Saturday, May 12, 2007

"What would Hannah say?" - echoes from 'dark times' still with us

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Jeremy Waldron revisits the life and times of Hannah Arendt. Arendt "was born in Lower Saxony on October 14, 1906. She grew up in Königsberg and studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. In the early 1930s, she lived in Berlin and worked for a German Zionist organization, collecting evidence for publication abroad about anti-Semitism in German society. She also helped run a sort of 'underground railroad,' getting political enemies of the new Hitler regime (mostly Communists) out of the country. In 1933, after having been arrested in Berlin and held briefly for a few days by the police, she fled without papers but with her widowed mother to Prague, then Geneva, and then Paris."

Waldron asserts that much of what Arendt wrote is "pertinent to the horrors of our time":

"Like her, we are confronted with criminality in government and lying by state officials as a matter of principle. Like her, we have seen the subversion of the Constitution, abuse of the rule of law, and a disastrous war in which, facing "outright, humiliating defeat," the only imperative is to find modes of withdrawal that will somehow not count as "losing" - as though, as she said during the Vietnam War, "'the greatest power on earth' lacked the inner strength to live with defeat." True, we have our own nightmares to add: stolen elections, contempt for international institutions, liberal Islamophobia, the use and defense of torture, and the concentration of prisoners regarded as threats to America in camps where they languish indefinitely beyond the reach of the law."

Waldron is writing about America, but, by association and emulation, this resonates with the Australian experience. By electing politicians with a corrupted view of democratic values and good government we have hitched ourselves to a bandwagon characterized by "the insidious and nonspectacular aspects of political and moral deterioration. It is here...that her concept of "the banality of evil" comes into its own."

One day you wake up to find yourself in a body politic that is divisive, mean spirited, comfortable with bullying, intolerant of disadvantage and difference and bankrupt of ideas for future peace and harmony. Fear and hate become the norm, and those seeking a path that acknowledges the equal worth of all people and the universality of the human experience are marginalized and demonized.

By electing politicians that feed our fears and relieve us of the burden of free and independent thought - through "cliches and jargon, stock phrases and analogies, dogmatic adherence to established bodies of theory and ideology, the petrification of ideas" - we are all diminished. When we hear slogans such as "the war on terror", "staying the course", "cutting and running", "the Islamic community", "queue jumpers", we should be aware that it is "spin", that we are being told what to think, and this should make us suspicious and angry.

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