Monday, March 08, 2010

Horowitz, Irving Louis. "Assaulting Arendt." FIRST THINGS (February 2010).

The honorable tradition of criticism carries with it a displeasing aspect. This is especially the case in the higher academic circles. Reputations are too frequently made when pygmies stand on the shoulders of giants and when iconic and sometimes heroic figures are symbolically cut down to size. The theory is that, if the critic saws off the legs of those who have managed to stand tall for generations, the midgets can win handily in face-to-face combat with the dead. This is not to deny that even the most talented are sometimes in error; criticism is a useful art. It is, however, a derivative art. Criticism finds acceptance in a culture that measures success by small errors rather than by large-scale successes. The recent critique of Hannah Arendt is a case in point. The most comprehensive assault to date, some thirty-five years after her death, is also the most recent. Bernard Wasserstein, professor of modern European Jewish history at the University of Chicago, comments on Arendt in the Times Literary Supplement in October 2009 under the title “Blame the Victim: Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis.” He offers not just a selective summary of “the historian and her sources” but also an umbrella of charges and allegations from other prominent figures over the past half century. One of the most infamous is that of my good friend Walter Laqueur—a significant figure in his own right. Wasserstein spares us the need to pick through the emotive rubble that has plagued Arendt’s career, stitching together a picture of her as either a gullible reader of neo-Nazi literature or a closet Jewish anti-Semite in need of intellectual detoxification. In summary, but not in any way an exaggeration, Wasserstein claims the following: • The success of Arendt’s earlier work is owed more to the way it locked on to mid-twentieth-century Western guilt over imperialism and the continued strengthening of the Cold War than to The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt’s conception of the dynamics of historical change is little more than a confused mishmash of the structural, the social-psychological, and the conspiratorial. • Her works display a deep ignorance of political economy, diplomacy, and military strategy. Furthermore, she had little grasp or even interest in the mechanics of the political process in the states about which she wrote. • Rather than examine hard evidence, she deals in trifles and inflates them into richly colored balloons of generalization. At a time when superior historians were rejecting and becoming disenchanted by the idea of totalitarianism, her work in this area did not explain the generalization. • Her comparisons of Nazism and communism were sporadic and uneven, and she hardly dealt with Italian fascism as predecessor of these test cases of totalitarianism. The concept was incorporated into the vernacular of the 1960s and 1970s only because it served the useful ideological purposes of the Cold Warriors at the time. • The burden of her later work is blaming Jewish victims rather than anti-Semitic perpetrators. In her inversion of victims and victimizers, her bile knew no ethnic boundaries or rationalizations. • There was always a special edge to her criticism of her own Jewish people. She swallowed sometimes in whole cloth the poisonous anti-Semitism hatched in the Weimar period, much of which was shrouded in the Nazi literature of the age. The ferocity of his critique blinds Wasserstein to several uncomfortable facts. . . . Read the rest here:

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