Article 43

 

Loneliness 3

“A Truer Reality Beyond Reality”: Hannah Arendt’s Warning About How Totalitarianism Takes Root

By Joanna Weiss
Politico
May 19, 2024

A growing body of research warns that the United States is experiencing a LONELINESS CRISIS. The U.S. surgeon general has cited loneliness as a PUBLIC HEALTH RISK. Researchers have found that LONELINESS MAKES PEOPLE MORE LIKELY TO BE ANGRY AND RESENTFUL, and more VULNERABLE TO EXTREMEISM.

Loneliness could represent a political threat, as well: a pathway to demagogues, mobs and destructive ideologies. That was an argument the German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt

Samantha Rose Hill is a professor at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a leading interpreter of Arendt’s thinking, particularly as it relates to loneliness. She notes that THE ORIGINS OF TOTALITARIANISM became a bestseller in 2016 because it helped explain an aspect of Donald Trump’s election: how economic and social conditions create feelings of loneliness and rootlessness and lead people to seek out belonging and meaning in political movements. Today, Hill says, Arendt might have connected loneliness not just to the RISE OF TRUMP, but also the actions of groups like Moms for Liberty on the right and the fervor of identity politics on the left.

Arendt described loneliness not as a physical or emotional state but as a state of mind, Hill says. It’s an inability to question our beliefs or adjust our thinking to reflect our own experience and the experience of others - a kind of mental isolation and rigidity that one can observe, for instance, in today’s social media pile-ons and pressures for ideological conformity. “Arendt says that wherever people desire simple solutions to complex problems, totalitarianism will always be a threat,” Hill says.

We discussed Arendt, modern politics and social media over email and Zoom from Paris and London where Hill, who authored an Arendt biographyand edited a book of Arendt’s poems, has been working on a book about loneliness for Yale University Press. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

- Arendt defines loneliness differently from the way we often think of it. Can you talk about the German word that she used, verlassenheit? Whats the meaning of that word and what did she mean by it?

Hannah Arendt doesn’t talk about feelings, in the sense that we would talk about loneliness as a feeling. She’s talking about loneliness as a way of thinking. Verlassenheit, which there is no good English translation for, literally means a sense of “abandonness.” Of feeling abandoned in the world. She says that it is “the closing of thinking.”

Loneliness, for Arendt, is the closing of the mind. That’s how she relates it to isolation: in that very literal sense of the mind being isolated, and that it does not move.

- So how, in Arendt’s thinking, would this sense of “loneliness” or “abandonness” lead to totalitarianism?

The definition of loneliness today, in the social scientific literature, is about being physically isolated from others and having few or no close meaningful relationships. This corresponds nicely with Arendts understanding of loneliness as isolated thought. When a person feels isolated, a political movement offers them a sense of belonging, purpose and meaning.

This is why totalitarian movements have to first succeed in destroying the fabric of society by which we take our bearings of being in the world with one another. Because it is only then, when there is no longer basic kindness, trust and human decency, and people feel thrown into the world to make it on their own, that they will go looking for a movement to belong to. A movement invites one to not just belong to something bigger than themselves, but to become a part of history.

- How would Arendt have looked at a phenomenon like MAGA?

Arendt did not like political movements, left or right. In Origins she argued that Stalinism was a more advanced form of Hitlerism. She placed the emphasis on the word “movement” itself in her critique. To be part of a movement is to be caught in a tide, an ideological tide, which has the effect of divorcing thinking from experience by creating an alternate reality - and that teaches people that they don’t have to think for themselves. The point of ideology is to tell people what to think - not to teach them how to think, or offer them alternative ways of thinking. Ideology demands conformity.

- Can you clarify what you mean by “alternate reality?” What would that look like in a real-life scenario?

Ideology teaches people that there is a truer reality beyond reality. Think of QAnon, Pizzagate and the many Americans who believe Donald Trump won the last presidential election. Another example that comes to mind is Trump’s inauguration. It was very clearly raining. You could see the rain. People were holding umbrellas. And yet, Trump said, “It isn’t raining.” Many people affirmed his statement, because the point of the statement wasn’t to reflect upon the experience as it was, but to assert his ideology of dominance.

The movement also gives people a prefabricated response - determined by the leader - to any political issue or question, without needing to think on their own, so they always have something to say backed by a source of authority.

- When people object to Trump or a politician like him, it seems what they’re often concerned about is authoritarianism, as opposed to totalitarianism. Whats the relationship between the two? Does totalitarianism lead to authoritarianism? Or is it the other way around?

In Arendt’s account, it would be the other way around. She distinguishes between authoritarianism, fascism, tyranny and totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, she argued, depended upon the radical atomization of the whole, the absolute elimination of all spontaneity. One lived in absolute fear all the time, even those in the party, and the aim of totalitarianism was total world domination.

Within an authoritarian system, you still have limited political freedom. There isn’t a totalizing state of fear, but there is domination: domination that aims at political control within a state, without the means of persuasion. So if we were to think of Trump trying to overturn the election results of 2020, that I think we can read as a kind of authoritarian grab.

- Are there other politicians or phenomena you see today that raise similar concerns about authoritarianism or totalitarianism?

Ron DeSantis, and the book bans in Florida and the laws that he has attempted to pass to regulate what students CAN AND CANNOT STUDY in college. And Moms for Liberty in the same vein. I think this trend in American politics emerges out of the cultural conservative movement of the 1980s, which targeted multiculturalism, liberalism traditionally defined, while raising a moral panic about communism and the left and socialism.

I don\t think that lays the groundwork in itself for totalitarianism. There’s a nice quote buried in Arendt’s correspondence from the 1970s where she says something like, “let us not jump to totalitarianism too quickly.” This is not 1933. The phrase “it can happen here,” assumes an identifiable “it.” There is no identifiable “it.” Our world today is remarkably different from the world of the mid-20th century. It has been radically reshaped by technology and trade. If and when a form of fascism emerges in America, it is not going to look the same as it did in Europe.

Q. Would Arendt be concerned about phenomena we’re seeing on the left, as well? Are there other orthodoxies of thought she would be worried about?

Those arguing against identity politics - or what I would call the tyranny of individualism - are not wrong to point out the ways in which forms of hyper-individualism destroy the common fabric of humanity. At the same time, these arguments are also fodder for MAGA politicians, and they are helping them to win elections while fueling real political violence.

At the end of the day, Im not sure that MAGA supporters are any more tribal than liberals. One of the identifying features of tribalistic thought is believing one is absolutely on the right side of history. And to believe that is to believe that the other side is absolutely wrong.

MAGA is a reflection of very real political problems: economic stagnation, loss of mobility, alienation from the Democratic and Republican parties. Arendt says that wherever people desire simple solutions to complex problems, totalitarianism will always be a threat. That’s what we’re experiencing now. We’re also experiencing the collapse of the Democratic and Republican parties as weҒve known them in our lifetimes. Historically, this is not exceptional, but politically, right now, it is destabilizing. Many people don’t feel like they can look to a party to represent their interests, and so movements are appearing in those cracks.

Q. Would you agree that people are becoming more tribal and ideological than ever before, because they’re living in these self-reinforcing filter bubbles?

I wouldn’t say the problem is bubbles. I would say its appearances. Technology has transformed the nature of appearance and being in the world so that oneҒs everyday experiences are mediated through some form of device or apparatus, which creates a baseline level of alienation.

The other side of this is a loss of privacy. Even when one is alone, they are never really alone, and this means that the space necessary for thinking is lost. And when one loses that space for thinking, one is driven further away from themselves and more likely to get carried away by the tide.

Q. The social media mob is another modern phenomenon where we see people carried away. How does that connect to Arendt’s warnings? Does a lack of thinking make people susceptible to joining an online mob?

Sometimes social media mobs are mobilized by ideological political movements. Sometimes they’re mobilized by what we might want to call an ideology. Sometimes theyre a collection of isolated individuals who find some pleasure, excitement or relief from the boredom of everyday life in collectively ganging up on someone for no particular reason.

I might argue that the phenomenon of social media mobs is a prelude to joining a political movement. There’s an interesting fact in the data on social media and loneliness: the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to report feeling lonely. At the same time, the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to participate in a real-life political movement.

- We recently emerged from a strange social experiment in which we experienced physical isolation at the same time political and cultural forces were leading us toward single-minded thought. Did the pandemic make our loneliness problem worse?

Maybe this is a good place to distinguish between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is the pleasurable experience of keeping company with oneself. Solitude is a retreat from the world of appearing before others. The phone is off, the computer is off, the television is off, the company is gone and one is actually alone with themselves.

The pandemic worsened an already dire mass addiction to technology. The average American spends 7 to 8 hours a day with the television on and another 5 to 6 hours a day in front of a computer screen. There is constant noise. Loneliness is very loud. People often turn on the TV or reach for the phone to avoid the voice in their head, but it is that voice that allows one to think for themselves, hold themselves accountable and make changes where changes need to be made in their lives. Listening is a vital habit for democracy.

About the author: Joanna Weiss is a writer in Boston and a contributing writer for POLITICO Magazine.

SOURCE

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Why Anti-LGBTQ Attacks Matter for Democracy
Attacks on LGBTQI+ people and their rights are on the rise, policymakers should pay closer attention to anti-LGBTQI+ activity as a sign of democratic backsliding and take steps to address this issue.

By Ari Shaw
Council On Foreign Relations, Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy
October 12, 2023

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden CONVENED the second Summit for Democracy, in which global leaders took stock of the state of democracy around the world and measured progress on commitments that countries made during the first summit fifteen months prior. At the time, BIDEN REMARKED that “we are turning the tide” away from autocracy and towards “greater freedom, greater dignity, and greater democracy.” His observation was notable, in part, because it was said against a backdrop of what many indicators suggest is a global rise in authoritarianism. According to Freedom House, more than three quarters of the world’s population lives in a country that has some RESTRICTIONS ON FREEDOMS [PDF] - the highest proportion in more than a quarter-century.

Also noteworthy was the absence of any meaningful discussion of how democratic backsliding has mirrored a surge in attacks targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people. Anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies have increasingly been deployed for a variety of political aims by populist leaders with illiberal tendencies, including several from countries that participated in the summit. Right-wing Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, for example, CAMPAIGNED AGAINST an “LGBT lobby” and has moved to LIMIT ADOPTION RIGHTS of same-sex couples, while in the U.S. nearly five hundred anti-LGBTQI+ bills targeting issues from lifesaving healthcare to LGBTQI+ content in schools have been proposed in largely conservative state legislatures.

This pairing is hardly coincidental.

In a NEW STUDY [PDF] from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, my colleagues and I find strong evidence that attacks on LGBTQI+ people and their rights can be a bellwether of broader democratic backsliding. Using an original Global Acceptance Index that measures public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people and their rights across 175 countries, we find that efforts to stigmatize LGBTQI+ people can telegraph and even contribute to a more fundamental erosion of democratic norms and institutions, whether curtailing judicial review, cracking down on independent media, or other illiberal acts.

In some cases, homophobic and transphobic rhetoric are used as part of a POPULIST ELECTORAL POLICY to appeal to conservative and religious voters. In other cases, disinformation about LGBTQI+ people is used to divert attention from internal social and economic crises or entrenched corruption. The manufactured threat of so-called gender ideology has been used by conservative movements and authoritarians alike to frame LGBTQI+ and feminist advocacy as externally imposed efforts to subvert traditional family and gender norms.

Regardless of the form, the effect is often the same. Anti-LGBTQI+ attacks create a wedge that defines sexual and gender minorities as outsiders and threats to a core national identity. This fissure can then be used to justify subsequent antidemocratic behavior in the name of protecting “the nation.” Many anti-LGBTQI+ laws target essential lifelines for advocacy groups by closing LGBTQI+ community centers, limiting NGO registration, or banning LGBTQI+-related speech, thereby restricting freedoms of assembly and expression under the pretense of protecting against the supposed external threat of LGBTQI+ rights.

Take, for instance, the case of Indonesia. Following an extended period of democratization, 2016 saw a dramatic escalation in anti-LGBTQI+ attacks, including an EFFORT TO BAN LGBTQI+ student organizations, a ministerial order requiring internet service providers to BLOCK SOCIAL NETWORKS used by LGBTQI+ people, and the removal of mobile apps that included LGBTQI+ content. A “MORAL PANIC” ensued in which a number of municipalities passed regulations explicitly prohibiting “acts considered LGBT.” Meanwhile, President Joko Widodo walked back promised reforms that were intended to strengthen media independence, and he consolidated executive authority by, among other things, placing the administration of new social policies under MILITARY CONTROL.

Populist homophobia and transphobia accompanied similar antidemocratic turns in Brazil. Even before running for president, Jair Bolsonaro openly embraced anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric, PROCLAIMING that he would rather his son die than be gay, and warning against the INCURSION of “gender ideologies” into schools. As president, Bolsonaro dismantled the professionalized bureaucracy in favor of “super ministries” overseen by his allies and actively courted political participation of the MILITARY. He appointed conservative cabinet members who STRIPPED LGBTQI+ PROTECTIONS from the ministry of Family, Women, and Human Rights, and he issued executive orders in efforts to MONITOR AND RESTRICT the activities of human rights and environmental NGOs.

The precise relationship between attacks on LGBTQI+ rights and democracy is complex, but the strong association suggests that policymakers should pay close attention to anti-LGBTQI+ activity as a signal of underlying threats to democratic institutions.

What’s more, the relationship may be working in both directions. Our study finds that countries with high levels of LGBTQI+ acceptance are more likely to have free and fair elections, strong rule of law, civil liberties protections, and minority rights. We also find that more accepting countries tend to have higher GDP per capita. In other words, it is not just that anti-LGBTQI+ attacks can presage a weakening of democracy, but stronger protections for LGBTQI+ people may help buttress against further democratic erosion by reducing political polarization and economic insecurity.

LGBTQI+ inclusion could yield both political and economic benefits, and policymakers should prioritize efforts that promote LGBTQI+ acceptance and expand human rights protections. Between 2019 and 2020, JUST 0.04 PERCENT [PDF] of global overseas development assistance went to fund LGBTQI+-specific programs and organizations. LGBTQI+ people experience violence and discrimination at disproportionately higher rates than other groups, and donor governments should increase funding to levels that match the urgency of this reality. Governments should also leverage multilateral systems to mainstream LGBTQI+ issues and help bolster the capacity of local LGBTQI+ civil society organizations to both advocate for greater inclusion and to oppose the rollback of democratic freedoms.

Early in his administration, President Biden signed a PREIDENTIAL MEMORANDUM that explicitly located the protection and promotion of LGBTQI+ rights within U.S. foreign policy objectives. While the directive was cast in terms of advancing “our most deeply held values,: sufficient resources and political will have not always followed. To help stem the tide of autocracy, we should prioritize LGBTQI+ inclusion not only because it is consistent with our values, but also because it is good policy that can strengthen the underpinnings of democracy.

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 06/01/24 •
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