Arendt in Dark Times
With Corey Robin’s piece “The Trials of Hannah Arendt” [June 1], The Nation lives up to its reputation for provoking critical thought. Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann and the banality of evil goes far beyond the Nazis and the Holocaust. We can see it today in the acquiescence and apathy of average Americans, who leave vital domestic- and foreign-policy questions to the mediocre politicians, technocrats, and powerful groups that lead us astray. We see it in those who deny the brutal consequences of global warming, free-market fundamentalism, militarism, and racism. By remaining neutral, we immerse ourselves in the evil that surrounds us. Hannah Arendt spoke out. She was one of the just ones.
In the very beginning of Corey Robin’s essay on Hannah Arendt, he asks: “Do we know of a Trojan War that is not intimately Homer’s, a Richard III who is not Shakespeare’s?” I don’t want to discuss the Trojan War, but it should be made abundantly clear that Shakespeare’s Tudor-pandering portrayal of Richard III is way off base historically. Over the past several decades, there have been numerous historically valid works that have proved Richard III to be far from the murderous tyrant that Shakespeare drew. No more should we read comments like that of Mr. Robin’s here.
David M. Jordan
Corey Robin is right to challenge simplistic readings of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. In my book The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt, I argue that the “banality of evil” passages in Eichmann in Jerusalem cannot be understood without a deep comprehension of the role that thinking plays in Arendt’s philosophy, notably the explanation she provides in The Life of the Mind. There, she explains, “it was the absence of [his] thinking…that awakened my interest.” Arendt was struck by Eichmann’s heavy reliance on clichés, even at times employing contradictory ones. Eichmann’s conscience, the bed of one’s own thought, had ceased to function. Thus, her use of the word “banality” refers to this “sheer thoughtlessness” as the cause of evil in this case. The word was never meant to describe the effect of evil but rather the cause.
Corey Robin’s excellent essay reminded me that years ago, desperate for a job, I would read the requirements in civil-service announcements before I read the job title. Could I get into the test (no matter what I’d be doing on the job)? The Industrial Revolution that drove people into factories made us all desperate, and I wonder if “workaday” wouldn’t be a better word here than “banal.” Arendt seems to be saying that for humans, evil is the default mode, and “only the good has depth and can be radical.” It’s the choice, the dissent, that matters.
As for Robin’s felicitous phrase “a chosen people, not of descent but of dissent”: If you ever put that on a Nation shirt, would you send me one?
Literature in Ones and Zeros
I was shocked and saddened to learn about “digital humanities” in Moira Weigel’s “Graphs and Legends” [June 1]. Do we really need to discover Herman Melville’s hidden agenda by analyzing his word selection in Moby-Dick? If one is found, I’ll bet no one would be more surprised than Melville.
Computers were invented to make simple, repetitive tasks more efficient and accurate. The purpose of literature is to introduce us to worlds beyond our ken, to help us understand our fellow human beings, and to experience the pleasure of getting lost in another reality. It seems to me that “digital humanities” negates the reason for both.
The PEN Badge of Courage
Sorry, Nation, but I disagree with Victor Navasky’s defense of PEN’s decision to give an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo [“Sorry, Charlie,” May 25]. That the Charlie Hebdo journalists had an unimpeachable right to free speech goes without saying. That they should be honored as courageous martyrs for publishing their cartoons and articles in a country that forbids wearing the burka in its schools is something even PEN might have questioned.
Secular humanism is not Islamophobia. I support Charlie Hebdo for the same reason I supported Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, for the same reason I supported David Wojnarowicz’s ants-on-a-crucifix A Fire in My Belly, for the same reason I supported Chris Ofili’s dung-laden Holy Virgin Mary—not just to honor my loyalty to “freedom of expression,” but also because, quite simply, I see religious fundamentalism (along with free-market capitalism, white supremacy, and a lot of other anti-humanist belief systems) as a destructive ideology ripe for ridicule and satire.
The argument that Hebdo and others who satirize Islam are “punching down” doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Yes, many Arab Muslims in countries like France are poor and oppressed; and so are a lot of homophobic, anti-choice Christians in the United States. Seen in this light, the protests against PEN are indicative of a greater, more troubling trend on the left: the selectivity (really, hypocrisy) that too many leftists and progressives show in matters of religion. Those right-wing Christians are correct about one thing. When we defend artists like Serrano, Wojnarowicz, and Ofili, their response is often: “If they were offending Muslims, not Christians, you people would be opposing them.” And that’s actually true.
The time is now for progressives to embrace a unilateral secular humanism. Anything else is hypocritical and betrays what we claim as our most valued principles.
David G. Whiteis
That’s the Ticket
John Nichols didn’t set forth any thoughts on an appropriate vice president for Bernie Sanders in his excellent May 25 article, “Bernie’s in the Race!” I cannot imagine a more competent and honest ticket than having Elizabeth Warren as Bernie’s vice presidential candidate. A Sanders-Warren ticket would probably be the most capable and ethical in our nation’s recent political history. They would restore integrity as an essential part of our political system, and they would give some hope to the poor, the young, and other ignored groups in our country.
Edward L. Koven
highland park, ill.
In our review of D.W. Gibson’s The Edge Becomes the Center [Shelf Life, June 1], the name of the musician, poet, and landlord mTkalla was misspelled as “mKalla.”