FeatureGray FridayLetters

Gray is Beautiful Revisited

On the Politics of Sex and the Crisis of Democracy at Home and Abroad

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The Tragic, Enduring Relevance of Arendt’s Work on Statelessness

While Hannah Arendt is most known for her reflections on totalitarianism and the banality of evil, eighteen years of statelessness (1933-1951) brought her philosophical questions of how one might be at home in the world into sharp relief. The fact that she was Jewish and German during the first half of the twentieth century profoundly influenced her life and writing. Given today’s refugee crisis, Arendt’s work is being examined anew in order to understand the ways in which mass statelessness has influenced the world since the twentieth century. As historian Jeremy Adelman wrote in The Wilson Quarterly: “Arendt’s voice is one we can turn to as we grapple with the spread of statelessness in our day. Camps and pariahs are still with us.” …

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EssaysFeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

No-Rule: Thinking about Obama v. Trump Through Hannah Arendt and C.L.R. James

Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech at the recent Democratic National Committee Convention in support of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Presidency. At the crescendo of the address, Obama exhorted: “We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled.” Let’s think through this understanding of ruling for political leadership.

Obama argues that Donald Trump, Clinton’s primary opponent for the nation’s highest elected office, embraces an elite conception of leadership grounded in a sovereign leader ruling over a mass. Trump is not only mendacious according to Obama; …

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EssaysFeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Hannah Arendt on American “Social Slavery”

A few years after fleeing the fascist tidal wave in Europe and finding refuge in New York City, Hannah Arendt penned a letter to her mentor and confidant Karl Jaspers, commenting briefly on the peculiarities of American politics and society. She remarked, “The fundamental contradiction of the country is political freedom coupled with social slavery.”

This simple sentiment, which she affirmed until the day she died, is striking for three reasons. Most obviously, it suggests civil and political freedoms are not sufficient foundations for what we would consider a “good society.” Secondly, Arendt, a German Jew, obviously had no illusions about how low European society had sunk in its flirtation with fascism, but she apparently and rather damningly found the United States comparatively worse than pre-war Europe in terms of societal health. …

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EssaysFeatureIn DepthLiberal Democracy in Question

The Promise and Logic of Federations, and The Problem of Their Stability

Historians are right to describe the 19th century as the age of nationalism. While many also depict the 20th as the triumph of the nation-state, with more justice it could be called the century of its failure, despite the vast proliferation of the form. If collapsing empires brought us the first World War, the new problems of the nation state prepared the ground for the second. In our own century, looking around the world, we encounter countless examples of nation-state failure to solve the problem that brought it into being: the management of plurality and the self-determination of different political identities.

Throughout the crises of empires and of nation-states, the option of federal union was ever-present, promising to solve what neither other political form could ultimately deal with. …

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EssaysFeature

We Refugees

In 1943 Hannah Arendt published a short essay in the Jewish periodical “The Menorah Journal” entitled We Refugees. She described in it a widespread refusal among Jews who had escaped the Nazis to call themselves “refugees.” Having lost everything — their occupation, their language, their family — they were eager to adapt to their new country as quickly as possible and to become “normal” citizens. Arendt thought that this assimilation strategy was doomed to failure, because it ignored the fact that the European model of the nation state is structurally dependent upon the fabrication of stateless and displaced persons. Instead, Jews should remember what made them special precisely as refugees. Refugees, she wrote, are “the vanguard of their peoples,” since for them history was no longer “a sealed book.” They have already experienced and recognized what to others has only become obvious today, in the era of globalization: the violence, fragility, and historical obsolescence of a territorial understanding of citizenship. …

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