Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, "Infallibility, " Iraq

There is a street in Berlin named now after the scholar Hannah Arendt, who is perhaps best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, subtitled A Study in the Banality of Evil. The street is very close to where remnants of Hitler's bunker lie, under a parking lot.

As an American colleague in Berlin noted, Arendt was an old-fashioned philologist, a lover of knowledge, and the breadth of her learning, depth of her studies, and refinement of her synthesis are almost not believable, especially in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I've begun to read after being in Berlin, looking at the street sign, and considering other things. She is one of those scholars who seems to have read--and mastered--everything.

In the book, she writes, "Totalitarian movements use socialism and racism by emptying them of their utilitarian content, the interests of class or nation. The form of infallible prediction in which these concepts were presented has become more important than their content. The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin nor prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run" (p. 348-349 of the HBJ new paperback edition, 1973).

The passage was meant, of course, to apply directly to Hitler, for example. But I think it also pertains to Bush and Cheney insofar as they have taken a stand of infallibility. When, in the 2004 campaign, Bush was asked about mistakes he made, he said he couldn't think of any, and he wasn't trying to be funny, even though he may have giggled nervously, as he tends to do. The invasion of Iraq and its consequences, a debacle, are still framed (by Bush, et al.) as an infallible strategy that has some tactical problems, even as soldiers on the ground in Iraq write openly about the failed strategy, not failed tactics. Bush also has positioned himself as the correct interpreter of historical forces. Thus we have, not a war on a particular nation (that's what war really is, as Gore Vidal notes), but a war on an abstract noun, "terrorism," and thus the war in Iraq is open-ended (as far as Bush is concerned) because although Iraq was conquered in conventional military terms, "terrorism" is a constant, requiring constant war, meaning the occupation of Iraq must, by definition, be indefinite. That appears to be the underlying logic, as exposed by innumerable critics of the war (conservatives included), and with some help from Arendt and Vidal. It's important to note that Bush's "authority" is based not on "superior intelligence" (Arendt's term) but on a kind of gut-level reading of historical forces. And if the evidence doesn't support the reading of historical forces, then you send Colin Powell to the U.N. with fake evidence. The gut-level reading seemed extremely appealing to Americans right after 9-11. Now, perhaps, not so much--if the polls are reliable. And of course they're not. I actually expect Jeb Bush to be the next president. As Chuck Berry once sang, "C'est la vie, say the old folk, it goes to show you never can tell."

It was interesting to watch John Stewart interview Cheney's approved biographer on The Daily Show. Stewart ran the video of Cheney saying, in 1994, that to invade Iraq would be disastrous because the nation would fall to pieces and indeed, "pieces would fly off." Stewart asked the biographer a) what changed since 1994, b) why didn't Cheney repeat this wisdom right before the invasion, and c) why don't Cheney and Bush admit they made a mistake, and d) why do Bush, Cheney, and Rove always paint critics as traitorous or soft on terror? The basic answer was, "Everything changed after 9-11." "But Iraq didn't change," Stewart countered, meaning its composition (Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurd, influence of Iran, perceptions of the U.S., how Iraq was invented by the Brits in the first place) made invasion a stupid idea before and after 9-11. "Yeah, but after 9-11, everything changed," the guy repeated, "and Cheney still thinks the invasion is a good idea" (I am paraphrasing, but not mis-representing).

Vague "historical forces" ("everything changed"); infallibility. The answer to "d" (why to they demonize critics?), of course, is that demonizing critics has worked so far for Bush, Cheney, and the recently retired Rove, so why would they change strategies? It didn't quite work in the 2006 election, but so what? Bush wasn't up for re-election, and the Democratic Congress is completely intimidated, so intimidated that they approved warrantless wire-tapping. The Democrats cower, dogs whipped by propaganda.

I think elements of the Patriot Act, the warrantless wire-tapping, and the exquisitely refined propaganda of Rove, et al., have totalitarian qualities. Watching FOX News, Bush's PR arm, is like watching something inspired by 1984, constant self-parody that is taken seriously (non-parody parody), whereas watching CNN or NBC is merely to watch fluff, lazy reporting, trivialization--with some exceptions. FOX abets the propaganda. CNN and NBC mostly nap while the propaganda goes to work. Sleepy time with Wolf Blitzer, whom Cheney makes quake.

There seem to be more totalitarian elements in Bush's presidency than in any presidency I've known in my lifetime, though certainly every presidency has had some of those elements (Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court; we know what Nixon did when he couldn't resist his own worst instincts; and Reagan was a masterful mass-leader--and note that even when forced to speak on TV about Iran-Contra, he remained "infallible" in the sense that he claimed he didn't remember things the way the evidence suggested things happened; he may actually have been telling the truth, given the condition of his brain at the time, early stage of Alzheimer's).

But really the thesis of this particular blog-miscellany is simply this: I highly recommend Arendt's book on totalitarianism, regardless of whether you're inclined to see the degree to which the book might apply to the current executive branch of the United States' government. Arendt is wise.

Bear and Ipod

My family just gave me an Ipod, which is a little wafer that stores songs, etc. As technology gets smaller and smaller, I and my hands seem to get larger. Microsoft and Apple are Lilliput, and I feel like Gulliver. Actually I feel more like a bear who's been handed a little wafer with earphones attached to it. The bear knows the thing's not edible, so he (in this case) proceeds to try to make the thing work. Maybe some meditation-music, he thinks, for the hibernation. If only, he thinks, my paw weren't so large and the wafer so small. And the earphones! Were they built for a mouse?

Today a colleague mentioned Delmore Schwartz's poem about the bear, a poem I love. I "identify" with it, as we used to say. I also like the way it flips anthropomorphism around, so that a human is framed in terms of an animal, but in a very clever way. Here is the poem (again, by Delmore Schwartz, born in 1913, as was Karl Shapiro, but Schwartz died much too early, in 1966):

The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me

"the withness of the body" --Whitehead

The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.

Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water's clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
--The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.

That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
the scrimmage of appetite everywhere.

Delmore Schwartz

Copyright reserved.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Here is a highly poetic prose-excerpt from Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, the second part of his book, The Berlin Stories, which I read again during a visit to Berlin last week:

"From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty paster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle-class." (Copyright 1935 by Isherwood, published in 1945 by New Directions, and still in print; p. 1 of Part Two).

Berlin has become an ultra-post-Modern city, not in the way Tokyo is, but in an historical sense, for history seems to coalesce excessively and surrealistically in Berlin. It is a monumental city, a "crammed monumental safe," with massive public art, domes, cathedrals, and churches, but also with the enormous Nazi-era buildings, and now with the gleaming new 21st century towers of global capitalism, especially in the Potzdamer Platz. Chiefly rubble in 1945, Berlin has been painstakingly reconstructed--the pieces of cathedrals and other famous buildings glued back together, with relentless German determination and unyielding expertise. The building that used to house the East German parliament is at this moment being dismantled, its steel skeleton exposed. It had erased a palace. Now it will be erased, and the palace will be reconstructed. History is a contact-sport in Berlin. The horses on top of the Brandenburg Gate were recast from the old mold, discovered in a basement somewhere. A parody of capitalism, an old-fashioned Coca Cola sign sits atop a building in the former East Berlin, and of course there are several chain-hotels (Hilton, Ritz-Carlton), MacDonalds, and Starbucks.

The large statue of Marx and Lenin remains in the Alexanderplatz, as does the goofy fountain--and the radio tower, which, like the Space Needle in Seattle, is so ridiculous that it is appealing. And at Humboldt University, the unabashed university-motto is taken from Marx--the quotation about philosophers needing not just to interpret the world but to remake it. If Berlin could speak, it might say, "Enough, already, of the remaking. I need a breather."

As in Isherwood's paragraph, bankruptcy remains a problem. Berlin is 62 billion euros in debt. It is in more debt than the state of California.

But as always, Berlin stubbornly seems to belong to Berlin, to those who inhabit it at the moment. Astoundingly, Hitler and the Nazis, the American air force, Russian tanks and troops, and the Cold War couldn't obliterate it. Its perpetual decadence does not lead to decay but seems to provide resilience, life. Everyone, it seems, has had designs on Berlin, and so it is awfully designed but charmingly awkward and ugly. Isherwood captures this. Everything and nothing seems to have changed since he was writing, over 70 years ago.

The first part of The Berlin Stories, The Last of Mr. Norris, is (in my trivial opinion), one of the great short novels in English, on a par with Heart of Darkness. It is irresistibly readable.

My wife and I visited the Nollendorfplatz, near where Isherwood lived and set part of his narratives. It remains a so-called "gay and lesbian district," and it still seems somewhat small, shabby, and endearing, as it seems to have been in Isherwood's time. Chiefly we just wanted to go there, but we were also looking for a place to eat. However, it's dominated by cafes and bars that are long on coffee and booze but short on food (even good cafe food), so we chose to backtrack a few U-bahn stops to the Potzdamerplatz.

On a separate trip to the Potzdamerplatz, on Altepotsdam Strasse, we found a wine shop, drank some Rheingau wine, and had a platter of cheese. German wine is a little bit of heaven, and here's a ceremonial toast to Isherwood, and here's wishing good luck to Berlin and its 21st century inhabitants.