In a nice long review article in The New Yorker I just came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:
I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective…. I indeed love ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.
This was Hannah Arendt, accepting an accusation that she lacked love of the Jewish people. To express the thought, I have nothing to add: I agree completely; which is perhaps ironic in the context of the reviewer’s argument that Arendt’s deep commitment to impersonality was actually the product of her personal biography.
I mean, of course it was. Biography always explains where ideas came from and never explains why one person’s idea is persuasive to someone else who didn’t share the details of their life.
In my world history sections I’ve been doing my usual sales schtick where I ask why we study history, then break down the familiar, unpersuasive advertising-copy answers to arrive at the (foregone, for so many of the students) conclusion that history is useless; only to revive it, like a phoenix from the ashes, by arguing that history’s uselessness is the very best thing about it.
That’s another post; here I’m interested in one particular way the conversation about the “knowing where we came from” cliche’ went. We were talking about my multiethnic background and whether it was somehow significant about me that among my mongrel northern European ancestry was some fashionable Scottishness. Is that ‘my culture’ somehow, given that to have any of it other than the reddish beard and bad skin for sun I’d have to learn it like any other foreigner? Why Scottish rather than German, which is also in there — except that there’s no useful resonance in being German? And what to make of my closer heritage from my German grandma, who was a jerk? Perhaps all Germans are jerks? I’ve got some attention now, needless to say.
Arendt was German, of course, and so was Einstein, and not a jerk by all reports. I’d rather hitch my wagon to those guys, you betcha, brilliant mind over here like all of Hannah’s and Albert’s peeps. Or to the great-grandpa on the other side of the family who discovered the glacier. Wait, am I supposed to be personally proud of that? Why? I do find pennies sometimes, and I don’t mind being cold every so often. Can I get a little respect over here?
There are ways in which Arendt’s radical individualism and suspicion of group entanglements can read like Ayn Rand Lite, and as both a historian and a sociologist I do know how deeply and intricately structured our agency is. Still, I am so sympathetic, intellectually and emotionally, to Arendt’s insistence on committing her affection and loyalty only specifically: how do I know in the abstract if any given affiliation carries enough substantive similarity to warrant the same response from me? My regard is an accomplishment, not an entitlement; it has to be earned. This is why I refused offers to join fraternities in college: I’m not interested in being friends with people I don’t like just because we wear the same sweater. If you’re a jerk you don’t stop being a jerk because we live in the same house.
Along the same lines I also sympathize with Arendt’s scorn for the mischief collective identity can cause, as for example in the banning of Arab parties from upcoming Israeli elections because their opposition to the current war is taken as support for terrorism. No doubt some Israeli Arabs have indeed sold out their critical intelligence for blind allegiance to ‘their people’. And now we have proof positive that they are joined in this procedure by at least a few Jews.