woensdag 22 mei 2013

The heroic cosmopolitical Individual

To think in complete independence, free from bonds of a national or religious nature, recognizing no collectivity except humanity as a whole.

That’s what Hannah Arendt wanted, and she rightly may be called an icon of autonomous humanistic individuality and uncompromising universality. In the film Hannah Arendt which I saw the other week these features are dramatically expressed when she tells her old friend and Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld on his deathbed that for her the Jewish people means nothing, but his friendship does. He turns off hurt.

In intellectual circles in the Netherlands such a radically individualistic stance as Arendt’s for decades was viewed as an ideal. It was the image progressive Dutch people used to cherish about themselves. That image we, as universally oriented ethical missionaries, coúld have of ourselves because we in those days ignored the fact that also Holland is organized according to the arbitrary principle of the nation state. The underlying illusion – facilitated by our geopolitical insignificance – was that universal values and nationality can merge in an unproblematic way.

But for the attentive onlooker that idyll was pierced with some regularity. Thus, strictly humanistically spoken, a thinker in terms of global citizenship can have no peace with strangers quotas. Because a policy based on the inalienable rights and dignity of every individual can not distinguish between refugees, or view borders as absolute. However, that’s precisely what we do already for years, also because the streams of refugees are getting bigger.

Another example of persistent national-Dutch defensiveness concerns our loitering in acknowledging our guilt to Indonesia. Making excuses for our colonialist behaviour may be considered as the least that such a progressive minded people can do, but to this day it remains problematic. And not necessarily because of any financial implications.

Hannah Arendt definitely cannot be blamed for such double standards. She was not held back by any loyalty to say painful things about Jews or Americans or other groups, if her reasoning led her there. She braved the scorn and hate campaigns she then had to endure from those groups and took the loss of old friends for granted.

What you possibly cán reproach her is that she made such an independence of mind to the standard to which every thinker should comply. In this requirement show up, in my opinion, a form of utopian impatience and a deficient appreciation of the extent to which people simply need group identities.

For it is not that easy for people and populations to break free from ordering principles like ‘nation’ or ‘people’ or ‘religion’, and it is a serious question whether that actually is not too much to ask. You don’t have to be fascistic when you can only limitedly identify with an abstract, cosmopolitan citizenship. It could very well be an existential necessity for many people to primarily identify with a local or ethnic group, before the rest of the world is covered.

Besides, there are pragmatic motives for drawing boundaries. If you do not want to immediately take the suffering of the world on your shoulders, a clear unity like the nationstate provides the most effective scale for organizing (more or less) sustainable arrangements of social security, health insurance and wealth distribution.

From that perspective Arendt could be blamed for a certain severity. She wanted, despite her efforts to practice thinking within context, not to be disturbed too much by historically developed, or pragmatic and therefore random elements. Even though for its bearers these could be of great significance.

I honestly think that Arendt aims a bit too high. That does not mean that attachment to nations or peoples should still have the stone-carved shape of classical Zionism or German or British nationalism. Actually, partly due to the scale of migration and globalization, the rise is observable of various forms of multiple identity in which one culturally focuses on more than one country or nation.

This trend seems to me a valuable correction or addition to traditional identities and nationalisms. Indeed, I would say double – preferably conflicting – passports for one person is a good thing. But that’s still different from the boundless, almost abstract universalism that Hannah Arendt had in mind. Also see Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further and Hannah Arendt's Heroes