Archive for June 19th, 2010

Hannah Arendt on racism…

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

Hannah Arendt, about the time she wrote her dissertation on the concept of love in the thought of Saint Augustine, under Karl Jaspers

Last month, I wrote about an international conference on Hannah Arendt — best known for her Eichmann in Jerusalem (which coined the term “banality of evil”); article is here.  At the conference, the organizers played a 3-minute clip of the political philosopher speaking — Arendt’s friend  Gerhard Casper and others called it “vintage Arendt.”

It was the first time I had heard her voice — so thickly accented in her native German  it’s almost impossible at times to decode, even though she had, by that time, spent more than two decades in America.  I wanted to include the sound clip with the article — to give a flavor of one of the last century’s most powerful thinkers.

No joy.  My ever-vigilant editors didn’t want to run the clip unless they could clear copyright permission.  We traced the talk back to a 1968 Bard College lecture that was once available online, but which had mysteriously disappeared.  Was it withdrawn because of flagrant copyright violations resulting from the link?

Never underestimate the power of the boo-boo.  We finally heard from Bard last week.  The clips had inadvertantly been dropped from the website during an update.  The link has been restored.  And we, belatedly, will be including it in the article.

Until that time, I include the links  here and here.  It’s more than three minutes.  I transcribed a short portion on the justifications of violence, and racism, before getting overwhelmed by the (at times) impenetrable accent.

Here she goes:

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“We all know to what an extent the old combination of violence, life, and creativity has survived in rebellious state of mind of the new generation.  Their taste for violence is again accompanied by the glorification of life, and it frequently understands itself as a necessarily violent negation of everything that stands in the way of the will to live.  … Nothing, I think, is more dangerous theoretically than this tradition of organic thought. You saw it in all three:  revolution and power and violence.  You saw it in the concept of progress,  in the concept of power, and in the concept of violence. … The precedence of violence is justified on the grounds of creativity.”

“So long as we talk about these matters in non-political, biological terms, the glorifiers of violence will have the great advantage to appeal to the undeniable experiences inherent in the practice of violent action.  The danger of being carried away by the deceptive plausibility of such metaphors is particularly great, of course, where racial issues are involved.  Racism, white or black, is fraught with violence by definition, because it objects to natural, organic facts — the white or black skin, which no persuasion and no power could change.  All one can do when the chips are down is exterminate their bearers. Violence,  interracial struggle is always murderous, but it is not irrational.  It is the logical and rational consequence of racism — by which I do not mean some rather vague prejudices on either side, but an explicit ideological system.  Today’s violence, black riots, and the much greater potential for white backlash, are not yet manifestations of racist ideologies and their murderous logic.  The riots, as has recently been stated, are a particular protest against genuine grievances — and much the same is true for the backlash phenomena.  The greatest danger is rather the other way around:  since violence always needs justification, an escalation of the violence industry may bring about a truly racist ideology to justify it, in which case violence and riots may disappear from the streets and be transformed into the invisible terror of the police state.”

The Q&A session is supposed to be particularly interesting — haven’t gotten to that yet, but if I’m up to it, I’ll include a few notes later.