Open Manuscript Notes, #2
Hannah Arendt, bell hooks, and woke oppression classes
I’ve been re-reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, a book I read maybe about 22 years ago. I actually had a first edition of the UK printing, where it was titled The Burden of Our Times, found at a used bookstore.
She was canceled, by the way—we’re not “allowed” to read her anymore. That’s for several reasons, including accusations of racism against black people and, most interesting of all, her “rabid antisemitism” according to some viral social justice articles a few years back.
That accusation, by the way, is derived from her rather unsentimental look at the role Jewish financiers played in colonial bureaucracies in South Africa and the involvement of the Rothschild family in the monopolization of certain industries in Europe (for instance, the Austrian railroad system), and most of all her sober and critical examination of the figure of the “court Jew.”
Anyone who’s actually read The Origins of Totalitarianism of course knows that her goal is to explain how antisemitism became a uniting political ideology for totalitarian movements. The problem for some is that she isn’t interested in painting any group as sacred or agentless victims (rightfully seeing sacred victimhood itself a key feature of totalitarian thinking, just as Nietzsche understood this as the core mechanism of ressentiment).
The social media drive to cancel Arendt was always a bit fascinating to me, especially since it occurred about the same time as attempts to smear bell hooks as anti-black and a “SWERF” (“Sex Worker Exclusive Radical Feminist”) because of her criticism of Beyoncé. I suspect most people have already forgotten this by now since bell hooks just died, but quite a few of the woke were demanding bell hooks no longer be read and also that she must apologize for being oppressive.
Neither of these crusades really worked, as they were primarily limited to social media attacks. I doubt professors stopped assigning Arendt or hooks as part of their curricula, assuming they were doing so in the first place. Also, my guess is that the sort of people who use social media as a guide to what books you should and should not read don’t actually read books at all. Even J.K. Rowling, probably the biggest target of social media cancellations, is nevertheless still selling massive amounts of books (even if “underperforming”1 with US readers during part of 2020).
Regardless of their actual efficacy, the attacks on Arendt and hooks revealed a peculiar degree of vitriol that differed significantly from what is aimed at more mainstream figures. I think the reason for this was precisely because they were “race traitors,” meaning that they were part of an oppressed identity group yet resisted larger narratives regarding those identities and fought attempts to create a sense of sacred victimhood.
In fact, both hooks and Arendt insisted that such a path was not only a dead end, but also was a key feature of oppression regimes themselves. Germans saw themselves as sacred victims of Jewish conspiracies, white nationalists tell themselves that the whites are an oppressed group being diluted, subverted, and killed off by minorities. Inverting that equation to say that black people or Jews are everywhere the victims doesn’t change the underlying recipe, just a few ingredients.
I suspect that most who are probably citing bell hooks after her death haven’t really read her, or probably skipped over the parts where she urges people to stop trying to replace the dominant classes with themselves. Ironically, Kamala Harris and Ibram X. Kendi wrote short tributes to hooks on her passing; ironic since they both represent exactly the sorts of identity dead ends that hooks repeatedly warned against.