April 18, 2018

Horribly, Desperately Ill

I'm terribly sorry about my prolonged absence from this space. As many of you have undoubtedly surmised (sadly, correctly), I've been very, very sick. It has been genuinely ghastly, and considerably more than a little scary on several occasions. But! The worst appears to be over for the moment. I don't feel "good" in any physical sense, but I also don't feel as if I've been mauled by a pack of rabid animals and left so weak that I don't care ever to move even a finger again. These days, I measure progress by how many terrible symptoms lessen or even, miraculously, go away.

So I'm very slowly beginning to put myself back together. Very slowly. But I am thinking about pieces I'd like to write again, and I will try to do some writing in the next several days.

I am also almost completely broke. It's a measure of how poor I am that I'm about to run out of cat food for Sasha. In another four or five days, it will all be gone. Oh, I have other cat food -- but Sasha won't eat it. She'll only eat two wet foods, and one dry food. The supply of those three items is almost gone. I've never let this happen in connection with my cats, ever. Not once ever in my lifetime, until now. Yes, things are that bad.

My food is almost gone, too. And there is still one bill to be paid for this month, which won't be paid in current circumstances. Then, in two weeks, it's the first of the month again. Damn. (It reminds me of a terrible old joke. Hysterical Man: "Doctor, do you realize there's a woman having a baby in New York City every two minutes?!?!" Doctor: "Well, for God's sake, find her and STOP HER!!" Ba-da-boom. Somebody needs to find whoever keeps dragging these firsts of the month around, and STOP THE BASTARD!)

Donations in any amount will be received with tremendous gratitude. And we shall make certain that the beauty and splendor of your soul are sung unto the oceans and the mountains -- nay, unto the heavens themselves! -- into the far reaches of time. Too much? Well, I'll put in a lot of good words for you wherever it might count.

Many thanks to those who wrote to me about the Reading Circle idea. I deeply regret that I haven't been able to respond to those emails yet. I'm still mulling over the idea, and I haven't decided how to proceed with it. It's entirely possible that I will simply publish Reading Circle posts as I publish anything else -- but perhaps with a heads-up in advance about what I'm reading, so you can read along with me if you wish. That reminds me. I was thrilled to see recently that a new collection of Hannah Arendt essays has been published. Here's a NYT review. It's the first paragraph of that review that has made me so curious to read the collection:
What is the relationship between thinking, acting and historical consciousness? How do we preserve a spirited intellectual autonomy that yet includes enough sense of the past to contextualize and resist those power-grabbers who would bamboozle the public with their own fun house versions of truth? Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist, was always acutely concerned with questions of how to make thought and knowledge matter in the struggle against injustice, never more so than in the last two decades of her life, when the rich medley of the material collected in “Thinking Without a Banister” was created. “What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed,” she remarked in a 1973 interview. “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” A lying government pursuing shifting goals has to ceaselessly rewrite its own history, leaving people not only dispossessed of their ability to act, “but also of their capacity to think and to judge,” she declared. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Although I've see passages in Arendt that hint at the ideas in the passage I highlighted, I don't recall seeing Arendt express them this clearly in other contexts. And despite my profound respect for Arendt (as well as gratitude to her, for all I have learned from her), I am compelled to say that I think these particular ideas are completely wrong.

If we assume that this brief excerpt accurately conveys Arendt's view, then it would seem that Arendt conceives of the rise of a dictatorship or totalitarian state as a problem of lack of information: "that the people are not informed." I reject this as an explanation, for at least two reasons. First -- and here, we are the beneficiaries of research into Nazi Germany performed after Arendt's death -- we now know that the inhabitants of the Third Reich were remarkably well-informed about what the Nazis were doing, and why. This was true from the beginning, and continued through all the critical stages of the Nazis' consolidation of power. For many details about this subject, please see this essay of mine from 2012. Gellately's book (Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany) is a treasure trove of information, and it should scare you to death. Second, there is this formulation in the NYT review:
A lying government pursuing shifting goals has to ceaselessly rewrite its own history, leaving people not only dispossessed of their ability to act, “but also of their capacity to think and to judge,” she declared.
I admit that I'm very puzzled that Arendt should say this, which makes me extremely curious to read this new book. (Since I have no funds to buy it myself at the moment, I would suggest that someone might purchase it as a gift. In the past, though, I've sometimes ended up with two or three copies of something when I did that. I only need one! It's safer for me to buy it myself, assuming I have enough from donations once more basic needs are addressed.) When people are confronted with a "lying government pursuing shifting goals" and "ceaselessly rewrit[ing] its own history," they are not dispossessed "of their capacity to think and to judge." One makes a judgment about that fact. We are dispossessed of our capacity to think and to judge only when we are dead (or at least brain dead), and not a moment before. And surely, we are not unfamiliar ourselves in our own time with a "lying government pursuing shifting goals," etc., are we? Indeed, that was one of my central points in that essay from 2012. And despite the incessant lying, and despite the fact that we live in an era when all news (excepting a few genuinely alternative, radical sites) is "fake news," we still have more than sufficient information to make numerous judgments, none of them good.

I have a lot more to say on this, but it should wait until I have the book in hand and can give this thorny subject the time and attention it requires. One of the key issues is, not to sound grandiose about it, how one conceives of evil. It now seems to me that Arendt and I come down in very different places on this question.

For now, thank you, thank you, and thank you once again, for your patience and understanding, and for your immense kindness. Sasha is sleeping at my feet as I write this. She raised her head for a moment, and mewed her thanks as well. This is actually a fact. I would never lie about the divinity that graces my life with her beloved presence.