Tag Archives: Learning from history

Hannah Arendt

A few weeks ago, my undergraduate seminar spent the week reading selections from Hannah Arendt. I’m no Arendt specialist, of course, and anyway the specialist issues weren’t the point– the seminar was about the Enlightenment tradition and what happened to it over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But the re-encounter reminded me how much I admire Arendt. She’s Exhibit A-1 for us embattled twenty-first-century humanists, an example of what our kind of knowledge can do. Her story also provides some clues about why we’re not doing it here in 2015.

In case you’re unfamiliar with her, Arendt was a German Jew, born in 1906, who did a doctorate in philosophy, escaped the Holocaust by inches, and became one of America’s most prominent intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s. The bombshell event in her career was her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil, which came out first as a New Yorker series, then as a free-standing book. The book was a shocker, among other reasons because it argues (as the sub-title indicates) that evil deeds don’t necessarily come from evil people. Arendt’s Eichmann was a pathetic bureaucrat and careerist, lacking both an ethical core and the capacity for clear thinking. It’s mainly his emptiness that explains his crimes.

That idea pissed people off in 1963, and it still does fifty years later. Serious scholars are still out looking for evidence that Eichmann was actually a criminal mastermind, “one of the greatest mass murderers in history,” in the words of the American political theorist Richard Wolin. Wolin emphasizes how much is at stake in that assessment: “if Eichmann was ‘banal,'” as Arendt claimed, “then the Holocaust itself was banal. There is no avoiding the fact that these two claims are inextricably intertwined. Arendt’s defenders would have us believe, counter-intuitively, that it was the mentalité of dutiful ‘functionaries,’ rather than impassioned anti-Semites, that produced the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, and Auschwitz.”

Well, yes, that’s pretty much Arendt’s point, though she wouldn’t use quite those words. As she sees it, the Holocaust was actually not a unique historical event. Genocide was standard procedure for the ancient Greeks and Romans, those fathers of our Western Civilization; if your country lost a war, she reminds us, the winner killed or enslaved you. That form of genocide ended with modernity, but other forms of mass violence took its place: the “administrative massacres” of European imperialism, the resettlement schemes of Stalinist totalitarianism, industrialized warfare.

Even more shocking, Arendt tells us to expect more Holocaust-like episodes. Modern industrial society needs steadily fewer actual human beings, as the machines get steadily better at doing what once was our work. That makes most of us superfluous, killable. Back in the old days, you couldn’t kill off masses of your own people without reducing your own standard of living, because then who would do the productive work? Now the robots take care of the productivity; most of us are just surplus mouths to feed.

Arendt sees another, related dark side in the modern condition. As the robots replace us in the workplace, we’re all increasingly uncertain about our future paychecks– and we’re willing to do an awful lot to keep them coming. Meaning it’s the decent, respectable family man who’s likely to go the farthest, because he’s got the most to lose. Arendt explains: “under the pressure of the chaotic economic conditions of our time,” the caring husband and father became “an adventurer who with all his anxiety could never be sure of the next day…. It turned out that he was willing to sacrifice conscience, honor and human dignity for the sake of pension, life-insurance, the secure existence of wife and children.”

It’s a lesson about the idiocy of the super-villain theory of history. (See here for more on that.) Arendt tells us we’re all vulnerable to these specifically modern pressures, all potential evil-doers; it’s childish to keep dividing the world between good guys and bad, and we should stop doing it. Back in 1963, Arendt could take it for granted that her readers understood that idea– how the hell can it be controversial in 2015, when all the economic chaos has become so much worse??

Maybe one reason is, Arendt’s take on industrial capitalism comes pretty much straight from Karl Marx. For her as for Marx, crisis is baked into the modern economic system: modern productive forces guarantee moments of over-production and consequent lay-offs. More fundamentally, like Marx she sees a system that isn’t really designed for human beings. It has its own non-human logic, and if we don’t fit into one of the slots it offers, it’ll kick us to the curb. Those aren’t things we’re comfortable hearing in 2015, and there’s lots of pressure on contemporary intellectuals not to say them.

But if Arendt’s diagnosis sounds like Marx, her prescriptions don’t. She doesn’t talk revolution or imagine some gauzy future utopia. Instead, she pushes Culture, of the heavy-duty, old-time sort: reading the Great Books, wrestling with the Big Ideas, even learning the dead languages. She’s constantly tossing around Greek words and fancy philosophical references, and she expects us to look them up if we don’t already know them.

What good’s that supposed to do in a world of robots and mass killing? Arendt’s answer is simple and basic: it will teach us to think clearly and act well, and she gives us Eichmann as the ultimate counter-example. As she presents him, he was neither an illiterate nor a slobbering sadist, instead, simply a man who could apply only empty phrases to his situation, because he’d never acquired the ability to think seriously. In other words, he wasn’t just a “dutiful functionary” (Richard Wolin’s summary of Arendt’s view), but something more frightening– a representative modern man, full of off-the-shelf clichés and plastic reasoning, incapable of seeing through his fake words, incapable even of putting them into logical order.

As we roam our landscape of talking-heads, cable news, and politician sound bites, the Eichmann example should scare the shit out of us.

So I take Arendt’s ultimate message to us as something like this: Humanistic knowledge isn’t there just to beautify our lives or to round out our practical doings, it’s not enrichment. Instead, it’s brutally practical– it’s what separates us from “one of the greatest mass murderers in history.”

Can you get any more practical?

Historians and irony, Part II

My last post talked about historians’ irony, which I presented as a way of approaching the past, a tendency not a specific interpretation. Irony-friendly historians tend to see people as having a limited handle on their circumstances, and even on their own intentions. Not knowing the world or ourselves very well, on this view, we humans regularly blunder into tragedy, generating processes we can’t control and outcomes we didn’t want. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.

I also suggested that irony of that kind is out of fashion nowadays. Not among all historians, and not 100 percent among any historians– as I said last time, we can never give it up altogether, because we know more than the people we study about how their stories turn out. But historians and irony are mostly on the outs right now, and that counts as something important about our era of historical writing. Open a recent history book, and you’re likely to encounter words like “contingency” and “agency.” Even late in the day, these words tell us, things could have gone differently, and individual decisions made a real difference. These words also tell us not to condescend to people in the past– not to view them as the helpless puppets of bigger forces, not to dismiss their efforts, hopes, and ideas, good and bad alike.

Things were REALLY different back in the mid-twentieth century, and they were still mostly different in the mid-seventies, when I got my PhD. In those days, the talk was all about long-term processes, societal changes, and the blindness of historical actors, and you found that talk pretty much everywhere in the profession, among Marxists and Freudians on the political left, modernization theorists and demographers in the middle, political historians on the right. These scholars mostly hated each other, but they agreed on a basic interpretive stance: big forces trumped individual wills.

So what happened? How did the history biz go from mainly-ironic to mainly-non-ironic? The question matters, because it touches on the ideological functions of history knowledge in our times. Mainly-ironic and mainly-non-ironic histories provide different lessons about how the world works.

Of course, some of the change just reflects our improving knowledge of the past. We talk more nowadays about contingency because we know so much more about the details of political change. We talk more about the agency of the downtrodden because we’ve studied them so much more closely– now we know that serfs, slaves, women, and other oppressed groups had their own weapons of small-scale resistance, even amidst terrible oppression. They couldn’t overturn the systems that enclosed them, but they could use what powers they had to carve out zones of relative freedom, in which they could live on their own terms.

And then, there’s what you might call the generational dialectic. Like most other intellectuals, we historians tend to fight with our intellectual parents– so if the mid-twentieth-century historians were all into big impersonal forces and longterm processes, it’s not surprising their successors looked to poke holes in their arguments, by pointing out all the contingencies and agency that the previous generation had missed. That’s one of the big ways our kind of knowledge advances, through criticism and debate. (For a discussion of this process as it works in a neighboring  discipline, see here.)

So there are plenty of reasons internal to the history profession that help account for irony’s ebb– and that’s without even mentioning the decay of Marxism, Freudianism, and all those other -isms that tried to explain individual behavior in terms of vast impersonal forces. Almost nobody finds those explanatory theories as persuasive as we once did, in the history department or anywhere else.

But having said all that, we’re left with an uncomfortable chronological juxtaposition: the historians’ turn to mainly-non-irony coincided with the circa-1980 neo-liberal turn in society at large, the cultural revolution symbolized by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. There’s a substantive juxtaposition as well: while we historians have been rediscovering agency among the downtrodden and freedom of maneuver among political actors, neo-liberal ideology has stressed individuals’ creativity and resourcefulness, their capacity to achieve happiness despite the structures that seem to imprison them. Unleashing market forces, getting people off welfare, reducing individuals’ reliance on public resources– these all start from the presumption that people have agency. They know what they’re doing, and they should be allowed to do it.

In other words, Edward Thompson’s warnings against “the enormous condescension of posterity” weirdly foreshadow various neo-con one-liners about how social programs and collective goods condescend to the disadvantaged. (For an example, check out George Will and George W. Bush talking about cultural “condescension.”)

Which of course is a pretty ironic thought, given that Thompson was a committed political activist and brilliant Marxist theorist. But if it could happen in the 1950s, it can happen now: intellectuals who hate each other and disagree on many specifics can nonetheless be teaching the same basic ideological lessons.

To me this suggests it may be time to rethink concepts like contingency and agency, or at least re-regulate our dosages. Maybe our alertness to agency has diminished our sensitivity to tragedy, to the ways in which circumstances really can entrap and grind down both individuals and whole communities. Maybe we need to think more about the long chains connecting specific political actions and constricting everyone’s freedom.

Maybe we historians need to stop being so damned optimistic!


On Not-Learning-From-History, 1: we’ve got a problem

In my teaching, I usually tell students to be suspicious about “lessons from history.” The past is complicated, I say. Situations differ, and our knowledge about them is always imperfect; usually it’s downright lousy. The main lessons of history concern human ignorance, I usually say; we just don’t know enough about the past to draw lessons from it about the future.

But lately I’ve changed my tune. It’s not that there are no lessons from history, I’ve come to think– actually there are plenty. It’s just that most of them are so obvious and straightforward that we historians take them for granted, as base-line common sense that doesn’t need talking about. That silence wouldn’t be a problem, except that many people– smart, educated, high-minded people– either haven’t learned those low-level lessons from history, or have somehow unlearned them.

So I’ve started to wonder how that Not-Learning-From-History happens. I’ve come to think it’s a complicated and interesting process, which deserves some attention. I’ll have more to say about the process in the next few weeks. Here, I just want to suggest some dimensions of the problem itself– mainly, that it’s really big.

The kind of history lesson I have in mind comes from the realm of political leadership. Of course I’m thinking a lot about leadership these days, since we’ve apparently entered a new “he’s the next Hitler” phase, this one featuring Vladimir Putin of Russia. (Unless you’ve been away for the last decade or two, you’ll know we’ve had plenty of other next-Hitlers recently.) The idea is that Putin (following the original Hitler pattern) exhibits a mix of demonic ambition, irrational violence, and masterful control over his helpless subjects. So he’s dangerous and has to be stopped now, before he gets going on his project of world domination; ignoring him will only lead to more trouble.

Here’s where the historian’s lessons ought to come in, because in the real history books even Hitler himself didn’t fit the “next Hitler” pattern. Nobody does, partly because (history teaches) political leaders are never all-powerful puppetmasters; even dictators need cooperation from millions of subjects to get anything done, and those millions of subjects are getting something that’s making them cooperate. History also teaches that all societies have real collective interests, which their leaders usually try to advance one way or another.

Taking those lessons seriously doesn’t mean denying the role of individuals in history, and it doesn’t say anything about international conflicts. Collisions of societal interests can be violent, and sometimes there’s no way to compromise among them; individuals– both political leaders and others– have often shaped their countries’ development.

But history does teach that it’s stupid to treat any leaders as demons, Marvel-style super-villains, or lunatics.  It’s just as stupid to think of them as societal cancers, whose surgical removal will allow the social body to return to healthy growth. That’s just not how societies work.

And yet to many influential people in Washington, London, and elsewhere, that stupidity apparently counts as common sense. It’s not just talk, either. A significant amount of recent military action has centered on “taking out” various leadership groups, “decapitating” regimes, all that sort of thing– meaning that the super-villain idea of government is actually shaping what really happens in the real world. If we just get rid of whichever next-Hitler we’re currently focusing on, the idea goes, things will start to go right in Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran/Syria/the Ukraine/ and the dozens of other places our foreign policy touches.

So that’s a first take on the Not-Learning-From-History problem. We apparently have smart, highly-educated, powerfuI people who haven’t absorbed the simplest lessons that history can teach. I mean, we’re not talking about a failure to understand long footnotes on obscure topics. Even the basics aren’t getting through.

It’s not clear to me what’s going on, but it’s something we ought to try to understand.