Book Review

Richard H. King’s Reply to Critics

By Richard H. King

This is the final entry in the Arendt and America roundtable series. Here are the links for the Introduction, Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.

It is a rare privilege to get to respond directly to a cluster of reviews and to have them be so well-considered and interesting to engage with. Thanks to Mira Siegelberg, Neil Roberts, John Burt and Seyla Benhabib for taking the time to respond to my book and for making this happen. Lilian Calles Barger did the hard work of organizing this whole process and she deserves the credit for the fact that four reviews plus my response appeared together at all.  Finally, thanks to S-USIH for creating such an interesting blog.  RHK

The Time of Arendt’s Thinking

Though each of my critics chooses a different path into Arendt and America, one way or another they all touch on the controversial social v. political distinction in Arendt’s thought. Borrowing from Mira Siegelberg’s subtle reflections on judgement and understanding, I would characterize Arendt and America as an attempt to understand the efforts of one woman to think about the United States, as an entity, an idea, an experience, and a staging area for political modernity. My object was to track the logic of her historical judgements about the United States over the time.  Arendt was no historicist in the sense of shying away from normative judgements about past actions and institutions; nor did she believe that we should confine an idea’s importance to the time of its occurrence; otherwise, we would never even make use of an idea. At the same time much of what she was grabbed by was a shocking or provocative historical event. Typically, she began in media res. For her and husband, Heinrich Blücher, “what was decisive was the day we heard about Auschwitz” in 1943. All they could think, she remembered was their reaction: “This ought not to have happened.”[1] Only by understanding the importance of Auschwitz for her can we also understand the importance of America in her thought. America became a refuge, a place to start over and think about politics differently, and, of course, a disappointment. Above all, it became her political home, the republic where she could call herself a citizen.

In her essay “What Remains? On Historical Judgement and Hannah Ardent” Siegelberg raises a salient interpretive, that is, hermeneutic issue, related to the distinction between the political and the social: how did her private utterances relate to her public intellectual and moral judgements? In a letter to Blücher in the spring of 1955, Arendt referred very favourably to the intellectual abilities of one of her African students at Berkeley, but used a stereotypical nickname to describe his appearance. How does such unpublished material shed light on her published thinking about race? Did Arendt mean her private utterances more—or less–than she meant her public ones? Where and when are our opinions most ours: when we speak to ourselves, our close friends or partners or when we deploy them publicly? Stanley Cavell asked, “Must we mean what we say?” But just as relevant are questions such as “where and when do we mean what we say?” and “How (seriously) do we mean what we say?” I don’t know of any agreement on such issues or even if it would be desirable. Siegelberg’s exposition of the complex relationship between the private and public—and the distinction is almost never easy to make neatly—also reminds us that Arendt often spoke prematurely, occasionally heedlessly, about the serious matters she took up. Journalist Samuel Grafton thought her whole Eichmann project was historically premature, while I wonder whether there will ever be a right time to speak about the issues she raised in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), as witness the re-awakened controversy over the banality of evil and the alleged complicity of the Jewish Councils after the showing of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt (2012). This also reminds us how important the concepts of “ahead of time,” “the right time,” or “it’s about time” are for the intellectual historian as he or she seeks to understand and judge.

Neil Roberts’ rich “Arendt: American Revolutionary?” proposes several issues for discussion. Yes, DuBoisian double-consciousness illuminates more than just the experience of African Americans. Why not think through more explicitly Arendt’s own kind of pluralized identity: European Jewish, stateless refugee, White Jewish American? Roberts also wonders why I don’t deal more with her big book, The Human Condition (1958), since it was there that Arendt most fully developed the notion of the “social.” It’s difficult to remember my original thought, but I know I wanted On Revolution(1963) to be the intellectual center of Arendt and America. Early in my research and writing, I read a claim that The Human Condition was really her first book about America! My initial reaction was that this was too clever by more than a half. Yet the remark sank in and I would like someone to make that case, though I didn’t want it to be me. A related reason I didn’t take on The Human Condition directly was that I didn’t want my book to be yet another long march through the Arendt oeuvre, i.e. if this is the late 1950s, it must be time for The Human Condition. Put another way, there are other routes to the social/political distinction in Arendt’s work.[2]

No doubt about it—I spent too much time on Eichmann in Jerusalem but I don’t know how I could have avoided it. Initially, I didn’t want to deal with Arendt’s most controversial book at all. In fact, I had already written a chapter on it in my Race, Culture and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970(2004). But the effect of the von Trotta film and the ensuing exchanges between Richard Wolin for the prosecution and Seyla Benhabib for the defense of Arendt convinced me that the case (still) had an important American arendt and americacomponent and that it had shaped much of her subsequent work. Moreover, Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann before Jerusalem appeared in English the summer before I submitted my manuscript in December. It revealed a lot more about the man Arendt characterized as a “clown.” All this made me want to try to recapture something about the impact of Eichmann in Jerusalem in the United States, particularly the way it divided the American Jewish community, particularly Arendt’s colleagues among the New York intellectuals—and still does, but to a lesser degree. Pioneering work had been done on the book’s impact in America by Jennifer Ring and Dagmar Barnouw, but some of it needed bringing up to date.  Upon reflection, the controversy over the Judenräte was a more serious issue than the banality of evil thesis, which has, of course, entered into our common consciousness and is now used frequently, even promiscuously.

John Burt gets down to specifics in his essay when he makes the best possible case for the proximity between Madisonian liberalism, based on the claim that heterogeneity and plurality create stability and tolerance, and the Arendt’s modern republicanism. From Burt’s perspective, Madison’s Federalist Paper #10 is not the paean to liberal pluralism/interest group liberalism described by twentieth century liberal political scientists. Like Tocqueville later, Madison saw plurality as both a social and political phenomenon and #10 repeatedly referred to both the public interest and particular interests. He assumes that the public interest can emerge via the deliberation of the legislative branch; in fact, that just is the way politics should work in the new republic.[3] To Rousseau, Burt suggests, this would have been a mark of the “politics of corruption,” while for Madison it was a “worldly” kind of politics. Burt’s larger point is that Arendt should have paid more attention to the Madisonian version of the liberal tradition in America, which closely resembled what Alexis de Tocqueville referred to as “self-interest well understood” in Democracy in America.[4] Thus, a politics that acknowledges competing social and economic interests can also be operate with an idea of public good that is more robust than a thin notion of system-maintenance. For instance, Burt contends that Lincoln did not sacrifice the public interest in the name of the hugely powerful faction based in the slave states. In contrast with Arendt, Burt thinks that there are ways of negotiating the conflict between the political good and contending social interests. At least they are not different in some quasi-ontological sense. But when the stand-off became irresolvable regarding the expansion of slavery, Lincoln shrewdly pitched the North’s argument to privilege the political, i.e. the Union or the Republic, over the social, i.e. slavery.

Fair enough. But this is not all there was to Arendt’s concept of the political. There is nothing in Burt’s republican liberalism that makes citizen participation a sine qua non. In fact, Madison explicitly rejected direct democracy. Arendt contended that the absence of direct democracy of some sort in the Constitution, e.g. the ward system, was a chief weaknesses of the Constitution. In her own lifetime, she settled for representative democracy but sought institutional-constitutional guarantees for the idea of civil disobedience as the last, best remnant of republicanism. But Burt also reminds us that Arendt bucked mid-twentieth century conventional wisdom when she insisted that American had had a revolution. Her larger point was that there were two sorts of modern revolution—the Jacobin/Bolshevik tradition of elite leadership and the American republican/ council tradition of democratic participation. I also think that Burt underplays the persisting, at times strong, presence of republican rhetoric well into the Civil War. Still, Lincoln, as John P. Diggins argued long ago, was not a republican but a Republican. The revival of citizen participation would only take place as freedmen made their way into politics in the South after the war.

But where John Burt explores nineteenth century American political culture, Seyla Benhabib’s essay “Ardent’s American Republicanism”  raises the questions of the relationship of republicanism to the larger economy of the late eighteenth century (property vs. virtue)  and to what extent republicanism is still viable as a theory of the state and politics  Behind the first concern lies the justified suspicion that republicanism is a kind of backward-looking, literally reactionary, concept which has no way of being realized in the contemporary world. There is a good bit of sense to this charge, but I would also note that Arendt’s republicanism, at its best, was oriented toward the future as much as to the past, in contrast with classical republicanism. Second, Arendt was also much more interested in the attempt, through speech and action, to bring something new into the political world than she was concerned with the cultivation of virtue as such. There is a strong undertow toward the past in the concept of virtue that seems to assume a polis or republic in need of a revival. My own sense is that Arendtian republicanism is now most valuable as a way of thinking about what is involved in the transition from authoritarian/ totalitarian state regimes to something that looks more like democracy. The great republican event for Arendt after WWII was the Hungarian Revolution in 1956/7. But this also points in turn to the Dubcek-led uprising in 1968 and later the Velvet Revolution led by Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, and then the Mandela and Tutu-led regime change in South Africa, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being one of the most interesting Arendtian institutions to emerge. In America, the Civil Rights Movement emphasized the reappearance of the participatory dimension to politics.

I agree with Benhabib that I might have done more to “tease(d) out clashes” among the various meanings of the social in my book. But the concept is so shapeless and all-encompassing in Arendt’s thought (Hanna F. Pitkin referred to it as the “Blob”) that I was afraid that it would take over the book if I explored every strand of its meaning(s). I did try to suggest that Arendt’s animus against mass society in The Origins of Totalitarianism(1951) fed easily into her concept of the social, though she always thought mass society was less of a danger in the US than it had been in Europe. Part of what I had in mind was closely related to what Benhabib mentions in connection with Riesman and Heidegger—the self-alienation of mass society. I would also mention here Patrician Owens’ recent book linking the politics of community organizing of a certain type with the ethos of the social, based on hierarchy and determinism, while Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man(1974) envisioned making the social more political by trying to encourage public sociality amongst strangers to counteract the tyranny of the intimate and small group.[5]

Finally, was Arendt right in 1975 when she warned in her “Home to Roost” essay, cited by Benhabib, that the country was threatened with precipitous decline in coherenKingphotoce and purpose? At the time, I was more optimistic than Arendt, as I remember. I am always suspicious of jeremiads, whether religious or republican. Still, in retrospect, Arendt, not the optimists, might have been right. It is finally one of the measures of Arendt’s stature as a thinker that we can still find cogency in her critique of the America of her time, not to mention other issues, especially the possibility of a politics involves more than the pursuit of power and the satisfaction of private interests.

[1] Hannah Arendt “‘What remains?’ The Language Remains’: A Conversation with Günter Gaus,” in Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, ed. by Jerome Kohn (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994), 13-14.

[2] Eurocentrism was difficult to shake and Arendt was certainly no exception. When Fidel Castro came to the US in 1959, he was invited to speak at Princeton where Arendt was in residence as a visiting professor at work on what became On Revolution. In his address, Castro contrasted the revolutionary tradition of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks with the tradition of 1776 in the United States, asserting that the Cuban revolution belonged in the latter not former tradition. If this sounds familiar, it is precisely the contrast between the American and French Revolutions that would be so prominent in On Revolution. In addition, Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl notes that Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, were enthusiastic supporters of the Cuban Revolution in its early stages. So the story of Arendt and non-European revolutions is perhaps more complex than we may have thought. See and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982), 389.

[3] Madison’s classic statement is: “The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country…” Federalist Paper, #10.

[4] Quoted in Arendt and American (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 501-02.

[5] Patricia Owens, Economy of force: counterinsurgency and the historical rise of the social, Studies in International Relations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism (New York: Vintage, 1978/1974).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Richard,

    Thanks so much for this summing up of your replies. Much appreciated.

    I loved this nugget from your comments on Siegelberg’s review: ” This also reminds us how important the concepts of “ahead of time,” “the right time,” or “it’s about time” are for the intellectual historian as he or she seeks to understand and judge.”

    I have often wondered when, precisely, “historical perspective” is achieved? There is no set time, of course. The best perspective might come 5 minutes after, 5 days later, 5 years beyond, or 50 years later. History ripens at its own pace, relative to the strengths and weaknesses of the observers.

    In your reply to Burt, I love this distinction you (or Burt) mention in the context of Lincoln—the idea of the public interest being larger, and sometimes in conflict with, compromise. Sometimes the best interest of the public is no compromise. But how do we know what that best interest is? …Sorry if this is getting off topic.

    – Tim

  2. Tim–Sorry. I just was trawling through the thread(can you do that?) and saw your comment. I’m glad you focused in on that bit about the temporality of interpretation. I haven’t thought through all the implications but it does mean that interpretations of a text or idea will change inevitably. The second point re compromise and the public interest is probably John’s originally, but I do concur with him. There is also a distinction made by some political theorists between the “public interest” and the “common good” which makes this issue even more complex. The most immediate upshot is that it is never easy to arrive at what the civic humanists call the “common good” and that is why both Marxists and Liberals are sceptical of the notion.

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