Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Pariah: can Hannah Arendt help us rethink our global refugee crisis? by Jeremy Adelman

Camps and pariahs are still with us. They have never been more numerous


To be unwanted is never just about being rejected by those who throw you out.

Hannah Arendt was on her way to lunch with her mother Martha when a Berlin policeman arrested her and took her to the presidium at Alexanderplatz. It was 1933. Hitler had been in power for several months; Hermann Göring’s agents were rounding up suspicious activists. The young researcher for the German Zionist Organization spent eight days in jail while gendarmes scoured her apartment, examined her philosophical notes, and pored over her mysterious codes — a selection of Greek quotes. Upon her release, she packed her bags. Since the torching of the Reichstag in February, life had become hell for socialists, communists, and Jews. Like others before her, and more after, Arendt fled to Paris. She would spend the next 18 years as a refugee, a stateless person, a pariah.

There are 60 million refugees in the world, the highest sum of pariahs since 1945. The figure tripled in the past year alone. Half of the world’s unwanted are under age 18. Most will grow up in a camp. Many will die escaping their places of origin; more than 3,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015. The lucky ones will make new homes. But how welcome they will feel can be gauged by the decibel level of nativists like Donald Trump, a chorus of Republican governors and candidates, Marine Le Pen in France, and the surging Danish People’s Party. So long as these negative voices have the megaphone, can the resettled ever feel at home?

This human condition needs to be taken more seriously. It is fast becoming the worst humanitarian crisis of our times. Nativists are making it worse by denying a tradition of granting asylum to the stateless. We have seen the cycle before — and it never looks good. People look back on shut-them-out policies with shame (this is certainly the way Americans, Canadians, and others view the treatment of asylum-seeking Jews in the 1930s and 1940s). Are we destined to repeat the cycle? If we cannot come up with a coherent response to the nativists in our midst, the answer will be yes, and the consequences for relations with and within the Islamic world and other emergency zones will be lasting. Can Hannah Arendt, the avatar of public philosophy, help us formulate an enlightened response? Can this former refugee help us reaffirm our obligations to people who have nowhere else to turn?

The answer is steeped in her years as a pariah and her insights into dehumanization. Arendt’s own stateless experience helped forge the elements of the book that would make her famous in America and worldwide. The Origins of Totalitarianism was finished in the summer of 1950. In it, she noted that “a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.” Without a political community, man was a pariah. Months later, Arendt closed a long, agonizing chapter of her life and became a naturalized citizen of the United States, a pariah no more.

And yet, her statelessness is often forgotten. We recall her German years and the romance with Martin Heidegger, the source of much fretting about the limits of her idealism. And we remember her American years. When I first read The Origins of Totalitarianism as a student, it was a Cold War classic. There were many beery nights in the 1980s arguing about the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, disputing the ideological distinctions of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. We obsessed about what kind of state ruled. But what it means to have no state at all? Not really.

Nowadays, in our age of terror and fugitives, there is another way to readThe Origins. There is a different Arendt to remember — not the American made famous by Cold War politics or her searing words about the Eichmann trial and the banality of evil, but the stateless Arendt posing for such an iconic image that we have forgotten the reasons for her mournfulness.

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The Origins of Totalitarianism is a book drawn from a well of personal experience. Arriving in Paris, Arendt moved around the small hotels of rue Saint Jacques in the student quarters of the Left Bank. She was married to a fellow philosopher, Günther Stern, but by then it was a union in disarray. They officially divorced in 1937, and Stern left for the United States. She would eventually meet Heinrich Blücher. Not a Jew, but a self-taught communist, Blücher was a pariah in his own way. The two moved to an apartment on rue de la Convention in the 15th arrondissement, a quartier swelling with expatriate Germans. The rent came from bits of her mother’s gold, smuggled out of Germany as buttons sewn to her clothes and hocked to a wealthy female Jewish patron for cash. Refugee conditions were squalid. Living nearby, the exiled economics student Otto Albert Hirschmann (known to us as Albert O. Hirschman) had to combat a cockroach plague so that he and his sister Ursula (the target of Blücher’s seductions before he met Arendt) could sleep. The solution: place the bedposts in pots of kerosene so the swarm of insects could not climb up the furniture and into the bed.


Exile means eviction from one’s political community. But it also brings fresh encounters. To be unwanted is never just about being rejected by those who throw you out. It also entangles refugees with the ambiguities of their hosts. In the case of the legions of Central European Jews fleeing to Paris and London, exile meant dealing with the establishment Jews who often ran the charitable organizations that took care of the fugitives. Arendt made sense of her pariah-hood in brushes with a different Jewish condition: these upstart, establishment Jews. She called them “parvenus,” and they loomed large in her thinking about the Jewish condition and statelessness... read more:

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