During the discussion period following the screening of Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” at the New School for Social Research, I took the mike to explain why Arendt’s theories were inadequate to explain genocide. If war crimes, up to and including ethnic cleansing or extermination, were spawned by totalitarianism, what do we make of Thomas Jefferson’s statement that if the American Indians got in the way of nation-building, they should be exterminated? For that matter, what does it say about the New School that its former President—Bob Kerrey—was a war criminal in Vietnam? (Around midnight on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey and his men killed at least 13 unarmed women and children.) At this point, Von Trotta and Jerome Kuhn—the head of the New School’s Hannah Arendt Center—began fidgeting in their seats and wearing frowns. Who was this asshole ruining their lovefest? But when I stated that if the USA ever lost a war the way that Hitler did, maybe the Samantha Powers of our world would find themselves in the defendant’s seat just like Eichmann, that was too much for them. They both started speaking over me at once. I caught Von Trotta saying that “this has nothing to do with my film” but of course it absolutely did.
Before the audience was allowed to offer comments, Kuhn spent a good fifteen minutes stroking the egos of the director, her leading actress Barbara Sukowa, and the screenwriter, one Pamela Katz. Von Trotta’s film has become part of a touring dog-and-pony show meant to convince audiences that Hannah Arendt is “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century”, as the New School website puts it.
Although I had high regard for Von Trotta’s film, especially for its fairly accurate portrayal of Heinrich Blucher (Mr. Hannah Arendt), who was my professor at Bard College as an undergrad, and Hans Jonas, her long-time friend and an ardent Zionist who was also my professor at the New School philosophy department, I was put off by her reply to a question posed by Kuhn as to why she made the film. She said that when she was younger and part of the German radical movement, it was understandable why she would make a film about Rosa Luxemburg but after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was Hannah Arendt who had much more to say about the state of the world—especially knowing what was really happening in the East.
Von Trotta, like the French ex-Maoists, apparently had a Damascene conversion somewhere along the line. I don’t know whose decision it was to include Samantha Power on this daylong celebration of the 80th anniversary of the New School University in Exile or whether in fact it was linked to the film screening, but I strongly suspect that the two events were linked—at least implicitly. Power was speaking at 8pm on “Protecting Scholars and the Right to Free Inquiry”, along with George Rupp, who was my boss at Columbia University before Lee Bollinger replaced him, and Jonathan Fanton, former chair of Human Rights Watch and former president of The New School.
Anybody who has been following Samantha Power’s sordid career would know that she styles herself as a latter-day Hannah Arendt. She wrote the introduction to the latest edition of “Origins of Totalitarianism” and a self-serving April 29, 2004 NY Review article that recruited the dead philosopher for two of Power’s “humanitarian intervention” crusades—the one that took place in Kosovo and one that she wished had taken place in Rwanda.
The article also likens Hamas to “totalitarian movements” like the Nazis, an Orwellian exercise that staggers the imagination. Gerald Kaufman, a British Labor MP and a long-time Zionist, was far more accurate when he stated:
The spokeswoman for the Israeli army, Major Leibovich, was asked about the Israeli killing of, at that time, 800 Palestinians. The total is now 1,000. She replied instantly that ’500 of them were militants’. That was the reply of a Nazi. I suppose the Jews fighting for their lives in the Warsaw ghetto could have been dismissed as militants.
While Power did not bring up the subject of Iraq in her NY Review article, it is worth mentioning what she thought of the invasion of Iraq during the halcyon days when Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld were trumpeting the victory of democracy in the Middle East. This is from a profile on Power in the April 14, 2003 LA Times that coincided with the publication of her “The Problem From Hell”:
“That’s what’s so great about the fall of Saddam Hussein. Now we can actually put our money and power where our might has been so far. We can demonstrate what we have claimed all along, that this war is about them,” she said, referring to the Iraqi people.
“The hard work is just beginning, in Iraq and also in restoring U.S. credibility as a global actor. I hope the book provides the spirit in which that can be done.”
Did it ever occur to Power that the invasion of Iraq was illegal, unjust and immoral? How does someone putting herself forward as a moral exemplar end up sounding like a White House operative? I guess that Pecksniffian declarations of moral responsibility are a smart career move especially if it goes hand-in-hand with a lust for bombing the impudent natives.
To cover its expenses, the Hannah Arendt Center at the New School relies on generous contributions from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As anybody familiar with American history can tell you, the academy has been nourished from the beginning by the blood of slaves and working people. Leland Stanford was a robber baron, as was Andrew Carnegie. Andrew W. Mellon’s father was financier to the Carnegie steel company and sonny boy took over the Mellon banks after he died. As Secretary of the Treasury, he advised Hoover to “liquidate labor…liquidate farmers…it will drain the rottenness out of the system” at the very time he was cheating on his income taxes and urging a cut in rates for the 1920s version of the one percent. As Balzac said in the epigraph to “Pere Goriot”: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation understands why it is important to fund the Hannah Arendt Center since in a period beginning to approximate the Great Depression in terms of longevity, our current economic crisis is causing young people to question the capitalist system. Who better to warn them against “going too far” than a Hannah Arendt, an icon of the Cold War alongside Albert Camus? At least if that version of Hannah Arendt remains unchallenged.
It makes sense that Bard College would have its own Hannah Arendt Center since the president of the college is also committed to the bulldozer expansionism under a humanist camouflage of its New School colleagues. Using millions from currency speculator George Soros’s deep pockets instead of the Mellon fortune, it promotes Arendt’s reputation near and far and allows its director Roger Berkowitz to pontificate on a full-time basis. In a remarkable essay titled “Assassinating Justly: Reflections on Justice and Revenge in the Osama Bin Laden Killing”, Berkowitz claims that “few today question the United States’ right to kill – or at least severely punish – Osama bin Laden” and that it was “wrong for human rights activists to critique the raid as being unjustified”. Really? What would then prevent some Pakistanis from forming a death squad and coming to Washington to wreak vengeance for the 330 drone strikes that have left over 2000 people dead? Of course, this would be considered an act of savagery since it is the USA that is hegemonic rather than Pakistan.
As a member of the National Security Council, Samantha Power took part in deliberations that led to the deaths of these Pakistanis. Why is this considered ethical behavior and that of the Taliban or Hamas unethical? Clearly, we are dealing with a double standard. If there truly were international law, Obama and his underlings would be serving long prison terms for crimes against humanity. And maybe there would be shorter jail terms for their intellectual prostitutes like Roger Berkowitz. (I suppose I should find another word besides prostitute since that after all is an honorable profession by comparison.)
I am not the only person who has figured out what the Hannah Arendt industry is up to. There’s an article by Brooklyn College professor Corey Robin titled “Dragon Slayers” that appeared in the January 4, 2007 London Review of Books that is excellent. (It is behind a paywall but I will be happy to send you a copy on request.)
The article is based on reviews of these three books:
- Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
- Hannah Arendt: The Jewish Writings edited by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman
- Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
Robin takes exception to Young-Bruehl’s attempt to put radical Islam and the Bush White House on the same plane: “the Republican and Islamist push to submit the private sphere to public scrutiny”, etc. As opposed to such an abstraction, he points out that jihadists are fueled by anger over Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.
Although it is not mentioned in the review, Young-Bruehl has targeted the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela as inimical to human freedom. I wrote about her trip there back in 2007 and noted that she held a meeting with the students at Simon Bolivar University where she had “an intense conversation about why Hannah Arendt had distrusted revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice without first achieving a stable, constitutional republic.” Yes, that’s what we need to do—distrust revolutions that try to solve problems of social injustice, especially since it might piss off the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and George Soros.
This pretty much sums up Robin’s approach:
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the centenary of Arendt’s birth should have devolved into a recitation of the familiar. Once a week, it seems, some pundit will trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to America’s enemies: al-Qaida, Saddam, Iran. Arendt’s academic chorus continues to swell, sounding the most elusive notes of her least political texts while ignoring her prescient remarks about Zionism and imperialism. Academic careers are built on interpretations of her work, and careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.
Robin’s reference to the “academic chorus” and “careerism” hit home. Although I never met Hannah Arendt, I got to know her husband Heinrich Blucher and her close friend Hans Jonas fairly well. What you can say about them all is that they stood on their principles. Try as hard as I may, I could not see any of them running a Hannah Arendt Center dedicated to building a cult around a dead philosopher. They were far too thorny in their beliefs to become a cog in the academic bureaucracy.
I guess in some ways it was what I learned from Blucher and Jonas that made me into the person I am today. Although Blucher renounced the Marxism of his youth, he asked me to read and write about Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” in 1963. It was the first time I read a thinker who had been likened to Adolph Hitler during the depths of the Cold War. I also value the education I got from Hans Jonas who would go on to become a foundational thinker for the German Green Movement through essays like “The Outcry of Mute Things” that ends:
The latest revelation—from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the Sermon, from no Bo (tree of Buddha)—is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.
Those are the values I live by, no matter the use that some people try to make of the generation of German exiles who deserve better than being turned into philosophers of the predator drones.