Under the Covers: Arendt and the banality of GUSA

February 20, 2014

Ah, the season of GUSA campaigns is upon us: “Connect to Georgetown,” “Together with Georgetown,” and “Building your Georgetown.” These slogans come together in the comforting hum of subtle smiles and provide a sense of belonging. While slogans are necessary to distill a candidate’s message, they have fostered a culture of bandwagoning. There is a dearth of intellectual analysis at Georgetown. We simply ignore anything that can’t be solved with a slogan.

I think that political theorist Hannah Arendt would flick her ever-lit cigarette in frustration if she encountered the complacent atmosphere of our campus, a groupthink that makes me want to pick up smoking. The Last Interview and Other Conversations: Hannah Arendt, released by Melville House, contains four interviews that showcase the late thinker’s creative, fearless theorizing as one of the most prominent intellectuals of the last century.

Hannah Arendt was an individualist extraordinaire. Her critical skills were honed while studying philosophy at the University of Heidelberg under the tutelage of Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger, two preeminent twentieth century German philosophers. She minored in Theology and Greek, combining her passions in a riveting thesis entitled “Love and Saint Augustine.” This work shows her analytic and intellectual ability at a young age and a volatile time (fearing for her future as a German Jew, she left Germany, and her studies, in 1933 after being arrested by the Nazis). More than that, this early work affirms her belief in the interpersonal, in lieu of in ideologies or slogans. She was deeply interested in Augustine’s thought about others because she saw no world divorced from the other.

Arendt was a careful, deliberate thinker who never swallowed what was fed to her directly. She often differed from the mainstream—and was profoundly misunderstood. Never was her audience more critical than regarding her articles in the New Yorker on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, later compiled into a book called The Banality of Evil.

These two sentences in the series elicited the most controversy: “Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.”

Arendt refrained from the typical dialogue surrounding the Holocaust. But the truth is that some within Jewish leadership were complicit—often under threat of execution, or under the belief that they could subvert the Nazi plan, leading to the arrest and deportation of some Jews. Arendt’s main assertion is that their compliance, however minimal, fundamentally altered the nature of the Holocaust.

This was a bold claim, especially considering its context in 1963, shortly after the end of the Nazi concentration camps. In the first of interviews in the book, Arendt addresses the backlash her book caused. To her interviewer’s provocative question regarding her criticisms, Arendt says, “First of all, I must … state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance.”

She is still forced to elucidate her side of the issue in the final interviews in 1970 and 1973. When others jumped to conclusions about her work, she calmly backed up her well-considered thoughts with evidence. And in doing so, she forced open a lot of closed minds.

All of Arendt’s commentary points to her ability to cut through ideology and slogans. She refrains throughout the interviews from identifying with any specific political party. We find that, although she was aligned with them in her youth, she was never a member of the Zionist groups of her time. Throughout The Last Interview, Arendt had immense foresight into the problems Israel would face and the hypocrisies of the Soviet Union.

When asked if she was a liberal or a conservative, Arendt laughed, put out her cigarette, and said she could not be placed squarely in either camp, as “shocking” as that may be for someone who made her career in political theory.

Arendt would refuse these ideologies on principle, whether based in good sentiments or bad. As she saw throughout her lifelong entanglement in politics, the easy choice is not always the correct one. An unconscious alignment with one tribe is the mark of a non-thinker. To make Georgetown a better place we ought to take up Arendt’s ability to analyze all that we come in contact with, including GUSA slogans. That probably means making the choice to stop smoking, though.

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