Richard J. Bernstein’s book Why Read Hannah Arendt Now (Polity, 2018) attempts to draw significant parallels between the historical problems and perplexities that Arendt addressed in her own lifetime and a seemingly similar set of dangerous tendencies in current political affairs. The application of Arendt’s perceptive analyses of past political phenomenon to illuminate our understanding of current problems is admirable, because so many of her insights are of enduring value and relevance.
Bernstein concentrates on a set of central themes or undercurrents in Arendt’s writing that certainly appear to be relevant today. However, while there are superficial parallels between post-WWI (World War I) migrants and the current European immigration crisis, or between past and current right wing nationalist movements, to reductively transpose the situations Arendt’s writing addressed to the current European or American milieu would be to fall prey to exactly the kind of unreflective, facile assumptions that so vexed her. As Arendt herself wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Caution in handing generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”
While Berstein’s book makes some mildly feasible comparisons, it is somewhat too selective in its application of Arendt’s ideas. For example, he likens the Kafkaesque difficulties that European Jewish refugees experienced to the obstacles that Syrian Muslim refugees now confront in seeking legal entry into the United States, noting the “suspicion and hostility” directed at both groups. However, what Bernstein does not mention is that Syrian Muslims have been a privileged category of refugee in The United States and the United Kingdom, where there has been an ongoing pattern of discrimination since at least 2015 favouring Muslims over Yazidis and Christians – two groups that face severe persecution from ISIS in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, approximately 96% of the Syrian refugees admitted to the United States by the Obama administration have been Sunni Muslim.1 This despite the fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that ISIS was committing genocide against groups under its control including Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims, but not Sunni Muslims.
Bernstein may also not know that, instead of facing labyrinthine bureaucratic obstacles to enter the United States, a 2018 Department of Homeland Security audit report on the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) screening procedures for known or suspected terrorists showed that it had not complied with correct procedures in every single case that was checked, often failing even to run initial background checks.2
“Suspicion and hostility” seem to be conspicuously absent, not only from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, but also from the establishment’s liberal media which gave sweeping public support to immigrants and refugees. At the peak of the migration crisis, when thought, speech and debate about the future implications of mass migration from mostly Muslim majority countries ought to have been at a zenith, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was overheard being pressured by the German Chancellor to stem criticisms of her migration policy on social media, The Guardian turned off its “comments” section on the topic, and anyone who attempted to raise the issue of how mass migration of religiously-defined identity groups could impact upon European values was unambiguously tarred with the “right wing” brush.
The United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is an inter-governmentally negotiated agreement that was prepared ahead of a meeting held on 10 – 11 December, 2018 in Marrakech, Morocco under the auspices of the United Nations. The participating countries signed this joint agreement and while it is not legally binding, it is intended to provide the legal framework on which the participating countries commit themselves to build new legislation extending hate speech to cover criticism of migration policies. Because it declares migration as a human right it will have the effect of outlawing criticism of governmental migration policies as instances of hate speech. Marcel De Graff, a member of the European Parliament said in response to the pact, “The agreement wants to criminalise migration speech. Criticism of migration will become a criminal offence.”
A 2015 report showed that Kuwait had put the most money toward resettlement of Syrian refugees with over $101 million, but had offered no resettlement places to Syrian refugees. Neither have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Bahrain.3 Yet none of the Western media’s news reports cast aspersions on these Arabic states for their xenophobia or inhumanity.
Bernstein quotes Arendt’s warning against “credibility gaps” and “invisible government” — forces that extinguish the public’s illumination of “the affairs of men” (Men in Dark Times,1968). But while heart-rending broadcasts about the immigration crisis abounded, there was no serious analysis as to its causes or the relationship between mass immigration to Europe and North America and the machinations of shadowy supra-national organisations such as the ‘Istanbul Process’ or the ‘Budapest Process’ and their aims of developing, in their own words, “comprehensive and sustainable systems for orderly migration”.
Bernstein’s book also revisits Arendt’s Zionism and her self-correcting defection from the movement. But here too Bernstein limits his focus primarily to her recommendations for dealing with the Arab-Jewish problem in Palestine, which included a federated state based on mixed Jewish-Arab local councils. Bernstein underscores her warning that Israel as a Jewish nation-state would continue to be plagued by the issue of how to protect the rights and citizenship of its Arab population and laments that her observations were not taken seriously at the time.
This does have remarkable relevance today but so too do Arendt’s own realisations about her romanticisation of Zionism. As Bernstein notes, Arendt responded to the ominous ascendency of Nazism by allying and working with her Zionist friends. She even secured employment in Zionist organisations, and wrote about a new category of human being – one that is put into concentration camps by their foes and into internment camps by their friends. Bernstein empahsises that she eventually grew uneasy with Zionism’s extreme revisionism and its growing demands for ideological conformity. Zionists at the time, says Bernstein, saw no alternative to their dream of founding a Jewish nation-state that Arendt perceived would only lead to militant nationalism on both sides. But this is where Bernstein’s parallels stop.
Arendt herself realised that she had been duped by her own prejudices and background beliefs into aligning herself with a fanatical movement that had become a glaring example of the very brand of intolerant chauvinism she had meant to oppose. She realised that socialism’s once inspirational, revolutionary and progressive ideals had fallen under the spell of ‘dialectical necessity’ and unambiguous victimhood. Consequently the socialist, revolutionary Jewish national movement with its lofty ideals had been transformed into an intolerant aggressor guilty of the very crimes of which it had claimed to be a victim. Just as Arendt’s critique of the Zionist movement’s chauvinism made her a scandal, so today have ex-Muslims Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali been demonised as ‘right-wing’ and ‘Islamophobic’ for speaking honestly about Salafi-Wahhabism’s colonising ambitions to impose a caliphate and sharia law, and its deceptive victim narrative that has captivated leftist anti-War activists and Marxists who share with Islamists a common frustration at the lack of success in opposing Western military interventionism and hypocrisy. But Bernstein never draws this parallel, nor does he mention the glaring similarities between Arendt’s naive courtship of Zionism and the liberal left’s current exploitation by Islamist strategists who have successfully exploited various European leftists’ existing grievances against the West or capitalism. For example, because of shared opposition to the West, Stop The War Coalition (STwC), whose officers span the Labour Party, Green Party, Respect, National Union of Students, trade unions and far-Left groups, have a cordial relationship with the Islamist group CAGE. In cooperating with Islamists, some Marxists maintained an underlying assumption that they would eventually steer Muslims by degrees from Islamism to socialism. In reality the steering seems to have gone the other way round.
Despite her lifelong condemnation of racist ideology and the deeds to which it leads, Arendt distinguished between social prejudices (against which she thought the state should not legislate) and officially sanctioned, state-sponsored discrimination (which she saw as far more dangerous and unconstitutional). Similarly, today many people (including Muslims) agree that social customs like the burqa and hijab are symbols of patriarchal sexism and gender apartheid, but nevertheless they do not think that the state should legislate against social customs. Arendt saw discrimination in the social realm as unfortunate but thought that it would be wrong to legislate against it because to do so would be to impose a state-sponsored moral code on everyone, which amounted to ideological totalitarianism. Instead, she thought that civil liberties could better be protected by barring the legal enforcement of prejudiced customs.
Bernstein finds fault with Arendt’s principled stance against federally imposed integration of public schools. She worried about the legal enforcement of social integration because she did not see a need to legislate against the social custom of voluntary segregation, which was practiced on both sides of America’s racial divide. Instead, the remedy for voluntary segregation is voluntary de-segregation and social activism among non-prejudiced people, including spontaneous actions like public speech about the ills of racial segregation, freely associating with the ‘other’, etcetera. In other words, racial desegregation in America should happen in the same way that liberals today believe gender desegregation will happen among conservative Muslims – by individual agency and choice. Arendt correctly saw the miscegenation laws that existed in 29 states as a more flagrant breach of the constitution than the unenforced but habitual segregation of schools. She was not against desegregation as such but only the proposed means of bringing it about.
Bernstein seems to think Arendt is only right when she agrees with his views on racism. For example, while he disparages her opposition to state-enforced integration, he cites her prediction that state-enforced integration would not work anyway in solving de facto segregation to add credence to his view that racial segregation and discrimination are as bad or worse today than they were in 1957. But there is a credibility gap between Bernstein’s picture of the situation, which resembles that of the mainstream media’s, and the colossal hegemonic taboo of racism of which the current moral panic over racism is symptomatic.
Likewise, Bernstein conspicuously waters down Arendt’s highly relevant remarks on white guilt, constraining his mention of this topic to her critique of “collective guilt” and showing how it applied to her post-War critique of the Adenauer administration for its reluctance to put on trial Nazi’s who had been personally responsible for murder. So, while he does cite On Violence (1970), he never mentions her highly relevant observation that it had become fashionable among white liberals to cry “we are all guilty” in response to Negro grievances. Where all are guilty, she says, no one is. Confessions of collective guilt are the best safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime becomes an excuse for resignation. This kind of abstract, heightened ‘racism’ was, she thought, dangerous because it is highly mythological and sets up an irreconcilable conflict between collective guilt and collective innocence. The slogan that “all white men are guilty”, was, in her view, racism in reverse and an irrational escape from reality (On Violence, 1970, p. 65).
Since much of her writing is imbued with a dread of ideology, we should be wary of any simple ideological reading of suggestive juxtapositions. Ideological propaganda works by exploiting existing totems and taboos rather than trying to instill entirely new ways of thinking into the masses. Propagandists use parcels of truth to weave overarching lies. This makes issues such as racism a powerful tool in the arsenal of cynical ideologues. Propaganda experts like Arendt, Jacques Ellul and Edward Bernays have observed that ideologies begin by problematising some area of life in order to prepare their audience to accept as necessary their proffered solutions. So it is important that in our diagnosis of today’s problems we are cautious in deciphering between problems that exist because of the neoliberal establishment’s propaganda machine and those that exist in the real (unmediated) world that we can observe through the evidence of our senses.
Arendt’s philosophical works can serve both as a warning about present-day nationalism in Europe and Israel and, less obviously, can also give us reason to pause and take stock of the mythological peddling of ubiquitous ‘Islamophobia’ or racism.
1Klein, Joseph A., CFP United Nations Columnist, ‘Obama’s Syrian Refugee Policy Discriminates Against Christian Victims of Genocide’, Canadian Free Press, June 3, 2016, accessed at: https://canadafreepress.com/article/obamas-syrian-refugee-policy-discriminates-against-christian-victims-of-gen
2Harrington, Elizabeth, ‘Obama’s ICE Didn’t Follow Procedure For Checking Illegal Immigrants Ties to Terror’, at Washinton Free Beacon, January 16, 2018. Accessed online at: https://freebeacon.com/national-security/obamas-ice-didnt-follow-procedure-for-checking-illegal-immigrants-ties-to-terrorism/ AND Homeland Security report of the Office of the Inspector General, 5 January, 2018. PDF version Here: https://www.oversight.gov/sites/default/files/oig-reports/OIG-18-36-Jan18.pdf
3 Amnesty International, ‘Facts & Figures: Syria refugee crisis and internatoinal resettlement’, 5 December, 2014, accessed online at https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/12/facts-figures-syria-refugee-crisis-international-resettlement/ See Also, The Daily Hive (Vancouver), ‘How Much Money are Countries Spending on teh Syrian refugee Crisis?’, Sept. 4, 2015 accessed online at: https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/money-countries-spending-syrian-refugee-crisis/