— Hannah Arendt
THE MINISTER that Sunday morning asked me what I most fear losing. For her, she said, as if embarrassed, confessing, it’s the seasons — the way we knew them when we were young, in our bones, the way our parents and their parents knew them. It was a rainy autumn day in New York City, October 2016, and water dripped from yellowing leaves.
For me, the answer came without hesitation, because I think about it all the time. Humanity, I told her. Friendship, solidarity, love of neighbor. That’s what I’m afraid of losing. Because what I fear most is what we’re capable of doing to each other, and of not doing for each other, when, as Hannah Arendt would say, the chips are down — when it’s dark outside, and we let the darkness in. Because, let there be no doubt, it’s getting very dark.
How dark? Put it this way: Some four-fifths of what used to be called the “permanent” sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is now gone. The stability of the global climate system, as we know it, depends largely on the Arctic, warming at a rate no model projected, spiraling toward worst-case scenarios decades sooner than predicted. What was once unthinkable destruction is now all but guaranteed, first and foremost among the world’s poorest people, the majority of the human population.
In the face of this situation, even as waves of refugees fleeing drought and war destabilize Europe, a right-wing populist movement propels a quasi-fascist, science-denying demagogue to the presidency of the most powerful nation on Earth. Among his first acts is to name as Secretary of State the man who had only recently been chief executive of the largest oil and gas corporation on the planet — a corporation that has long understood the findings of climate scientists, yet has deceived the public and obstructed any serious response for decades, while pursuing plans to drill in the melted Arctic.
These are baseline facts, the actual conditions of the world in which we live. Two catastrophes, planetary and political, converge; humanity approaches geophysical and social tipping points unimagined by previous generations. With the victory of the carbon-industrial machine, it is now clear, we confront corporate and political forces not only racist in ideology but totalitarian in mindset and ambition, if not as yet in methods. Unless, as to methods, it can be argued that to ensure the suffering and death of countless innocent millions, by means of lies and the obstruction of urgent life-saving measures, marks some kind of epochal advance in the art of administrative mass murder.
There are no historical analogies to be drawn here, no comparisons. We live in the present. And yet no comparisons doesn’t mean no insights, no lessons to be sought. There are no borders in human history that are closed, no human experience walled off from an authentic human effort to understand. And yet I confess that when I try to make sense of this picture, to fit the facts we are facing, planetary and political — the true scale of the unprecedented crimes now unfolding — into any accepted category, I’m at a loss, the mind reels, and I reach for the past.
The opening lines of Hannah Arendt’s short, bracing preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, capture a moment and the mood of a generation that had lived through two cataclysmic World Wars, experienced economic collapse, revolutions, and “homelessness on an unprecedented scale,” and now faced the prospect of an all-destroying third world war. The mood is one of exhaustion, uncertainty, a dull and ever-present fear. “This moment of anticipation,” she writes,
is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. […] 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.
Arendt’s words in those first pages — with their slight awkwardness, the not-entirely-confident English of a German-Jewish émigré who held proudly to the mother tongue — carry a weight I can only guess at. Warning against the tendency of her contemporaries to look numbly away, to minimize the horrors, to move on, she insists upon squarely confronting the new facts, if only to try to comprehend them. The kind of comprehension she has in mind, though, would come not by taking refuge in old “commonplaces.” It requires, she writes, “examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.”
For Arendt, as a European Jew, that burden was all but overwhelming. Looking back on the moment when she and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, got the first reports in New York about Auschwitz, she later told the journalist Günter Gaus:
That was in 1943. And at first we didn’t believe it. […] It was really as if an abyss had opened. […] This ought not to have happened. And I don’t mean just the number of victims. I mean the method, the fabrication of corpses and so on. […] Something happened there to which we cannot reconcile ourselves. None of us ever can.
But the reality, the forces that opened the abyss, could still be — had to be — described, analyzed, judged.
Central to Arendt’s analysis is her acute observation that totalitarian movements, and later fully realized regimes, require the construction of a “fictitious world,” as seen in their “conspicuous disdain of the whole texture of reality.” Writing in 1954, between the first and the significantly revised 1958 edition of Origins, she observed: “Insofar as [totalitarian] ideological thinking is independent of existing reality, it looks upon all factuality as fabricated, and therefore no longer knows any reliable criterion for distinguishing truth from falsehood.”
This is crucial, and not only as a premonition of the way today’s far right seems to adopt (and distort) postmodern theory to construct a world of “alternative facts.” For Arendt, it’s the key that unlocks the totalitarian mindset. Noting that “it would be quite possible for totalitarian rulers or the men immediately surrounding them not to believe in the actual content of their preaching,” she sees through the delusions of a new generation of leaders, which has somehow, it seems to her, “lost even the ability to distinguish between such believing and non-believing.” At which point, she draws the all-important line from belief in nothing to belief in anything:
Underlying these beliefs or non-beliefs […] is another belief […] shared by all totalitarian rulers, as well as by people thinking and acting along totalitarian lines, whether or not they know it. This is the belief in the omnipotence of man and at the same time of the superfluity of men; it is the belief that everything is permitted and, much more terrible, that everything is possible.
In the last chapter of Origins, Arendt dwells on this relationship between delusions of unlimited possibility and the need to fabricate a reality to fit the ideological pattern. The totalitarian leaders’ “faith in human omnipotence […] carries them into experiments which human imaginations may have outlined but human activity certainly never realized.” Meanwhile, “normal men,” those outside the totalitarian world and its mindset, “refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous,” and engage in the kind of “wishful thinking” that only “shirks reality in the face of real insanity.”
The essence of the truly monstrous Arendt found in that concept of superfluity. Totalitarianism, as distinguished from “mere” tyranny or dictatorship, “strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous.” That is, a system in which human beings, both as individuals and distinct groups, become surplus, unnecessary, and unwanted, cease to have any intrinsic value as human beings — are dehumanized. When that happens, the standards by which human beings explain and judge relations among themselves fall apart, and we’re faced with something truly radical, incomprehensible:
Until now the totalitarian belief that everything is possible seems to have proved only that everything can be destroyed. […] When the impossible was made possible it became the unpunishable, unforgivable absolute evil which could no longer be understood and explained by the evil motives of self-interest, greed, covetousness, resentment, lust for power, and cowardice. […] Therefore, we actually have nothing to fall back on in order to understand a phenomenon that nevertheless confronts us with its overpowering reality and breaks down all standards we know.
With nothing to fall back on, no recognizable standards by which to comprehend and judge, anything can happen, anything might be justified, in the future. All bets are off. What comprehensible motive could there be for poisoning the well from which one’s own children must drink, much less the atmosphere itself? What kind of mindset makes one’s own children and grandchildren, and everyone else’s, indeed all future generations, superfluous?
The terrifying threat of the totalitarian systems for present and future generations, Arendt warns at the conclusion of Origins, “is that today, with populations and homelessness everywhere on the increase, masses of people are continuously rendered superfluous if we continue to think of our world in utilitarian terms.” In other words, she writes with trademark bluntness, in this starkest of conclusions, “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes.”
You might argue that Arendt overstated her warning, that her fear proved unfounded; that history has seen no recurrence of “totalitarian solutions,” at least on such a vast scale; that the world has in fact become more democratic, more prosperous, less violent; that technology and markets will solve hunger and war, that extreme poverty will be eliminated within our lifetimes; that we have moved decisively away from Arendt’s dark vision. Indeed, many believers in the march of progress do still say such things, while ignoring, dismissing, or outright denying, the scientific reality of the melted Arctic and the ever-rising concentration of atmospheric carbon, as well as the political reality of the carbon-industrial machine. In fact, in Arendt’s image of populations continuously rendered superfluous, she arrived at an insight the lasting importance of which only time could reveal. In her effort to face and comprehend, as few others could or would, the darkness of her historical moment — the forces that opened the abyss — Arendt anticipated our own.
Writing at the moment when lofty debates concerning “human rights” were in the air, and attempts were made at universal definitions and declarations, Arendt points to the hollowness of the concept at the international level, when states were confronted with uprooted, homeless masses. It turns out, Arendt observes, that the “Rights of Man” require a polity to guarantee them. “We became aware of the existence of a right to have rights […] and a right to belong to some kind of organized community only when millions of people emerged who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.” There appeared suddenly unprecedented waves of stateless people, who had lost the status of citizenship, and were left stranded by an international order that had no place for them. “The conception of human rights […] broke down,” Arendt observes,
at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships — except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.
When the international order has failed, when fine sentiments concerning human rights have proven meaningless in the face of naked humanity — human beings stripped of community, of political and legal status, possessing only, as she writes, “those qualities which […] must remain unqualified, mere existence” — that is, when the abyss has opened up, Arendt asks if truly nothing at all remains on which mere human beings may rely. Her answer surprises me, stops me, catches me off guard. When all else is lost, she writes,
This mere existence, that is, all that which is mysteriously given us by birth and which includes the shape of our bodies and the talents of our minds, can be adequately dealt with only by the unpredictable hazards of friendship and sympathy, or by the great and incalculable grace of love, which says with Augustine, “Volo ut sis (I want you to be),” without being able to give any particular reason for such supreme and unsurpassable affirmation.
Of course Arendt knew that such affirmation, this grace beyond reason, can be surpassingly rare, unreliable, and unexpected, like a sudden flare, an unforeseen beacon, in the dark. And yet no less real for all of that.
The world finds nothing sacred in the mere existence of a Syrian refugee washed up on a beach; in the prayerful faces and freezing bodies at Standing Rock; in the undocumented persons, “illegals,” mothers and fathers and children, jailed and deported. It found nothing sacred in the Far Rockaways when the storm surge came, or in the Lower Ninth Ward; in Houston’s toxic flood, or in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands, stripped bare by a lethal wind.
On April 28, 2016, with such images in mind, I sat staring at the cold, white, concrete wall of a Boston jail cell. By coincidence, it was my daughter’s 12th birthday, and I had just placed my body in the way of an 18-wheeled flatbed at the entrance to a construction site of a high-pressure, fracked-gas pipeline through a residential neighborhood of West Roxbury. When the police officer on detail ordered me and my companions to move, we politely refused, and were arrested, cuffed, and placed in the back of a BPD wagon. The charge was disturbing the peace. Whose peace, precisely, we had disturbed at the entrance to a construction site was never clear. Maybe the truck driver’s. Maybe the cop’s.
Now I sat by myself on the steel bed of a six-by-10 cell, and stared at the wall. Having never been in such a situation (despite my best previous efforts), the only thing that occurred to me was what a sheltered and privileged life I had led, and I wondered about the other individuals who’d sat in that space, and what if anything they’d done to deserve being there, and what they would think of me, this pretender, interloper, poseur.
I spent only a few hours without my freedom, and the charges were dropped, but I can’t get the cell door’s dull metallic clank, as it shut, out of my head: its inescapable pronouncement of my bodily insignificance, my frail and finite physicality. I’ve known and worked alongside people in recent years who’ve done real jail time, gone to prison, in some cases risked their lives, to halt even briefly the carbon-industrial machine, to be the sand in the gears — to impede pipelines, coal shipments, the desecration of Indigenous land, the poisoning of brown and black and white bodies living in proximity of the power plants, refineries, and mines — and I knew the absurd puniness of my gesture toward solidarity with the powerless and suffering. And as always, there was the question why — the question of whether such gestures still make any sense in the face of all we now know; of whether it’s time to accept the futility of actions that depend, for their effect, on the compassion, or conscience, or humanity, of those whom they address. Whether more force, more sacrifice, is now required. The question: What kind of resistance is possible against a world without mercy?
And even as I form those words, the familiar voice in my head: Who am I to judge? Who the hell do I think I am? Am I not complicit — aren’t we all — even sitting in jail?
I want to be honest. Maybe this recurring sense of complicity, of guilt, is the reason I felt in the end so oddly at peace, my conscience salved, as I sat there facing the white and changeless wall. Not because I’d performed some difficult, noble act — I had not — but because I was certain that jail was where I belonged. Because there, at last, in that dank, windowless cell, I was removed from my life in the world, from society, contact with others — so that, finally, to my indescribable relief, I was a danger to no one. It was as though, for those few hours, I could do no harm — to the planet, or to people. As if, albeit briefly, I had somehow in my isolation disappeared.
“There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging that has nothing whatever to do with the biblical ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’” Arendt writes in the manuscript of a 1964 address. Rather, she notes there, “behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.” As soon as anyone raises moral issues, she observes sharply, the one who raises them is met “with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We’re all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone.”
This aversion to judging that Arendt identified in her generation, and which is equally if not more familiar to intellectuals and journalists of my own (so-called post-Boomers, the unfortunately named Gen X), is closely connected to the distinction she draws between responsibility and guilt, and what she called the “well-known fallacy” of “collective guilt.” In a 1968 lecture, she puts it like this: “[T]here is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them.” In the case of postwar Germany, Arendt writes, “the cry ‘We are all guilty’ that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is.”
As Arendt notes elsewhere, this sentiment of collective guilt echoed, with an unintentional and bitter irony, Adolf Eichmann’s own defense. In the closing pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she addresses him posthumously, she writes, “[You said] that almost anybody could have taken your place, so that potentially almost all Germans are equally guilty. What you meant to say was that where all, or almost all, are guilty, nobody is.” Or as she puts it in that 1968 lecture, in the case of postwar Germans who indulged in what she called the “phony sentimentality” of collective guilt, “the cry ‘We are all guilty’ is actually a declaration of solidarity with the wrongdoers.”
Of course Eichmann’s defense, along with that of other senior Nazi murderers, was always by design, always part of the plan. One of Arendt’s darkest observations in Origins concerns the ways in which totalitarianism attempts to make all members of the society complicit, so that “the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total.” Conditions are created in which “[t]he alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder.” But this does not mean that all are equally guilty. The conditions were created by someone: the victims were made victims before they were made complicit.
Where all are guilty, no one is. If Arendt is right — and if her words have any applicability beyond the specific historical context in which she wrote — then my own jail-cell guilt trip was another form of phony sentimentality, in which I sought cover and refuge, some sort of perverse comfort, in a collective guilt spread so thin that it evaporates into air and disappears; an escape, in which I sought to be unburdened of the responsibility to judge, and of the responsibility such judgment would place on me.
The desire to be unburdened of judgment, and of responsibility, is pervasive. When the carbon lobby and its apologists, even in elite liberal institutions, argue that not oil companies, their lobbyists, and the politicians who do their bidding are to blame, but that all of us as consumers are guilty — that it’s not, in other words, the oil barons and their craven servants who are guilty but “hypocritical” climate activists and struggling families everywhere, who rely on oil and gas to get to their jobs and to put food on their tables — it’s as if apologists for Stalin blamed Soviet dissidents, and the average Soviet factory worker, for the horrors of Stalinism.
What we are presented with now is chillingly reminiscent of the administrative, institutional, bureaucratic, and above all thoughtless criminality that so disturbed Hannah Arendt. In a 1945 essay called “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” Arendt articulated an insight that would later be developed to profound and provocative effect in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The Nazi system, she observes, “relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely upon the normality of jobholders and family men.” What its architects and managers, men like Himmler and Eichmann, discovered was that “for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his human dignity.” There was just one condition on which he insisted: “that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts.”
In her book on the Eichmann trial, Arendt describes this phenomenon as “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” Of course, our understanding of Eichmann and the surrounding history has improved in major ways since then, but the key issue Arendt raised — whether evil intent is required in order for evil to be done — is still very much with us. “The trouble with Eichmann,” Arendt writes, “was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
As we now know, thanks to the work of Bettina Stangneth in Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2011), Arendt (along with many others) was duped by Eichmann’s performance in the courtroom. Based on Stangneth’s research into previously unavailable material, we can say that Eichmann actually was a calculating, virulently anti-Semitic mass murderer, regardless of whether he killed anyone, or directly ordered anyone killed, himself. And yet, as Susan Neiman points out in her 2015 afterword to Evil in Modern Thought, Arendt’s central insight survives nevertheless, even if it doesn’t apply to Eichmann himself. The truth about Eichmann “does not undermine [Arendt’s] core idea that evil intentions are not required for evil actions,” Neiman writes. In his courtroom performance, “Eichmann mimicked the thoughtless bureaucrats Germans now call desk-perpetrators, but they were there, in droves, to be mimicked — and without them, the intentions of men like Eichmann would seldom bear fruit.”
Neiman argues for the relevance of Arendt’s ideas about evil to our own situation, explicitly addressing climate catastrophe and the way it blurs the traditional lines between “natural” and “moral” evils. She goes on to write, “[O]ur knowledge of how much evil can be done without intention makes the question of whether or not destruction and suffering were deliberate increasingly irrelevant. […] Melting the Arctic? Bringing forth hurricanes? What boundaries remain?” Pointing to the reckless, even willful failure of government and industry to take the actions necessary to preserve a habitable planet, Neiman suggests that the terms in which Arendt spoke are entirely applicable. “When human heedlessness stokes destruction, then leaves the world’s poorest people at its mercy, it isn’t merely tragic; it's evil,” she writes. “And nothing but the most banal of intentions is required for it to occur.”
And yet the question remains why this matters to us now — whether the satisfactions of judging, smug or otherwise, sitting in a jail cell or in an armchair, are all we have left at this late hour.
It was five days before the election when I got on a plane from Boston to Houston, then drove a mid-sized rental up Highway 59 to Nacogdoches in the piney woods of East Texas. A friend of mine, longtime pastor of a progressive, mostly white Baptist church there, had invited me to speak about climate justice at an interfaith conference on the state university campus. The theme of the conference, self-consciously topical, was “A Crisis of Empathy.” The speakers and attendees were clergy, scholars, students, and laypeople of various Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, and other traditions, from all around East Texas and beyond.
The morning’s keynote was by an aging Catholic priest from Louisville, Kentucky, soft-spoken, keenly intellectual, who’d spent decades opposing capital punishment and working with death-row inmates alongside Sister Helen Prejean. A seasoned, gifted preacher, he knew how to pack an emotional punch, with compassion and vulnerability, and without self-righteousness. With empathy, you could say. And what he said that morning in the big modern lecture hall in Nacogdoches, and what has stuck with me (forgive me, Father, for I paraphrase), is that empathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action — that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts — our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer — to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos — is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity. Then he told the story of a death-row inmate with whom he’d grown close over the course of many years — a man guilty of his crime, who had accepted his guilt, who had sought forgiveness, a forgiveness that he knew could not undo what he had done, who had committed the rest of his life to helping others, and who went to his own murder with grace. The man had, to put it simply, repented, turned around. He had begun again.
The next morning, Saturday, I left Nacogdoches before dawn and drove up to Paris, the seat of Lamar County, where my dad was born and raised on small farms and in rural towns along the Missouri Pacific Railroad; where his parents had farmed the black-land cotton “on shares” in the Depression, when he was a small child; where his great-grandparents had settled when they arrived from central Europe. But while my whole family on both sides is thoroughly Texan, I’ve never lived in Texas. I was born and grew up in the suburbs north of Los Angeles.
I entered Paris on Highway 271, saw the Trump/Pence signs in the yards, modern churches with their big parking lots, a billboard kindly offering “Concealed Hand Gun Training.” A large black pickup with tinted windows and a Confederate flag rode my tail.
My destination was Ward’s Restaurant, a popular all-day diner on Clarksville Street. I sat at the horseshoe-shaped counter in the middle of the small, packed place, and ordered a large Cowboy Omelet with hash browns, bacon, and biscuits and gravy. I settled in, ready to commune with the ancestral ghosts — all the God-fearing folks, poor, white, Christian, saved in Jesus yet lost in the church.
Straight across from me, on the other side of the counter, sat a white couple, quiet, unsmiling, early middle-aged, maybe a few years younger than me and by the looks of it a good bit poorer. They were just sitting there — the man grizzled and mustached, in a work shirt and camo cap, the woman plain and pretty in a gray sweat top — waiting uncomfortably for their food. They looked nice enough, just a little on edge, as though conscious of being stared at. I admit I was watching them (discreetly, I thought). For all I knew, we could have been kin. Or our fathers might have known each other, our grandmothers might have been friends, might have gone to church together, prayed together, sung the same hymns. And yet, who were they, this man and woman? Were they virulent racists? The white nationalist rank and file? Were they Christians, evangelical or otherwise? Were they churchgoers, or even religious at all? I had no idea — about any of it. No clue. Were they Trump voters? Were they going to vote? No idea. We never spoke. We exchanged glances, but not a word. All I knew then, and know now, is that they existed, they were human. I had no way of knowing what they were guilty or not guilty of — if they were victims or executioners. Or neither. Or both.
“All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice,” writes Albert Camus in the 1946 essay “Neither Victims nor Executioners.” Arendt admired Camus, liked him personally, perhaps because she saw in him not only a man of moral clarity but also a man of action, of resistance. In essays and lectures of the mid to late ’60s and early ’70s, she tried to work out what it was, morally speaking, that was different about those who did not join or participate in a murderous system, and who actively resisted the evil around them. In a lecture called “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” she offers that what we call conscience, by itself, is not enough — that it can lead to merely following, unthinkingly, the conventional moral standards and prevailing mores of one’s society, even when, as demonstrated under Nazism and Stalinism, such standards have been turned upside down (“Thou shalt kill,” “Thou shalt bear false witness,” et cetera). Instead, she finds, “the nonparticipants, called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.” These nonparticipants applied a different criterion, she writes: “They asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds,” and thus in some cases, “chose to die when they were forced to participate.” In other words, “they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer — themselves.”
Because it’s in the nature of both totalitarian and nontotalitarian regimes to warp reality and turn conventional morality on its head, as seen in “the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime,” Arendt writes, the more reliable people “will be the doubters and skeptics […] because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds.” Or as she puts it in a 1971 lecture: “The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their mind to be either bad or good.”
The kind of thinking, of making up one’s mind, that Arendt is talking about here, the internal dialogue with oneself that allows for questioning and judging, is a capacity shared by all, she goes on to suggest, not only an elite (who fail to exercise it as often as anyone, perhaps more). Nevertheless, such thinking “remains a marginal affair for society at large except in emergencies.” At moments of crisis, she writes, “those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.”
This act of refusal, the refusal to join or to obey, the active withholding of support, Arendt places among the forms of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience developed to powerful effect in the 20th century. Action, for Arendt, is humanity’s highest calling and the essence of politics in the highest sense. Action is what we say and do in the public realm of human affairs, the realm in which history is shaped, initiative taken, in which we live as ourselves among others, in which we relate to each other not as abstractions but as distinct individuals, in the plural. “Action […] corresponds to the human condition of plurality,” Arendt writes in The Human Condition (1958), “to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” This plurality, she writes, “is specifically the condition […] of all political life.”
But action itself, the capacity to initiate, to start something new, is rooted in something else, something even more basic, she tells us: the mere fact of being born. For each birth marks something utterly unique, never before seen in the world, the beginning of a new and particular human life, with the unique potential it contains for action — that is, the perpetual capacity to begin again. “The life span of man running toward death would inevitably carry everything human to ruin and destruction,” Arendt writes, “if it were not for the faculty of interrupting it and beginning something new, a faculty which is inherent in action like an ever-present reminder that men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”
Indeed action, Arendt writes, is “the one miracle-working faculty of man.”
In her report from the Jerusalem courtroom, Arendt relates the testimony of one Abba Kovner, described as a poet and author who had been a prominent member of the Jewish underground in Poland, and the story Kovner recounted, known to many of his listeners, of a German Army sergeant named Anton Schmid. It appears that Schmid had led a patrol in Poland with the job of rounding up German soldiers separated from their units, and in the process he had come across and offered help to the Jewish underground by providing forged papers and the use of military trucks. Most importantly, Kovner told the court, “He did not do it for money.”
“This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942,” Arendt writes, “when Anton Schmidt [sic] was arrested and executed.”
As to why there were not more examples of Germans and Christian Poles helping the Jews, Arendt notes, “The risks were prohibitive; there was the story of an entire Polish family who had been executed in the most brutal manner because they had adopted a six-year-old Jewish girl.” Such things were well known, so that in the brief time it took Kovner to describe Schmid’s actions, Arendt reports, “a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt.”
At which point, something strange and completely unexpected occurs in Arendt’s courtroom narrative, a moment of hushed illumination. “And in those two minutes,” she writes,
which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question — how utterly different everything would be today […] if only more such stories could have been told.
Those minutes and their hush seem to hang for an eternity over Arendt’s text, and perhaps all of her work. “For the lesson of such stories,” she tells us,
is simple and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not. […] Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.
It’s true that I told you there would be no comparisons, no historical analogies, only a genuine effort to understand, to learn, and yet I appear to have drawn just such an analogy after all.
Or have I, really? And if I have, what have we gained?
It will be objected that we’re not living under a totalitarian system just yet, at least not in the literal sense, as conventionally understood. But given what we now see, and what is coming, it’s no longer an academic question what kind of a government we will have, what kind of a polity we will form, as we enter an era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil. Because what else to call a system and ideology seeking total economic and political power over the earth at the expense of unimaginable numbers of lives, in which whole populations are rendered superfluous? A mindset that warps reality to its all-consuming ends, as if to prove that everything indeed is possible, that the very laws of physics, of nature, can be denied?
There are crimes against humanity the magnitude and cold brutality of which cannot be understood, cannot be weighed or calculated on any scale or spreadsheet — crimes, the motives for which are as commonplace, as banal, as quarterly earnings and political careers. Crimes that will be answered finally by the earth itself, when at last “omnipotent” humanity, or rather the heedless few, discover that while everything human, and much of the nonhuman, may be destroyed, not everything in the end is possible — regardless of what may or may not be permitted.
What I fear most is that these crimes kill even the desire for, and possibility of, birth — of new women and new men, born not to die but to begin.
And so the abyss opens — and it is all that I can do, perhaps all that can be reasonably asked, to hold onto what faith I have in what Hannah Arendt called the unsurpassable affirmation, that grace beyond reason, without which no amount of illumination can survive.
Wen Stephenson is a frequent contributor to The Nation and the author of What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice (Beacon Press, 2015).