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Thursday, February 22, 2018

The enduring drama of hating Arendt's Eichmann

Arendt on Eichmann is like the ax that can never be buried for American Jews. Only once you're deep in the Arendt weeds, among only a select subset of scholars and far beyond the reach of regular educated people, will you finally be out of hearing range of the accusations of Arendt's anti-Semitism. But the problem is that you probably never want to find yourself in those weeds, which are full of other predators. So you probably have to stay out in the open with the accusations: Arendt exonerated Eichmann and accused the Jews of facilitating their own destruction by cooperating with the Nazis. Every educated American Jew over a certain age will tell you this, unless he is one of the few grazing out there in the weeds with the snakes. And then the weed-eaters will respond with, no, Arendt was a great genius who spoke five languages and actually fled Nazis while her critics were just provincial rubes.

Ruth Wisse's is probably one of the better versions of this accusation. She goes through the long (so long) history of the accusation and concludes that Arendt's real motivation was not to cover the Eichmann trial but "to impose her understanding on the trial" and
to reclaim Eichmann for German philosophy. She did not exonerate Nazism and in fact excoriated the postwar Adenauer government for not doing enough to punish known Nazi killers, but she rehabilitated the German mind and demonstrated how that could be done by going—not beyond, but around, good and evil. She came to erase Judaism philosophically, to complicate its search for moral clarity, and to unseat a conviction like Bellow’s that “everybody…knows what murder is.”
Taken in one sense that's clearly not right, since throughout her writing, she argues that "the German mind" insofar as it's part of the Western tradition is dead, and was killed by the rise of modern totalitarianisms. That is the reason for the moral unclarity, the inability to rely on conventional categories of judgment. In another sense, insofar as "the German mind" is her own mind and its particular education and cultivation (that is, the education of all German intellectuals of her generation), it might be closer to the truth. She did think she was especially well-equipped to understand the transformations of the twentieth century, and perhaps she was wrong on that count, but this either boils down to an accusation of vanity, or is really another accusation, more limited than the one that Wisse purports to make here but also one with a history, which is that Arendt is really just a secret or unwitting (most such accusers claim that she was, somehow, both) Heideggerian, and by extension, a kind of proto-Nazi herself.

The Heidegger stuff aside, I agree with Wisse that Arendt used and perhaps misused the Eichmann trial as a vehicle to further develop the theory of totalitarianism she had laid out in The Origins of Totalitarianism. But I would like to offer one corrective to Wisse's condemnation, and that is this: in hindsight especially, that theory is more important than Wisse allows.

Most of the writers and scholars who accuse Arendt of whitewashing Eichmann and villifying Israel and the Jewish communal leaders of Europe - in short those who reject the book - are of the generation that was born during or right after the war. For them, the Holocaust was a shocking revelation, its full scope unknown to the American public until years after the war's end. And just as its details and real extent were beginning to emerge into public consciousness, along came "Miss Arendt" to downplay its gravity and even blame the victims. Her timing could not have been worse.

But, a generation or two later, the situation was quite changed. Arendt's intervention had precisely zero effect on the American understanding of the Holocaust. By the 1980s and '90s, the Holocaust was well-established in the public consciousness and was the center of American Jewish self-consciousness. To be Jewish in America was to have a personal connection to it, the closer the better, but a connection to some lesser but parallel form of anti-Semitic violence - a pogrom, perhaps, or the Inquisition, if you had to dig that far back in the family history - would do if necessary. It became a ubiquitous element of the school curriculum - one program, "Facing History and Ourselves," was taught around the country, culminating at some schools in trips to Auschwitz. By the 1990s, no one in America was uncomfortable calling the Nazis evil. In fact, the functional definition of evil had more or less become the Holocaust. There was absolutely no difficulty thinking about it in moral terms, as a battle between good and evil.

The difficulty turned out to be precisely that is was so easy to moralize. Because the Holocaust became a kind of shorthand for all kinds of evil, to be offered to children as the apocalyptic scenario most to be feared, it was so excessively moralized as to become completely de-politicized. It has come to be understood as an example of personal moral failure on a vast scale, or really the sum of many personal moral failures. Many Germans, individually, began to harbor these negative "stereotypes" and "prejudices" (the great buzzwords of my elementary schooling) about Jews, and as these prejudices and stereotypes spread across the land, the people who held them got together and became essentially large-scale playground bullies to the Jews: first persecuting and then killing then. So, goes the moral of this story, if you want to prevent the next Holocaust, don't be prejudiced, and don't be a bully. Remember: every time you pick on a classmate or spread malicious gossip about your friends, you are taking the first step towards another Holocaust. And don't let other people be prejudiced bullies either. Thus, the ubiquitous poem, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist..." Thus, the plots of all children's books about the Holocaust. Everything is about the moral failures of individuals to do the right thing and stand up to the bad guys.

It all sounds vaguely plausible, especially to a child, since it's essentially an account of the Holocaust modeled on childhood social life. The problem is, of course, that in the terms of the poem, if you had spoken out on behalf of the Socialists, the Trade Unionists, etc., you would've been killed right along with them. The Holocaust was not the result of playground bullying on a national scale. It was a political event and it has to be understood in political terms - in terms of regimes and political philosophy, in terms of national histories, in terms of European statecraft. Precisely the argument that Podhoretz used against Arendt has to be explained: "It is one thing to hate Jews, but it is quite another to contemplate the wholesale slaughter of Jews.” As Arendt points out in Eichmann, most European nations had developed robust traditions of virulent anti-Semitism by the time of the war. And yet only one of them contemplated the wholesale slaughter of Jews, and that one was, perplexingly, among the least anti-Semitic. How do we account for that?

Political explanations involving regimes and history are beyond the grasp of schoolchildren, so they were dispensed with, and the moral failure explanation won out. But at a cost. It diminished mainstream Judaism, elevating the experience of victimhood to its center and pushing the "philosophical Judaism" that Wisse values (and even simply Jewish observance) to the sidelines. It gave at least two decades' worth of children a dumbed-down and dangerously misleading understanding of political evil. And ultimately, it turned the Holocaust into treacle.

Unlike the generation whose schooling was in a sense rebutted by the discovery of the Holocaust, mine was infused with the Holocaust all the time - we read about it every year, we wrote essays pretending to have experienced it, we even did a mock Nuremberg trial at some point. I had read every children's book about the Holocaust that my school and public libraries possessed by the third grade. (It should be noted that my experience, having taking place in Skokie, was perhaps more extreme than most, but the basic themes were widespread.) And it always came down to the same point: don't be mean, or you will start a Holocaust. But what was odd was that I was frequently mean, and yet no genocide ever resulted. The result was that, by the end of middle school, this understanding of the Holocaust made Judaism look to me like a hysterical and overbearing cult of victimhood, which I had no interest in joining. When I came across Finklestein's The Holocaust Industry at the library in high school (again, the Skokie Public Library may not entirely resemble your public library in these regions of the Dewey Decimal System...), I couldn't help but seeing his point. This, I take it, is not where Wisse wants the moral view of the Holocaust to take us. 

When I read Eichmann in college, it was a revelation. Here was an account of the Holocaust that explained Nazism as a political event, a regime that developed out of and in opposition to liberalism, rather than a random burst of coordinated meanness. To say the Holocaust was political is not to say that it was specific to 1930s Germany, or to deny anyone's responsibility for it. Arendt's is not some intricate structuralist story that denies human agency. But it does account for the problem that is so obvious even to children: if prejudice leads to genocide, and prejudice is so common, then why are genocides so rare? Wisse is right that Arendt co-opted the  trial to elaborate her pre-conceived arguments, but those arguments were not conceived on the spot and they were not so obviously wrong. Our understanding of Nazis as evil is already so deeply embedded that Arendt's description of Eichmann as banal is unlikely to result in a revaluation of all values, though it might direct some doubts towards bureaucracy and obsession with the imperative to purify one's thoughts of all biases. Having reached our limit of Holocaust moralism, Americans might benefit from some Arendt-as-antidote.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The nose that spited my face

It had to happen someday given my defective nasal constitution, but I finally had a nosebleed while teaching. Actually, it was just before teaching, and I had to go to my class to inform them that due to the obvious fact that my nose was bleeding, our start would have to be delayed, then leave, then return again post-bleed to resume instruction with much-diminished dignity.

Not my finest teaching moment, to say the least.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

How to teach children what you don't know yourself

Now that Goomba is talking and even arguing with us ("There is no cat in that book." "Yes! Yes! Kitty innit!"), we are shifting our thoughts a little from how to keep her alive to how to educate her. Aside from questions about formal schooling, we wonder, would we want her to learn music of some kind? A set of fundamental life skills? Play a sport? Speak a foreign language? Observe a (our) religion? Yes, we think. And then we consider how we can teach her all this, and we conclude - as all bourgie American parents do - that we must give her lessons. Swimming lessons, violin lessons, tennis lessons, Hebrew school, drawing classes, Latin lessons (ok, admittedly, this has not yet been vetted by Mr. Self-Important but it will happen), and so on. Very quickly, it becomes evident that we will 1) need to be much richer to afford all this, and 2) inevitably produce an Organization Kid.

I used to assume that the obsession with classes and lessons and other forms of scheduled, formal instruction denounced by all the contemporary Ivy League Lamenters and Scolders of the Elite came from overambitious, hyper-competitive parents with totally unrealistic expectations for their children's personal achievement and their future professional and social status. Affluent parents forced their kids to study and practice and do all these crazy activities because they heard they were desperate to get them on the narrow road to Yale, Harvard Law, Goldman Sachs, a house in Palo Alto, and a comfortable retirement. But now I wonder if what's really behind these changes in the parenting practices of the college-educated is a deficiency more banal and innocent than overweening ambition or competitiveness: ignorance and inability to teach their own children what they believe they should know.

In my case, I've been disabused of most of the charms of the Ivy League, and the things that I want my daughter to learn are determined by what I think enriches life outside of the necessary rigors of school and work. The great problem is that I don't actually know them myself. I don't know music, or art, or any useful foreign language, or my own religion, or even how to swim (sad fact). So if I wanted my children to know them, I'd have to pay for professional instruction. Now, this is not totally true: I probably know tennis and Latin sufficiently to teach them to a child, and Mr. Self-Important can cover the swimming. But it's mostly true, especially for the things that require long-term instruction to really get anywhere, like music, sports, and foreign languages.

Perhaps other much-maligned bourgie parents are like me: they know enough to know what is good, but not enough to know how to do it. What they want their children to know, they can't themselves teach. They have spent their own lives focused on the technocratic pursuit of academic and professional advancement, and while this was not without any personal rewards (many of them can read literature and teach their children to do the same, for example, and there is consequently no shortage of cultural zeal for reading to one's own children), it was also largely at the expense of skills which they subsequently conclude would have improved their adult lives. For example, I now see how my life would be better if I could play music (specifically the banjo, but I will not burden you or my child with these aspirations), though I was completely uninterested in this as a child. So now they wish to correct these oversights for their children, not primarily out of competitiveness or a desire to signal social status, but because they believe it will make the children happier, but find that the only way to do it is through an insane regimen of formal instruction that would horrify all but the most Victorian onlookers. These at least might be able to appreciate the value of drafting a regiment of tutors and governesses for the education of a child, but only one who does not also go to school for 50 hours a week.