Stop and Think
The level of public discourse in America continues to sink as journalistic integrity is continuously sacrificed for likes, hearts, and viral fame. Factual truth is under assault from the right and left, negating the common ground of dialogue and understanding. Instead of lifting up the public realm in this dark moment, finding higher ground to report on the facts and events of life, columnists are swallowed up by the media tide foregoing truth, integrity, and a sense of ethical obligation. Whether it is Rachel Maddow whipping up media frenzy over finding two pages of Trump’s tax returns, or the BBC reporting that Trump was snubbed by Poland’s first lady (she did shake his hand), I find it difficult to muster hope for the future of American democracy. There are far too many examples of bad reporting to list. So, I want to focus on a recent one that has some direct relevance to Hannah Arendt.
Last Sunday, in what appears to be a reactionary Tweet, Bill Kristol threw his hat in with the worst of the Internet’s conspiracy theorists. Kristol who has been smartly criticizing President Trump and the media’s coverage of Trump’s presidency sent out a surprising Tweet in the style of Trump. It was short, doltish, and revealed a lack of veracity. Kristol, retweeting Jonah Goldberg, wrote: #NeverTrump., #NeverFrankfurtSchool. It’s not clear from Mr. Goldberg’s writings that he has any real knowledge of the Frankfurt School, but that is another matter. What’s more disconcerting is that it’s not clear from Kristol’s retweet and hash tags that he knows much about what he’s agreeing with or saying either. And this is what reporting and the news have come to, and why our level of dialogue continues to decline. People say things that aren’t true to elicit attention, and then other people share what they’ve said without stopping and thinking about what they’re sharing.
If Mr. Kristol had taken the time to think about Mr. Goldberg’s clichéd 140 characters, he might have found out that there is no such thing as the Frankfurt School. If the school existed, it did so only for a very brief period of time. Felix Weil founded the Institute for Social Research in 1923 as an independent Marxist research organization at the University of Frankfurt. The Institute wanted to understand why the revolution failed and what was happening to the economy in the Germany. In 1930 Max Horkheimer became the director of the Institute and changed its direction, combining philosophy, psychoanalysis, Marxism, cultural, and literary studies. Some of the most prominent individuals affiliated with the Institute — Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse — disagreed on the political questions of the day, struggling to understand the nature of social change, economic theory, and political protest. Walter Benjamin, who has posthumously become one of the most famous thinkers associated with the so-called Frankfurt School never even belonged to the Institute. When he submitted his habilitation on The Origin of German Tragic Drama to the philosophy department at the university he was told it was too obscure, and was denied a teaching post.
In 1933/34, the members of the Institute were forced to flee Nazi Germany. They initially took up residence in Geneva and then New York City, where the Institute found a home at Columbia University. Without an institutional affiliation or papers, Benjamin fled to Paris in 1933 and stayed there until it fell to the Nazis in 1940, which is where he met Hannah Arendt.
Arendt was not a member of the Institute (she spent a year in Frankfurt before the war with her first husband), but she was a fellow traveler in exile. Her fondness for Benjamin is as well recorded as her hatred for Adorno. Despite Arendt and Adorno’s points of agreement here and there on matters of moral philosophy, Arendt once remarked “Der kommt uns nicht ins Haus!” [That one is not coming into our house!] She blamed him for her husband’s failure to secure a teaching job in Frankfurt, and ultimately for Benjamin’s death, because he refused to offer him a position at the Institute. In 1940 Arendt and Benjamin were interned in Gurs in the South of France. It is not known how they escaped. Before parting, Benjamin handed Arendt his final piece of writing “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, which is now kept among her papers. After she reached American in 1941, Arendt arranged for Benjamin’s travel papers, but as is now well known, he was unable to survive the war and took a handful of morphine pills when he saw that crossing between France and Spain was impossible. After his death, Arendt and Adorno worked together begrudgingly to compile a volume of Benjamin’s essays in Illuminations.
It would be an understatement to say Benjamin influenced Arendt’s thinking. There are phrases from “Theses on the Philosophy of History” sewn throughout The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her idea of constellating, drawing together different elements, her emphasis on metaphor, and the relationship between poetics and thinking, are tied to Benjamin’s writing. She saw a fellow poetic thinker in him. Arendt’s work on Origins stands next to Adorno and Horkheimer’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Hebert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, texts also influenced by Benjamin’s work. Each text, published around the same time, is trying to understand how the phenomenal emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century happened. They are wrestling with the facts and events of their lives.
And this is precisely the kind of journalism, reporting, and intellectual work we need today. Representative democracy is crumbling across the globe, and instead of committing one’s self to serious, historical work, the news media has decided that it is going to accelerate the collapse of the public sphere and join the politicians in attacking truth. Instead of being a truth-teller and finding a higher ground beyond the endless rubbish that stands for news, Mr. Kristol has thrown his hat in with ideologically driven conspiracy theorists to take a cheap shot at a group of German Jewish public intellectuals, who more than anything — despite their political differences — understood that we have to stop and think what we are doing.
Samantha Rose Hill, Assistant Director and Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Studies at Bard College