Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Day: September 7, 2011


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness….

The Declaration of Independence

These words are so familiar that their radical nature now scarcely registers. Moreover, even those of us who like America and Americans, tend to become cynical when we put these words alongside the kind of heartlessness that seems to pervade social policy in the USA. It looks like the right to pursue your own happiness has ended up trumped all those other of inalienable rights.

But, if we are interested in how to bring about a better world, a fairer world, then cynicism takes us nowhere. Two things at least should inspire us:

The call to recognise our fundamental equality as human beings is so powerful that it resounds through the centuries. It rings true even amidst slave owners and it creates demands on all of us even when we are failing to live up to those demands or are confused about what equality means.

The recognition of this equality has also inspired some of the most profound acts of creation and social justice. Radical innovation is not always successful or good – most revolutions are profoundly damaging and wicked. However the existence of this American Revolution – at least partially inspired by justice – demonstrates that human beings can build anew, with at least some success.

Perhaps one further lesson of the Declaration is the power of reason – thinking, writing and reflecting – to help both galvanise and organise human behaviour. In particular the Declaration is both the recognition of an ideal and an acknowledgement of the human weaknesses that will undermine that ideal. Rights, duties and all the underlying structures of government that support them exist because we cannot be trusted, on our own, to do the right thing. We need reason to help us understand our own weaknesses by looking honestly at human behaviour, our history and the lessons it can teach.

The Centre of Totalitarianism

Just as the stability of the totalitarian regime depends on sealing off the fictitious world of the movement from the outside world, so the experiment of total domination in the concentration camps depends upon sealing off the latter against the world of all others, the world of the living in general, even against the outside world of a country under totalitarian rule. This isolation explains the peculiar unreality and lack of credibility that characterise all reports from the concentration camps and constitute one of the main difficulties for the true understanding of totalitarian domination, which stands or falls with the existence of these concentration and extermination camps; for, unlikely as it may sound, these camps are the true central institution of totalitarian organisational power.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Many people are rightly nervous of any attempt to compare Hitler’s death camps with any other institution  in world history. After writing the The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt herself was criticised for comparing the death camps with Stalin’s gulags.

But Arendt’s analysis of the unreality of the camps – the way in which they were sealed off from public view and made to seem ‘impossible’ to many – even in Germany itself – should make us question this prohibition on comparison. Finding some point of comparison does not lessen the evil of the death camps, instead it is a way to make sure we do to forget that evil. To seal the camps of as unique and unrepeatable evil is a failure: a failure to remember, a failure to connect, a failure to honour the dead and a failure to arm ourselves against such evils in the future.

We should be able to see that institutions that hide people away, segregate them from ordinary life and create utter dependence are dangerous and very likely to tip into evil.

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