one of the biggest supporters of Israel and supporter of non-profit Jewish groups around the world. Such an antisemitism that can also be pro-Israel is a strange difference from 20th century antisemitism. Consider Donald Trump who uses language such as “cosmopolitans” when talking about Jewish leaders. He reinforces antisemitic propaganda; and yet he also has a Jewish family and is a supporter of Israel. He most clearly doesn’t think of himself as antisemitic. So we need to study not only the similarities, but also the differences.

Antisemitism today operates very much in the same way as anti-Muslim and anti-foreign feelings operate. I think what we are seeing is weaponisation of prejudices seeking to protect a particular culture saying that “we belong and you don’t”. And yet it is different and new in a sense that it focuses on differences, but it resists the ideological judgment of past racisms. I think it is different with the US. America is a country of immigrants, a country of asylum and at least in some parts of its history committed to the creedal idea that “everyone here can be equal”. So when you start saying that some people won’t fit in, you are saying that they are not able to be part of the creed. In a way it is more complicated and yet simpler then in France, for example. Because France never was this way, it always was a country of liberty and also of fraternity, it was a nation state that US never was.

Arendt thought that a national state is an impossible and dangerous project. She thought that the rise of the nation state was one of the totalitarian elements. She believed that the nation sate is dying because to have a nation state and call it Hungary or Lithuania meant that one group will be privileged and others will be a second-class citizens. If this is the case it goes against the idea of the state itself, which means that everyone should be treated equally. For her, the nation state was one of the causes of totalitarianism, making the question of minorities central, where minorities end up insisting on rights. When a sub-national majority (like the Jews in Hungary or the Slovaks in Czechoslovakia) seek rights, they demand that the nation-state live up to its ideal as a liberal state; thus, they demand that the privileges of the national majority be diminished.

What could be an alternative to the national sovereign, a central body of government that in democracy requires a common, in a way unified decision by the many?

Arendt’s solution, which she touches upon in many places but never fully develops, is federalism. The idea is – instead of national sovereignty, to strive to have many small communities, each governing themselves with a loose, overarching federal state structure. The history of the US for example indicates that it is not a democratic state but rather a constitutional federal republic. Each of these adjectives matter. The constitution sets the general structure for a limited government. There is the federal government (that started out with very limited power) and there are state, county and local governments. The point of the constitutional structure is that there is no one sovereign, no singular body in charge. The federal government does not have the right to decide on everything, since the state governments have the power to resist the decisions made on the federal level. And vice versa. Arendt thought the same way about Israel and Palestine. She thought that there should be one overarching state with different communities of Jews and Palestinians and each having the opportunity to live as they wished. She imagined the end of the nation state and the rise of loosely governed federal republics. Obviously, this has not happened.

What about the role of language? Arendt saw language as key in politics, allowing to address prejudices as well as a means to create a common world, a world where we could talk to and understand each other. Now it seems like language has lost its power. Politicians lie constantly and do not seem to be embarrassed by their lies. Language is now seen more like a tool to achieve one’s political goals and crush the opposition rather than a way to understand the world. In your opinion, is there a possibility to still create a meaningful world through language – through debate and arguments?

I think words matter. I think it is important to engage in conversation, one-on-one, or when I teach. For me it comes with the understanding that the people with whom I engage may not agree with me, but I believe that if the person next to me has some good will, he or she will try to see my point of view, just like I try to see theirs.

Arendt asks if talking about justice and piety can make us more just and pious? She believes, yes. She says that you cannot impose justice, something so many of us are tempted to do these days. Words open us to new ideas and different perspectives. That is why the mere act of talking about justice can make us more just. This commitment to talking about justice is what the Hannah Arendt Center (and my life) has come to be about – we provide a space for people from a wide range of political, economic, social and geographic backgrounds come together and to talk about what justice and piety are.

When it comes to politics, words will always be weaponised. Lying is at the core of the political world and the last five or 10 or even 100 years has not change that. Though we did enter the stage in which the rise of propaganda and rhetoric means that lying grew in size and ambition. Political lies are aimed at building a whole fictional world. The ideological movements of the 20th century gave rise to these fictional worlds. So the question is, how can we resist such fictional worlds on the political level? I am not sure I have the answer to what would work, but I can tell you what certainly does not work: Playing “gotcha” and pointing out when someone lies does not seem to work. It is due to the fact that people do not care about lies, they think that everyone lies; but that the there is a deeper truth behind the lies. What matters to people is that through the lies this whole new meaningful world is created. Meaning gives purpose and the world starts to makes sense.

So simply pointing out factual lies does not work. What may work is harder questioning. Looking at the support for Donald Trump, for example, it seems like there is a core group of supporters who are unfazed by the lies. They know Trump lies, but they believe he expresses a deeper truth. And yet, it is also important to point out that this is not a problem on one side of the political spectrum. A lot of people on the left are obsessed with Trump’s lies; they point out the lies about climate or history and race relations. But as soon as you point out the inconsistencies in their own narratives, or bring up facts that contradict them, they do not seem to care either, because they also ally themselves with the ideological position that is of enormous importance to them.

One idea that is promising is participatory polling. When we start bringing groups of up to a few hundred people from all over the political map into curated spaces where they can talk and argue and learn from each other, we see that over time we can get people to see that the world is more complicated than they usually are willing to see and accept. To me the single most important political institution in United States is a jury. According to the law, everyone is eligible to serve on a jury for a court trial. The judge will point out what the law says, but ultimately it is the citizens who have to make the decision in a trial. Every citizen at least once in his or her lifetime has to sit in a courtroom with other Americans, very different from them and talk to them about what to do and make a serious decision on whether someone needs to go to prison and what the punishment should be. This is why town halls mattered so much to Arendt, because it was a gathering of citizens, making political decisions through dialogue and discussion. We often romanticise and idealise this idea – in reality those meetings were boring or at times brutal, generally people hated them, but nevertheless people got together, disagreed and made decisions together. We don’t really do that anymore. We vote every few years and we leave everything else to the experts. In this way we lost our intellectual muscles for having meaningful conversations about difficult topics with people with whom we disagree. That has to change. This is why I am interested in the idea of sortition, because it corresponds to the idea of making a jury, but for politics exclusively.

Roger Berkowitz is the founder and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is the author of The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition, and editor of the annual journal HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center. 

Simona Merkinaite is a Rethinking Europe progamme expert with Open Lithuania Foundation and is doing a PhD focusing on Arendt at Vilnius University.

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