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Hannah Arendt: Prophet for our Time by James M. Campbell


Jim Campbell is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and was pastor of two Presbyterian churches in the southwestern side of Detroit, then became executive director of the Detroit Industrial Mission. Published by the Detroit Industrial Mission, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 4: Some Implications


"The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might and the Republic is in danger. Yes, danger from within and without.

‘We need law and order. Yes, without law and order our nation cannot survive. Elect us and we shall restore law and order."

The above appeared in the April 26, 1970 issue of the Sunday supplement "Parade" under the heading "Quotation to Ponder." It is a quote from a speech ofAdoiph Hitler in Hamburg, 1932.

I did a similar thing in publishing in the Spring, 1970, issue of LIFE AND WORK, DIM’s newsletter, the following:

Martin Niemoller Revisited

They came for the Black Panthers; but I was neither black nor a Panther, so it was of no concern to me.
They came for the draft-resisters; but I was over draft age, so it was of no concern to me.
They came for the Hippies and Freaks; but I wore a tie and kept my hair trim; so it was of no concern to me.
They came for all the black militants; but I was white and mild, so it was of no concern to me.
They came for their political opponents; but I just did my job and avoided politics, so it was of no concern to me.
They came for me; and there was no one left to stand with me.

We are seeing an increasing number of references in speeches and articles to parallels between America in 1970 and pre-Nazi Germany of the twenties and early thirties. We hear charge and counter-charge of insipient facism coming from various quarters in the American political scene.

In reading Hannah Arendt -- and especially "The Origins of totalitarianism" -- it is likewise possible to find innumerable potential parallels. For example, the similarity of today’s collapse of traditional values to the challenge which the "front generation" of the 1920’s (veterans of the trenches of World War I) made to all the traditions of state and culture that had held Europe together for so many years; or the comparison between Hitler’s anti-semitism and the cynical use of racism for political purposes in the political campaigns of George Wallace and others; or the similarity between American actions in Indo-China and European imperialism in Africa at the turn-of. the-century.

Such comparisons are easy and tempting, especially when they support one’s point of view. In such cases we lift up the similarities and ignore the differences.

It is equally possible to blind ourselves to the lessons of history, stressing the differences between our situation and the past, and ignoring similar steps that once led to ruin.

Really prophetic insight avoids both these traps. It points to fundamental human experiences and raises them up as warning signals to decision-makers. This is what Arendt does in her writings.

At the risk of misinterpreting both Arendt and our times, I will conclude this review by noting both the questions and the signs of hope that her theses raise in my mind about what’s happening today.

Bureaucracy: Organized Impotence?

Day in, day out in the work of industrial mission we meet with persons at various levels in the auto industry. We find union members cynical even about their local unions in which at least technically they have a voice. We meet corporation executives who feel impotent and superfluous but are too well paid to complain. We work closely with leaders in business and governmental agencies who have a vision of what is needed but are becoming tired and depressed in the face of the seeming impossibility of fundamental change.

We see engineers and technicians who, like assembly line workers, are little more than Arendt’s "animal laborans," performing by rote in rhythm with the auto year. Not craftsmen, certainly not men of action, and cut off by affluence and technology from any direct tie with the elements of nature.

I see in myself, in friends and neighbors, signs of futility

about influencing anything. There are "concerned" citizens easily falling back on just doing their unfulfilling jobs in the huge organizations that employ them, getting their paychecks, and devoting their creativity to planning a vacation or creating a private bohemia at home.

How widespread are these maladies of impotence and public isolation? Is it conceivable that we can reshape our bureaucratic structures such that the deep human experiences of labor and craftsmanship are really present and the fundamental capacity for action can be exercised in the plants and offices of our land? Or are our bureaucracies organized impotence? Is their only human product "good Germans," fodder for a latter day "Fuhrer"?

Slipping Into Totalitarianism?

How serious is repression in the USA today? The purpose of repression is political isolation. Cut off the dissidents; assure the leadership of a silent, obedient majority. There is evidence both of repressive efforts at political isolation and political awakening.

The current game of "Capture the Flag" is a case in point, with one side arguing "my country right or wrong" and the other side arguing "America: change it or lose it." The lesson of Nuremberg, which established an international principle that no one can escape responsibility for his actions on the basis of obedience of orders, seemingly is fading in the minds of many. Army personnel who refuse to obey unjust orders, draft resistors, people who withhold income taxes because of Vietnam are being branded traitors. Particularly sinister is the recent statement by Vice-President Agnew that tarred former statesmen Averill Harriman, Clark Clifford, and Cyrus Vance with the brush of traitorism. The encouraging aspect lies in the fact that there is strong debate about such matters. Some day soon will there only be silence?

Closely intertwined with the threat of repression is the issue of racial conflict. The key question is, can white America face its own racism, take responsibility for it, and move to change it? Racism in the form of anti-semitism became a powerful tool in the hands of the Nazis and to a lesser degree the Stalinists. Recently passed arrest and detention laws imposed by Congress on Washington, D.C., with its plurality of black people, suggest the beginning steps in removing the basic civil rights of people, with blacks once again the first and prime victims. We know that something fundamental is being tampered with when a solid conservative like Sam Ervin of North Carolina denounces the Washington laws as violating constitutional rights. Mr. Agnew’s provocative assertion that increasing black enrollment in universities will produce inferior diplomas gives high level approval to the assumption of black inferiority that is already written so deeply in our white bones. Yet there is also growing anti-racist effort, "new white consciousness" as well as new black identity. Will it be soon enough and sufficient to defuse racism as a tool of insipient totalitarianism?

Debate continues to rage about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. That political and economic imperialism is a strong factor in our exploits there and elsewhere in the world can hardly be denied, despite our rhetoric about freedom, democracy, and self-determination. Older citizens well remember Hitler’s justification for invading the Sudetenland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia -- protection of the lives and rights of Germans living in those countries -- when they hear administration explanations of American actions whether in the Dominican Republic or Cambodia. Russia offers the same explanations of its actions in eastern Europe. Can a non-imperialist role be fashioned for our country now? Or will the forces pushing for "victory" and economic domination continue to make imperialism -- that second major root of totalitarianism -- a policy of our government? And from such policy and action will a "Pan-America" ideology develop that rallies the "hard-hats" (our latter-day brown shirts) to flag and nation and justifies the suppression of all dissent?

Such questions point to danger from the right. But the Russian experience reminds us that totalitarianism can come on stage from the left wing as well.

Memo to the Radical Left

Students for a Democratic Society began in 1962 under the banner of participatory democracy -- bright young men and women committed to freedom and exercising their human capacity for action, for beginning new things. Then and now they denounce racism, imperialism, and capitalism as evil. They call for "power to the people." They want to change the system; they increasingly speak of political revolution that will right all social ills.

Their beginning is auspicious, like that of Jefferson, Robespierre, and Lenin.

But there are warning signs to watch for. Is sharp political and social analysis becoming simplistic ideology -- one idea that explains everything, that provides a secret meaning for every event? Today the young left cherish their local chapters, communes, or particular factions, in which everyone has a voice and criticism is valued, like early Lenin’s love for the soviets and Robespierre’s exaltation of the local societies of French towns and cities. But one day hence will a one-party dictatorship or an all-powerful leader strike down these structures of freedom within the movement, like later Lenin crushing the soviets or Robespierre leading the chapter-societies to the guillotine? Will freedom again be sacrificed to the logic of history or nature as it eventually was in the totalitarian states of Russia and Germany or abandoned for the sake of social liberation as it was in France? The political history which Arendt documents prompts us to raise this question despite the best of rhetoric coming from the Movement’s analysts.

Signs of Hope

But despite these warning questions, the rise of the young left, to me, is a sign of hope. Their call for a new political consciousness in the culture of America, accustomed as older Americans are to viewing political involvement as a decidedly secondary activity if not a dirty one, is a mighty affirmation of the human capacity for action and a long needed antidote to the "just do your job, take care of your family, and stay out of controversial matters" philosophy of most Americans.

So is the rise of black power. That the black man in America no longer submits to daily oppression and insult without a fight and white people and white institutions can no longer do anything they want to blacks with impunity is a sign of hope. Black militancy is an instance of human beings refusing to be isolated and impotent; it is men and women acting in behalf of their own freedom.

Similarly, it is a sign of hope that there are rank and file members of huge organizations -- unions, corporations, government, universities, and churches -- who are beginning to question orders from on high and to say no to previously unquestioned authority. For again, in doing so, men and women are affirming initiative and freedom in pushing influence upward.

Community organization as a political methodology and the drive for "community control of schools" in large urban areas are further instances of hope in that they strike me as strong efforts at -- in Arendt’s phrase -- constituting or structuring

freedom. The pragmatic struggle is to find the right blend of the "participatory democracy" of such efforts with the technical knowledge and skill possessed presently by large centralized systems. People in many quarters are working at finding that blend, and this in itself is encouraging.

Finally, I find hope in our heritage. Unlike the Nazis -- who could build on the Prussian militarism and authoritarianism that dominated Germany’s past -- we have action, freedom, rebellion, civil liberties flowing in our national veins. We also have racism, imperialism, vigilanteeism, and violence. The question is, which heritage will prevail in the decade ahead? Will the bicentennial in 1976 celebrate the renewal or the abandonment of our revolutionary tradition and the freedom that the founding fathers constituted?

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