Monday, October 09, 2006


The Zeitgeist

Where is the land of the free and the home of the brave headed? Many people are gravely worried -- if certain trends continue -- about the danger of this country becoming a totalitarian police state.

Are these fears justified?

In today's New York Times, Edward Rothstein, paints a fascinating portrait of the lessons intellectuals are drawing from the work of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who tried to come to grips with the factors that allowed both the Nazis and Stalin to come to power.

Arendt most famously wrote “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem” in which she explored the deadly relationship between ideology and the concentration camps.

Scholars, who are observing the centennial of Arendt's birth, have made comparisons between what is happening in America now and what happened in Nazi Germany then. Rothstein observes that "something strange can happen in the midst of these comparisons. The exceptional provides the analogy for the present. The extreme becomes a model for understanding what is less extreme. The unprecedented remains ever-present, serving as a recurring admonition and an insistent demonstration, a guidepost for understanding politics itself." Rothstein cites the following examples:
“I feel the American Republic is in the deepest crisis of my lifetime,” said the writer Jonathan Schell, fearing that though Arendt’s “checklist” for totalitarianism is only partly satisfied by current conditions in the United States, “we are on the edge of that abyss.” The philosopher Susan Neiman, the author of a subtle book, “Evil in Modern Thought,” interpolated her discussion of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin with wonder about whether more guilt should be ascribed to Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz for the war in Iraq. The political scientist George Kateb, after giving a supple discussion of Arendt’s views of morality, turned angry when applying her ideas to the current scene, seeing “the rudiments of a police state” here, and finding evidence of the worst constitutional crisis since the Civil War.

Rothstein is not convinced that we are on the edge of the abyss. "[W]hen the extreme becomes the frame of reference, as it often does in our post-Arendtian world," he writes, "any resemblance to it — however intermittent and fragmentary — is seen in its harsh light. Democracy’s failings warn of totalitarianism. Why, though, even if the critics’ diagnoses are correct, do failings indicate an incipient apocalypse any more than virtues herald a utopian paradise?"

RSR doesn't know if we are on the edge of the abyss or not. The picture Rothstein paints suggests that possibility is a serious concern for thoughtful people. The most important lesson to be drawn from the Zeitgeist is that our fate will not be determined by the gods. It is not predestined. It will be decided by the hard work of those who seek to defeat the totalitarians among us. The current tensions will be resolved by the number of Americans who decide the Constitution is worth fighting for and that the battlefield is not in Iraq, but right here at home.


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