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In Her Mind's Eye | The Nation

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In Her Mind's Eye

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Arendt had an exceptional talent for making enemies, and in her 1959 essay "Reflections on Little Rock" she alienated progressive opinion irreparably by laying into the civil rights movement. Referring to a photo of a black girl leaving school surrounded by jeering young whites, she argued that it was grotesque to force children to suffer such humiliation and expect them to rise heroically above it. She regarded slavery and its racist legacy as the most terrible blot on American history, and she wanted all discriminatory legislation to be struck down. But in her view, that was as far as politics could legitimately go, and the federal government's attempt to force the children of Arkansas to attend racially integrated schools was both an unwarranted intrusion into private life and a terrible breach of political propriety--a fateful step, she implied, toward totalitarianism.

About the Author

Jonathan Rée
Jonathan Rée is the author of, most recently, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses--A Philosophical...

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Arendt had a point about the cruelty of expecting the children of Little Rock to sort out problems their parents could not handle (it would seem that she never forgot what she learned as a social worker helping young refugees in Paris in the 1930s). But she was also offering a wider and more systematic argument about the need to maintain a distance between the political sphere, where the principle of equality is absolutely indispensable, and the social and private spheres, where it is completely inappropriate. If Jews wanted to spend their vacations with other Jews, she claimed, or non-Jews with non-Jews, they should be able to do so without hindrance, because their discriminatory actions were social rather than political, and therefore nobody's business but their own. After all, if the Supreme Court eventually got around to striking down the iniquitous antimiscegenation laws, no one would expect the government to take measures to "encourage, let alone enforce, mixed marriages." But if people were entitled to be free from political coercion in their choice of holiday resorts or marriage partners, Arendt argued, they should be allowed exactly the same choice about the company their children keep in school.

The argument is a fine example of Arendt's extraordinary stubbornness. On occasion she acknowledged that politics of the kind she revered was impossible in a context of severe social injustice, and she ought at least to have wondered whether inequality in access to education might put citizenship in danger in a way that inequality in access to holiday hotels or marriage beds does not. If her pure-minded axioms really made it illegitimate for politics to defend itself by getting mixed up in social, moral or economic affairs, she should surely have considered revising them in the light of experience rather than insisting on them whatever the cost. It would seem that she never grew out of her early dogmatism, and that she was better at preaching the self-critical art of judgment than putting it into practice.

The same applies to her view of history and her self-appointed task of rescuing politics from the enormous condescension of philosophy. Any impartial sampling would indicate that she had gotten the problem the wrong way round: Philosophers who have reflected on political processes have on the whole been rather starry-eyed about them and not at all contemptuous. Even Plato, whom Arendt regarded as the supreme example of philosophy's disdain for politics, ranked politicians well above poets and artists, not to mention merchants, cobblers, slaves and practically everyone else except philosophers. Karl Marx was surely nearer the truth when he suggested that politics was not much more than a sideshow--part of the "ideological superstructure" alongside law, art, religion and indeed philosophy--and that the Western philosophical tradition had always made a fetish of it.

Arendt barely touched on Marx in The Origins of Totalitarianism, but in the 1950s she tried to remedy the omission in a couple of manuscripts that have now been compiled by Kohn in The Promise of Politics. It is easy to see why she never published them herself, as they do not show her at her best. She was always quite hostile to Marx (she thought he was simply "not interested in freedom or in justice"), and in an act of interpretive violence that is unusual even for her, she assimilated his skepticism about political action into her own preconceived scheme: He was yet another antipolitical prophet of totalitarianism--a philosophical snob in "the tradition that began with Plato," and "the last political philosopher in the West." These claims may be sufficiently vague to be saved from being false. But if Marx can be dismissed as just another Platonist, then it is hard to see who could ever escape the charge.

It never seems to have occurred to Arendt that if she sniffed Platonic condescension toward politics wherever she looked, it might be because it emanated from her. If she was as keen on the purity of politics as Plato was on the purity of philosophy, it was perhaps because politics as she conceived it was little more than philosophy by another name: a gracious art of respectful, self-critical listening that must always be allowed to take its time. But politics is also about emergencies, catastrophes and deadlines, and if it embodies a set of high republican principles of the kind that Arendt championed, it also contains much else: on the one hand a mass of more or less efficient administrative routines, and on the other elements of compulsion, folly and delusion, or--as Marx would put it--of tragedy and farce. She may have been right to defend the "promise of politics" against our reckless hopes and fears; but she should also have remembered that promises are often broken.

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