The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt (1950 first edition)
The preface to the first edition is reproduced in this edition and it is definitely a deja vu experience — even before bringing he shall not be named into the mix. Totalitarianism is a rising threat, and liberals’ conversion to virtual Republicans by their “neoliberalism” policies only further robs America of democratic principles, even if they were not implemented by the Founding Fathers (such as allowing slavery, women as chattel).
Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like SHEER INSANITY, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind (who think everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.
On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilizations is at the breaking point. Although it may seem better preserved in some parts of the world than in others, it can nowhere provide the guidance to the possibilities of the century, or an adequate response to its horrors. Desperate hope and desperate fear often seem closer to the center of such events than balanced judgment and measure insight. The central events of our time are not less effectively forgotten by those committed to a belief in an unavoidable doom, that by those who have given themselves up to reckless optimism.
I would venture to say that NO ONE in the world today has any optimism left. I think we are all hoping not to die in a nuclear holocaust at this point. Especially for those of us who lived though elementary school doing “duck and cover” drills of futility and having seen what an atom bomb or two can do. People whose parents fought in the World Wars, like my dad, a bomber pilot, who did his duty but took no pride in having dropped bombs that killed people. Hitler was the personification of evil, but he was not the only one, there were plenty more ruthless strongmen with no vision for the future but trampling everyone under their boots.
The people rose up against the war in Vietnam because they saw the death and misery up close on TV every night. Where is the media now? All we get 24×7 is the fucking steaming turd Republican conman candidate for president. He wouldn’t even be in this position if the media had not been gutted of common sense rules by St. Ronnie Reagan – may he rest in hell along with Scalia and others who ruined our country. They gave him billions of dollars of free air time; he could just phone it in, he didn’t even have to show up in person. And nothing fair and balanced was given any time at all.
The Middle East is being bombed or has already been bombed into the Stone Age which is what so many people advocated so many years ago. And yet there is NOTHING on the news. Only on the Internet is some film footage showing the ghastly destruction of Aleppo, Syria. Our military budget is making a few companies like Dick Cheney’s Halliburton billions while we have children starving, people evicted from their homes, and students buried under a lifetime of debt for educations that did not, in fact, enable them to get “good” jobs, if a job at all.
We sell weapons to everyone sooner or later and they always seem to end up in the hands of enemies. We can’t speak the languages. We don’t look like their citizens, we don’t understand their religion, we don’t understand their culture, and we just keep dropping bombs driving everyone to hate us completely and fully — as well they should. Bombing is ineffectual and is like taking a brick to an anthill, massive destruction to the hill, with major death, but undifferentiated random and senseless death, and then you get a bunch of ants dispersing all over the place where bricks can’t kill them. (no disrespect intended by comparing people and countries to ants and anthills, blame limited imagination for the analogy).
SHOW THE DEAD SOLDIERS. SHOW THE DEAD CIVILIANS. SHOW THE DESTROYED BUILDINGS. WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE. We must not be allowed to turn away and let the politicians destroy all our ideals and all our respect in the world. We have allowed rampant aggression and regime change for too many decades, especially in South America where we claimed we were going to “protect” them from European colonialism. What a joke.
Granted that in this century at least we have not yet begun to implement massive crematoria to kill unwanted people, but the private prison industry and the public prison industry is doing a pretty damn good job at destroying men of color in particular, if not by death, by incarcerating them for extensive periods of time that exceed that of any white man and for less cause. When they get out, they face the double persecution for being black men and convicted “criminals” (having some marijuana for personal use does not merit 10 years).
I did not quite understand what she says about “comprehension” in this preface.
Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalizations that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.
Slowly reading it I understand that she is talking about the burden of horrors of the Holocaust, or from WWI the mustard gassing in the trenches. Comprehending that burden requires it not be denied as the wing nuts who are deniers choose to do, or failing to stop it from happening again because it meant the death of even more millions of people to stop both World Wars. But I am not quite clear about the benefit of resisting reality has to do with historical facts. She goes on to describe the tiny points on which so much horror can be triggered and I understand that well and truly and find it scary in the extreme what the power of one person can do to millions of others. In rare cases (Ghandi) something good might come out of it, but you can never be sure in the moment. Courage and stubbornness and idealism are the only defenses against deliberate evil.
In this sense, it must be possible to face and understand the outrageous fact that SO SMALL (and, in the world of politics, so unimportant) a phenomenon as the Jewish question and antisemitism could become the catalytic agent for first, the Nazi movement, then a world war, and finally the establishment of death factories. Or, the grotesque disparity between cause and effect which introduced the era of imperialism, when economic difficulties led, in a few decades, to a profound transformation of political conditions all over the world. Or, the curious contradiction between the totalitarian movements’ avowed cynical “realism” and their conspicuous disdain of the whole texture of reality. Or, the irritating incompatibility between the actual power of modern man (greater than ever before, great to the point where he might challenge the very existence of his own universe) and the impotence of modern men to live in, and understand the sense of, a world which their own strength has established.
The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses. Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity;WHEREVER IT HAS RULED, it has begun to DESTROY THE ESSENCE OF man. Yet to turn our backs on the destructive forces of the century is of little avail.
The trouble is that our period has so strangely intertwined the good with the bad that without the imperialists’ “expansion for expansions sake,” the world might never have become one; without the bourgeoisie’s political device of “power for power’s sake,” the extent of human strength might never have been discovered; without the fictitious world of totalitarian movements, in which with unparalleled clarity the essential uncertainties of our time have been spelled out, we might have been driven to our doom without ever becoming aware of what has been happening.
And it is true that in the final stages of totalitarianism an ABSOLUTE EVIL APPEARS (absolute because it can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives), it is also true that without it we might never have know the truly radical nature of Evil.
Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of the Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) — one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity NEEDS A NEW GUARANTEE which can be found in a NEW POLITICAL PRINCIPLE, IN A NEW LAW ON EARTH , WHOSE VALIDITY THIS TIME must comprehend the whole of humanity while its POWER MUST REMAIN STRICTLY LIMITED, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.