Hannah Arendt: The Movie and the Myth- Part II

There is something much deeper  in Arendt’s conscious and unconscious motivation that is responsible for her cluelessness to the public reaction to her articles and book. I believe that the explanation for Hannah Arendt’s conscious and unconscious intent is to be found in her rootedness in the methods, attitudes and values of the modern research university originating in the 19th century in Germany. The evolution of this orientation has enormous consequences for our time. It has been brilliantly analyzed by Anthony T. Kronman, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale and former dean of Yale Law School, in his book, Education’s End:Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. According to Kronman, the German research university ideal, transferred to this country by American graduate students studying in Germany, emphasized scholarly detachment and scholarly specialization. Detachment meant complete objectivity. It meant excluding emotional, political, social, and most certainly, religious-spiritual inputs which 19th century Enlightenment scholars categorically rejected. As the detective in a TV crime drama says to a witness: “Only the facts please.”

The problem is that beginning in the 19th century and continuing to the present there has been an explosion of facts. The response of the research university is specialization. It means narrowing the intellectual focus to a very small limited area of facts that  one can control and investigate. The narrow specialization with a focus on facts and a limited focus on their interpretation works well for the natural sciences and certain social sciences like economics. It has also enabled the humanities to deepen information in specific areas and to create accurate texts of classic works.

What about the larger meaning of these fact for a person’s life? One would expect this to be the focus of philosophers and philosophy departments. One of my former students, a philosophy major, raised this issue with his professors. He asked them specifically: “What should I do with my life? How does God affect human choices and decisions? How do we make senses of good and evil in the world? What is the soul? What happens after death? ” His professors laughed at him. They told him to forget this stuff. It would get him nowhere. It would do him no good professionally or in the business world.

The scholars and teachers of the modern research oriented university are dedicated people. They live a life of self-sacrifice beginning as graduate students. As professors they are prepared to give up time for family and personal needs, even health, in the pursuit of continuous, disciplined work in a very restricted field. Huston Smith, the great scholar of the comparative study of religion, revealed to a group of colleagues and students that his wife almost left him because of his workaholic schedule and the habits it evoked. Unlike Smith, who had broad human interests in many areas of knowledge and welcomed and pursued large life questions and meanings, many scholar-teachers are prepared to accept the dominant attitude of the academy and ignore them.

Hannah Arendt wore these blinders in relation to the larger meaning of the Holocaust and the State of Israel for the Jewish people during the Eichmann trial. They also prevented her from understanding compassionately the long tradition of stadlanut, the intercession by Jewish leaders on behalf of the Jews with kings and political leaders. This intercession, already present in the Hebrew Bible, in the Books of Exodus, Esther and Ezra and Nehemiah, was what Jewish leaders during the Holocaust were trying to do with very limited success. Typical was the mission of Joel Brand sent to Turkey to contact the allies about the possibilities of exchanging goods for Jewish lives. In the end one trainload of Hungarian Jews were saved. In the face of the Nazi genocide program, intercession was ultimately useless. Moreover, as Sol Stern and Norman Podhoretz before him note, there were no Jewish councils and no widely acknowledged Jewish leaders in many areas of the Soviet Union under Nazi occupation. Similarly, Arendt turned a blind eye to facts of Jewish revolt and resistance, which though occurring later in the war, were well known, particularly in Israel during the Eichmann trial.

Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial was conditioned by the attitudes and values she absorbed from the German research university ideal going back to the Enlightenment. But it was also conditioned by her leftist political views and Communist sympathies, her dislike of Zionism and the State of Israel and her emotional attachment to her university professor and former lover, Martin Heidegger. This attachment was so strong that, as Stern points out, the historian Richard Wolin, who carefully researched the Arendt-Heidegger connection, documented Arendt’s activity as Heidegger’s literary agent in America. Ironically, these latter elements were what the old German university-Enlightenment paradigm demanded that scholars ignore in the service of objectivity. True to this paradigm Arendt put on her blinders when she wrote her articles and book but unwittingly was compromised by the very elements the paradigm was unable to exclude.

Though her beliefs and love affair compromised her scholarly detachment and objectivity, Hannah Arendt remained a person of integrity, free of ulterior self-seeking motives.  Not so Heidegger.  He sought to wrap himself in the academic robe of the German university ideal.  In a flashback in the movie he explains to Hannah, when she visits him in Germany after World War II, that he made his peace with the Nazis because he had no head or interest in politics.  It is a lame explanation.  This ivory tower philosopher became an avid member of the Nazi party delivering fiery speeches honoring Hitler.  When the Nazis made him rector of the University of Freiburg, he carried out their directive to eliminate all Jews from the faculty. Others who rejected the Nazis were imprisoned, lived in hiding in abject poverty or abroad as refugees. 

Around the same time as the emergence of the German university research scholars and their value system, there emerged two other groups who, in their own way, shared similar attitudes.  The first was a class of professional bureaucrats who, in the 19th century, took over many of the administrative tasks of the modern nation state.  Like their academic counterparts, they performed their duties in a spirit of dedication.  But they too wore blinders as to the larger meaning and ramifications of what they were doing.  There was also a class of capitalist entrepreneurs whose ambition was to increase the profitability of their enterprises.  Single-mindedly, they sacrificed much in personal and familial relationships to the amassing of wealth and power.  Like the scholar-teachers and the bureaucrat administrators, they turned a blind eye to the economic, political, social, ecological, not to mention ethical-moral damage, resulting from their activities. 

Adolf Eichmann, defending himself at his trial in Jerusalem, sought to don the mantle of the dedicated bureaucrat carrying out his orders in a spirit of self-sacrifice.  But like the pose of Heidegger as a single minded, detached scholar with no head or interest in politics, it was a monstrous lie. Eichmann was a traveling salesman for the Socony Vacuum Company.  By joining the Nazis to become a willing instrument of Jewish genocide, he attained power, prestige and wealth. Similarly, German capitalists like I.G. Farben who, after World War II, claimed to have been interested only in surviving the war, in reality made huge sums of money from Jewish slave labor and the construction of the killing centers.  For these capitalists, the murder of 6,000,000 Jews and countless other innocents was, to use the contemporary chilling military term, collateral damage. 

Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann trial are now distant history.  But the attitudes and values of Arendt, and in a far more self-serving way, her scholar-teacher Martin Heidegger, and in a monstrous way, Adolf Eichmann, are still with us.  In the university, the larger question of life’s meaning and purpose has been buried under mountains of facts and eclipsed by narrow specialization and scholarly detachment, not only in the sciences but also in the humanities.  The university student upheavals in the 1960s that should have brought a return to issues of life’s meaning resulted instead in a culture of political correctness that questions the legitimacy of these issues and the authority of scholar-teachers to examine them.  

The Enlightenment ideal of dedication and self-sacrifice has been eroding for some time.  Reports from the frontiers of biological science relate that genetic experiments are being undertaken with lax supervision and regulation.  In the pursuit of promotions, money and Nobel Prizes, profound ethical questions are being ignored.  The self-serving interest of contemporary entrepreneurs is most recently evident in the near economic meltdown of 2007-2008.  The corporate world’s greed, its dishonesty and indifference to public welfare almost reenacted the Great Depression.  The politicians who weakened the laws that should have stopped the corporate raiders, and the bureaucrats neglected to regulate them, have all inherited the blinders and corrupt values portrayed in the movie Hannah Arendt.

 Part III …

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About Rabbi Joseph Schultz, PhD

Dr. Joseph Schultz served as Rabbi for congregations in Brookline, MA, Norwich, CT and Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schultz founded the Jewish Studies Program at Boston University where he was Assistant Professor of Religion and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he was Oppenstein Brothers Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. He helped establish the Center for Religious Studies in 1996, a consortium of six colleges, theological schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offering an interdisciplinary graduate program for the PhD in Religious Studies. Dr. Schultz was its first director.

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