Thursday, February 22, 2024

#53 / The Negation Of Politics

I am a member of The Hannah Arendt Center For Politics And Humanities at Bard College. Among other things, this means that I receive a weekly email bulletin from The Hannah Arendt Center. These bulletins generally arrive on Sunday, and on December 17th I received: (1) a notice about next year's Hannah Arendt Center conference (see below), and (2) an article written by Roger Berkowitz, the Founder and Academic Director of The Hannah Arendt Center. 

The Berkowitz article was titled, "The Negation Of Politics." Click that link to read it in its entirety (which I do recommend). 

Berkowitz' article discusses a recent incident in which the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is located in Bremen, initially awarded the 2023 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thinking to Masha Gessen. However, the Foundation decided to cancel the award, just days before the ceremony, apparently based on the fact that the Foundation didn't like what Gessen wrote in an article that appeared in The New Yorker. Gessen is Jewish, and her article, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust," compared Gaza before the October 7th Hamas attack to the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Berkowitz' statement struck me as an important observation about the nature of our national discussion and debate about almost everything - including, specifically, our efforts to talk about the conflict between the State of Israel and Hamas, the future of our institutions of higher education, and what is sometimes called "cancel culture.

Berkowitz frequently notes, when he writes about Arendt, that Arendt believed that politics is not about "truth," but about "opinion." Arendt believes that the essence of politics is discussion and debate, as we utilize such discussion and debate in our efforts to decide what we should do. In this political discussion,  every person's ideas and opinions need to be able to get a public hearing:

That a Foundation which presents an award in the name of Hannah Arendt would seek to rescind the award because of a provocative statement in an essay is utterly inconsistent with the spirit of Hannah Arendt. Arendt understood that the life of the mind as well as the life of political action requires that one listen to and engage with opinions that challenge our own. Arendt herself was a provocative thinker. Her book Eichmann in Jerusalem was widely condemned in Israel and by many Jews around the world for her statement, amongst others, that Jewish collaborators with the Nazis were, for a Jew, the darkest part of the whole dark history. Her essay on the desegregation of the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas was first suppressed and then widely and vigorously condemned by those who thought it wrong to criticize forced desegregation. Her rejection of Zionism and her belief that a particular form of Zionism—one that demands a religiously Jewish state as opposed to a state where Jews could live safely and securely as Jews—was a mistake, led her to worry that a Jewish state could lead to an unjust rule of Jews over Arabs. Her essay “Zionism Reconsidered” led some of her Jewish friends to demand she apologize. If the criteria for winning the Hannah Arendt Prize is that the winner not say anything that might upset Jews or frustrate a liberal consensus, then Hannah Arendt herself could not win the prize now given in her name. It goes without saying that the Böll Foundation in Bremen owes Gessen and also the memory of Hannah Arendt an apology.

An article in The Guardian, by Samantha Rose Hill, made the same point, asserting that "Hannah Arendt would not qualify for the Hannah Arendt prize. She would be cancelled in Germany today for her political position on Israel and opinions about contemporary Zionism, which she remained critical of from 1942 until her death in 1975."

As I say, I think Berkowitz' focus on this incident is important. Attempts to stifle robust debate about contentious claims is, indeed, the "negation of politics," and we need more "politics" not less "politics," as we seek to discover and decide upon what it is that we should do!

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