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Arendt, Racism, & The Death Of The West

Hannah Arendt in 1964 (Source)

Reading journalist Robert D. Kaplan’s engrossing memoir In Europe’s Shadow, I ran across a quote from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism that sent me back to the original looking for more context. Below is the quote Kaplan uses, plus the paragraph that precedes it:

The philosophy of Hobbes, it is true, contains nothing of modern race doctrines, which not only stir up the mob, but in their totalitarian form outline very clearly the forms of organization through which humanity could carry the endless process of capital and power accumulation through to its logical end in self-destruction. But Hobbes at least provided political thoughts with the prerequisite for all race doctrines, that is, the exclusion in principle of the idea of humanity which constitutes the sold regulating idea of international law. With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all agains all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world. If the idea of humanity, of which the most conclusive symbol is the common origin of the human species, is no longer valid, then nothing is more plausible than a theory according to which brown, yellow, or black races are descended from some other species of apes than the white race, and that all together are predestined by nature to war against each other until they have disappeared from the face of the earth.

Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origins of people but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

What Arendt is saying is that if we start to think of each other primarily in terms of race, not our common humanity, we doom ourselves. This is why, in my view, the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the high points of the Western tradition. And look how quickly we threw it away! The dominant white power structure of the pre-Civil Rights period saw black people primarily in terms of race, and diminished their humanity. In so doing, whites also diminished their own humanity. King taught Americans to see this, and to repent of it. He was a Christian and a classical liberal in this way.

I see no good coming out of the ruling class’s obsession with racial classification. This is the kind of thing we’re getting every day now:

The people who run our institutions are training Americans to see everyone and everything through the lens of race and other identitarian characteristics, and not focus on our common humanity. This is certainly the death of classical liberalism, and a guarantee of endless strife. Put another way, the universities, media, corporations, and other institutions are teaching Americans to suspect and even despise each other on the basis of race. And as brave teacher Paul Rossi correctly notes, it is creating a new generation of white racists:

And one more Arendt quote from The Origins of Totalitarianism, a quote I used in Live Not By Lies. Here she is talking about how pre-totalitarian societies prepared the way for totalitarianism:

The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the
fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.

We see this now, here. For example:

It’s happening. It’s happening here in America. Solzhenitsyn said, in the introduction to the 1983 edition of The Gulag Archipelago, that many people around the world think that what happened in Russia — the capture of the country by a totalitarian ideology — could never happen where they live. In fact, he said, it could happen anywhere on earth, under the right conditions. One more passage from Live Not By Lies, and from Solzhenitsyn:

In retrospect, this seems almost unbelievable. How could the Russians have been so blind? It was, in a sense, a problem of the imagination. Reflecting on the speed with which utopian dreams turned into a grisly nightmare,

Solzhenitsyn observed:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

It wasn’t just the tsarists who didn’t see it coming but also the country’s leading liberal minds. It was simply beyond their ability to conceive.

These progressive activists and their fellow travelers leading American institutions have no idea what evil seeds they are planting in the hearts of Americans. There are people alive in this country who lived in an era when the KKK murdered people over race. This is within living memory. The capacity of decent, everyday Americans to turn into savages when drunk on racialism is not something we put behind us forever. It remains with us, because we are human beings. Our common humanity means we share a common fallenness. For all its problems — and heaven knows I’ve talked about them here — classical liberalism has at least given us a means to rise above racialism, and live together in as close to peace and justice as we are going to manage in this fallen world. There are no utopias; we will constantly be working on making our democracy better. That’s just how it is. But these utopian totalitarians are taking us backward, in the name of progress.

We are watching the auto-destruction of a nation. I wonder if we can still save it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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