Origins of Totalitarianism- with Love, from Europe

How fitting to be filling out new hire paperwork for my new job in refugee resettlement the same week that the new president is due to sign executive orders to ban most refugees from entering the county.

I am currently reading “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by political theorist, Hannah Arendt. I received the book in the mail last month from from Brussels, Belgium sent by my friend Loic from my study abroad time in England. He left this message:

“I guess reading remains the most profound rebellion against stupid autocrats.”

I’m 30 pages into the dense 479 page book, and I am committing to reading it. Arendt was a German born Jewish-American citizen, a refugee who fled the Holocaust.

Arendt is really stretching my mind in the way that we think about the Holocaust, the “Jewish question” and scapegoat theory. And I’m really not quite sure where she is leading me yet, but I think I have an obligation to keep reading at least until I understand what she is getting at.

She takes us through a narrative of European history beginning with the transition from Feudalism to the modern State system. Arendt states that during this transition, it was the Jewish people who were given special privileges, but not equality. The Jewish community of Europe was largely responsible for banks and the beginnings of state money, as they alone did not have a social class to fit into (i.e. proletariat or bourgeois). Thus, they found comfort not in identifying with political parties within the state, but with the state itself. Arendt posits later that this seeming leftover of aristocracy handed over to the Jewish people, with a role as international players representing state money but not tied down by Nationalism, left the Jewish people to take full brunt of scapegoat identity.

Arendt also argues that as Jewish people had privileges with the state, they were also losing their prominence in society. “Jews concerned with the survival of their people would, in a curious desperate misinterpretation, hit on the consoling idea that antisemitism, after all, might be an excellent means for keeping the people together, so that the assumption of eternal antisemistism would even imply an eternal guarantee of the Jewish existence.”

Ardent continues that because there was already a pre-existing prejudice and inequality toward the Jews (by existing outside of the class system), they were the ideal target for the new State government to place blame on. As the classes became upset at the State, the State shifted the blame to the remnants of feudalism and aristocracy left: the Jewish community.

Arendt believes that understanding what happened in Europe before, during and after the Holocaust will help us understand the pattern of totalitarian movements in the future.

“Terror, however, is only the last instance of its development a mere form of government. In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be presented as an instrument for carrying out specific ideology, and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority before terror can be stabilized.”

Trying to compare this narrative of Jewish history to what is happening now with immigrants in America “taking our jobs,” and Muslim people as “terrorists,” I can’t yet make a clear connection. But maybe I will, as I read on and Trump’s America progresses.

“It has already been noticed that the Nazis were not simple nationalists. Their nationalist propaganda was directed toward their fellow-travelers and not their convinced members,” Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism).

This whole week has been an overwhelming amount of information and emotion. I have decided that the best way for me to deal with it is to write about it. And read, read, read. That being said, I have just taken on a new full time job that is sure to take up a lot of my time. But I hope to become more committed to writing a blog regularly, and staying informed on the news. I try to watch the online news show Democracy Now! daily, as well as scan the Guardian and the New York Times for headlines. I have occassionally reactivated my facebook to learn more about the local activist events happening around the city, but within a few days I find myself deleting my social media account again, because it seems to be taking more of my time than it is saving.

I’ve subscribed to my favorite local activist groups via email, so that is my main form of news, networking and information daily. I feel sort of underground in comparison to Carp who is being bombarded by emotion on the social media sites throughout the day.

There is a level of self care that every person in our country has to think about right now, and it means something different for everyone.

For some people it might mean deleting your social media accounts for the time being. For others, it might mean avoiding the news completed for a few weeks at a time. For others, it might be immersing yourself completely in everything that is happening, and only coming up for gulps of air every few days to drink a beer with a friend and watch a Netflix show, then dive back into the muddy political waters of America and the international community again.

I almost quit my Spanish class last night. I bought the expensive textbook, showed up on time, and then engaged with my practice partner in the ways of Español for an hour while the teacher told silly stories, and I remembered why I believed college classes to be a waste of time most of the time. When my practice partner left halfway through class, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, and then walked out of the classroom mid lecture as well. In an age of time poverty, I couldn’t justify sticking around in a class and listening to a teacher’s constant stream of jokes that I didn’t find funny.

But today is a new day, and I realize that even if the teacher isn’t quit fitting to my personality, I’m still learning something. Spanish last night was clearer than it’s ever been in my life, and I did learn. When I left halfway through with the intention of coming home and studying, that did not happen. So it stands to reason that being forced to sit in a class, even if the teacher gets off topic and starts talking about their personal life a little too much, is worthwhile because you do learn.

So I’m not quitting, but I probably won’t be the model student quite yet. I’m heading to Austin on Sunday to visit a friend, and will be back on Wednesday for my new job, fighting the imperialistic patriarchal violence on our national agenda’s docket, and also Spanish class.

Photo: 2014-08 Graffiti Patrik Wolters alias BeneR1 in the team with Kevin Lasner alias koarts

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