a journal of modern society & culture

Reflections on Arendt

In the late winter of 1957-58, while I had just begun courses at NYU Law School, a manuscript landed on the desk of my mother, Frances Green, who at that time was General Manager of Commentary, as she had been since the magazine’s founding in 1946. As General Manager, she was in charge of the business end, such as circulation and promotion, dealing with suppliers, hiring and firing (what’s nowadays called “human resources,” and which led to the disaster of Norman Podhoretz). The editor-in-chief was Elliot Cohen (not in any way a progenitor of the later neo-con politico of the same name), who had been drafted by the American Jewish Committee from the Menorah Journal to create a quite different kind of Jewish-American magazine, one that would have both feet firmly planted in the middle of New York intellectual life. That task he was perfectly equipped for; but my mother, the General Manager, had a secret job as well—though it wasn’t secret from him. The Board of the AJC (known in the Jewish community as “Committee,” to distinguish it from the more conservative and traditionally Jewish American Jewish Congress, or “Congress”), which had founded, sponsored, and funded Commentary, had appointed my mother to be the Committee’s representative at the magazine.  Primarily this meant making sure that nothing be printed in it that might call into question the AJC’s commitment to liberal assimilation:  i.e., no heavy-handed Jewish nationalism, no morally (i.e., sexually) embarrassing forays that might offend conservative Jews (look up Isaac Rosenfeld’s “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street,” which she did pass after a little rewriting); and above all nothing, nothing, that might damage the fragile but (in the view of both parties) absolutely essential Black/Jewish civil rights alliance of that era, the maintenance of which was the Board’s number one social commitment. No one at the AJC, from Editor Cohen on down, had the Pod’s “Negro problem,” no way.

The manuscript that my mother brought home from the office one day, in the fulfillment of this primary duty, was called “Reflections on Little Rock;” Cohen had had to take only one brief look at before passing it on to her. It was by Hannah Arendt, with whom my parents, who had been heavily involved in Jewish resettlement during and after the War, had once been friendly, but had not seen in many years. At this time, therefore, I knew her primarily as author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which I had just finished reading and received as a masterpiece of historical analysis, above all in her original and compelling argument that racism and anti-Semitism were crucial elements of the Counter-Enlightenment and the deformations of the Twentieth Century; we Greens all thought of her as the most important Jewish thinker of the time.  On the other hand, I had found her attempt in the second part of the book to force Communism into the same mode as Naziism to be pondereous and unconvincing; her brilliance had become strained.

In “Reflections,” originality and brilliance were now swamped by perversity. In it Arendt argued—unbelievably to her first three readers, namely the Green family—that the coercive enforcement of school integration unacceptably made children the object of public policy, and that that was not the way to bring about peaceful change in race relations: that could only be brought about by intermarriage, and therefore the way to achieve the desired end was by the abolition of miscegenation laws. (She later argued in a printed exchange with Sidney Hook that these laws were also much more clearly unconstitutional than school segregation was.)  Questioning liberal pieties, she called it, and it certainly did.

The fate of the essay at Commentary, astonishingly enough, would be decided by a majority vote of the Greens—we would argue about it, vote, and my mother would follow that vote in her decision (though how she would have acted had the vote gone against her no one will ever know). And that is what took place. She herself had no difficulty: in general, opposition to racism, as demonstrated by the commitment to school integration, was not only central to her worldview as a liberal and a Jew—a worldview that Podhoretz would repudiate a few years later– but it was also the very essence of the task for which she’d been hired: maintaining and if possible strengthening the civil rights alliance.  Leaving that aspect of the matter aside, my view about race and race relations was similar. However, I was also an absolutist civil libertarian, veteran of many unhappy and no doubt Oedipal shouting matches with my rigidly anti-Communist father, and censorship was anathema to me, as it was to him–if no “Commies” involved. (I am constained to admit that, fresh out of a mid-life career crisis and Temple University Law School, he had drafted the Mundt-Nixon Communist Control Act in the Wall Street law offices  of the very conservative Louis Waldman, ”to take the issue away from the reactionaries,” as he apologetically put it to me.)

I wish I could recall the argument, I would love to be able to listen to a tape recording of it, which of course never existed. In any event this  baby could not be made whole, not even by Solomon himself—early Jewish political theorist—but I know that in the end my father and I split our votes, I siding with my mother and thus carrying the day. This was for me the line of principle that couldn’t be crossed, for even if one can rarely know exactly where that line is, it is usually the case, as the theologian Walter Stein once wrote, that we can know “what is well to the North or South of it.” In this case I knew that we were in serious danger of being well on the wrong side of it. The Negro teenagers we called The Little Rock Nine—Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, and the rest—may have been children when they entered their gauntlet of hatred, but by the time they had passed through a century’s worth of screams and spittle, of the eternal spirit of slavery, and reached the front door of Little Rock High Central High School, escorted by members of the 101st Airborne Division, they were children no more, nor merely victims, nor “the objects of public policy.” They were heroes, and the ground they’d traversed was sacred ground: like Cemetery Ridge, or Omaha Beach, or the streets and alleyways of Stalingrad. The Battle of Little Rock.

Arendt was excised from Commentary, never, I believe, to appear there again; nor would she have wanted to once Podhoretz (though he later borrowed Arendt’s argument about inter-marriage) made his blood thirsty turn. Nor did we ever see her again, but that was adventitious; we’d never been that close. Two years later she published the article in Dissent, accompanied by an editorial disclaimer and an explanation of events by her, along with a defense of the piece. It caused some kerfuffle, but meanwhile “Eichmann in Jerusalem” had begun to appear in The New Yorker, and monopolized the attention of Arendt-haters everywhere in the Jewish community. Again, the power of her fundamental and original conception—the ”banality of evil”—was overshadowed by a strained argument about Eichmann, in this case due to her strange inability, given that she was one of the most important analysts of anti-Semitism, to plumb the depths of his mind.  Perhaps her emphasis on not just the intellectual but even more the ethical centrality of thinking made it impossible for her to acknowledge that “thinking” about “the Jewish Question” was precisely what Eichmann was doing.

As for “Reflections,” I still cannot say whether my mother and I did the right thing except that it was indeed an ignorant article;  that by her own admission Arendt did not understand the American South or American racism at all; and that just the same her opposition to school integration was as genuinely devoid of racism as her criticisms of the Jewish  Councils, and above all the Zionist treatment of the Palestinians, were of anti-Semitism. Arendt, not only when she was right but also when she was wrong, stands for me as a model of how to think with difficulty but also with absolute integrity and fearlessness about issues that are difficult to think about clearly at all. Would that all of us who do political thinking could emulate her.