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Upon finishing The Origins of Totalitarianism

In general, I'm very pleased with the education that I received at the University of Notre Dame in the late Sixties. The version of the Great Books program that the faculty had devised suited me down to the ground, and in all my later reading, I have never felt that anything fundamental, at least in Western thought, was omitted. Upon reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, however, I can no longer claim such pleasant innocence. A book that had been in print for over fifteen years when I went to college, Totalitarianism is perhaps more important than ever, as the United States fumbles amidst reckless experiments and faces underestimated dangers in debt finance and fuel supply.

We are still too close to the twin dawns of the late eighteenth century - the industrial revolution and the inauguration of the nation-state - to understand how each effected the other. Nor, to follow the analogy to natural cycles, do we know where to put totalitarianism. (I'm inclined to regard it as an adolescent breakdown.) What we do know is that all three developments are related. It is possible that the nation-state might have eschewed totalitarianism, instead of steaming toward it, at least in Arendt's view, with deliberate speed, had there been none of the uprooting of the industrial revolution, filling the cities with superfluous people. I am only beginning to reassemble my grasp of modern European history from the rubble to which Arendt reduced it, but I do see that some sort of totalitarian episode was inevitable by the end of the old regime and the upsurge in scientific and technological expertise, both of which occurred in the late eighteenth century. Because I had not been properly grounded in modern European history, and also because I grew up in an exceptionalist America that has not suffered modern Europe's ongoing crisis of political legitimacy, I had a very hard time understanding Hannah Arendt until well into The Origins of Totalitarianism.

In the American view, the American and French revolutions put an end to monarchical tyranny and ushered in an era, perhaps more than just an era, of democracy. The proposition that democracy is a boon is one that Americans have a very hard time questioning, possibly because it means little more to them than the right to elect their own leaders. Democracy does indeed seem to be the least-bad political system, but its benefits are hardly unmixed with serious drawbacks. Local circumstances, however, worked to shroud these drawbacks in the United States. Take, for example, the very European problem of identifying the "demos" in the first place This was swept aside in the United States by degrading a slave class identifiable by skin color and facial features, compactly if erroneously recognized as a "race." Everyone who did not belong to this outcast group was included in the American demos. That's because the American "nation" (as distinct from the formal American state) consisted wholly of immigrants. Earlier-arriving classes invariably tried to lord it over late arrivals, but without long-term success. (It was perhaps vital for the persistence of racial bigotry that, from first settlement until quite recently, the American Southeast did not attract immigrants from outside the United States.) Regardless of personal prejudice, Irish-Americans are no better or worse than Italian-Americans, or Jewish-Americans, or any other kinds of American. Everybody is equally American. The struggle to extend this equality to the descendants of slaves persists, but it is under way.

From the moment of emancipation, however, the people of Europe had a hard time defining their nations - initially, races in the political and characterological sense, but soon enough racial in a voodoo biological sense - and the relation of those nations to states. France, the pre-eminent nation-state, declared that everybody living within French frontiers was...

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Wow, a lot to digest. I think that this book will have to move up closer to the top of my to-be-read list.

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