'Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt' is an important reminder of humanity in our current age of Islamophobia and unreflective everyday life.
Hannah Arendt. Photo courtesy of 'Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt'/Zeitgeist Films
My interview with Israeli filmmaker Ada Ushpiz was pushed back an hour so that she could finish watching Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speak on television. "I'm sorry," said Ushpiz, calling from her home in Tel Aviv. "I had to watch. Abbas spoke to the Israelis and said things we're told all the time he doesn't say, which is, 'I want to make peace.' The discourse is always presented as if Abbas doesn't want to talk and he's not interested in a partnership with the Israelis and there is no possibility for peace. But Abbas said, 'Let's sit and talk.' It was great, you know? I don't see Netanyahu coming back and saying, 'OK, let's talk.'" Ushpiz let out a weary breath. "No, that will not happen."
Ada Ushpiz's new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, is as much about present-day Islamophobia in Israel and abroad as it is about Arendt. The documentary—showing at New York's Film Forum through April 19—reminds viewers of Arendt's urgent relevancy for us today; and it does so without making any explicit political statements. Instead, the film allows Arendt's decades-old arguments, presented through carefully curated quotes, to linger on the screen, asking the viewer to read, reflect, and perhaps reread before moving on. The restraint is intentional. "I didn't want to preach," explained Ushpiz. "But I didn't stop thinking about our world while I was making the film. I was always thinking about my responsibility in this world."
"Once evil is normalized, you don't see it anymore," said Ushpiz. "This is the basis of all racism."
Thinking and responsibility form the conceptual core of Hannah Arendt's political and philosophical writing, and Ushpiz faithfully chooses Arendt's ideas over her biography for the film's narrative drive. Born into a Jewish-German family in 1906, Hannah Arendt fled Germany for Paris at the age of 27. With Nazism continuing its rise, Arendt was forced to leave Europe for New York City, where she lived until her death in 1975. Much of her writing engaged the question, "How does large scale evil happen?"; her answer, if distilled to its simplest form, is that evil is a result of a failure on our part to think.
The most commonly known (if infamous) articulation of this thesis is found in her report on the trial of the high-ranking Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Originally published as a series of articles for the New Yorker and later, in 1963, as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem coins the overused and oft-misunderstood phrase "the banality of evil," an idea that sparked a tremendous backlash against Arendt, with many accusing her of using the concept to humanize and to some degree exonerate Eichmann and others like him.
Still, Arendt refused to portray Eichmann as an anti-Semitic mastermind, instead, describing him as a dull and ordinary man who went through the trial and to his death speaking in thoughtless clichés. Eichmann, in Arendt's assessment, had perpetrated great crimes against humanity not out of a monstrous internal evil, nor out of a singular hatred of Jews, but because he was incapable of thought from the perspective of another, and therefore susceptible to the fascist ideology that demonized the Jewish people, making extinguishing them a matter of moral necessity.
"A main idea with 'the banality of evil' is how easy it is to make evil seem normal," Ushpiz told me. "And once evil is normalized, you don't see it anymore. A leader or a government draws a circle around a group of people and generalizes them and demonizes them, making it a matter of necessity to hate them as a whole. This is the basis of all racism. If you demonize a group of people and distance yourself from their humanity, you can even feel very good about perpetrating evil against them. In these situations the evil is always 'the other' and never yourself."
"Even in Israel we laugh at Trump," said Ushpiz. "We can laugh at your fascist because he's not our fascist."
Ushpiz's film does not dwell on the debate nor the vitriol with which Arendt's theories were met but instead gently leads the viewer to understand how uncomfortable and confrontational Arendt's thinking could be. It is more comforting to believe that evil, especially on mass scales, is committed by people who stand outside of everyday life, people who are monsters possessing some unknowable evil entity. We want to believe this, because then we, ourselves, are not implicated in evil acts and can't possibly be capable of such horrors. But if Arendt is correct, we are all capable of perpetrating evil against an "other," since we are all capable of living unreflectively. "We all sometimes live inside the clichés of our society, of our class, or our gender," said Ushpiz. "We enact and accept the clichés. We are not always critical; we often do not voice challenges; we sometimes just live the clichés. Because it's very convenient."
It's impossible not to see the racist rhetorical techniques of generalization and demonization applied to the world's Muslim population. While I watched the documentary, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz was calling for New York City police officers to profile Muslim neighborhoods and assign additional patrol to such "dangerous" parts of the city. This, in the wake of the Belgium terrorist attacks, was the latest in a string of Islamophobic statements issued by American politicians, the most incendiary being Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States until the government can "figure out what is going on."
"We must not disappear into the conveniences of everyday life—the physical conveniences, the emotional conveniences, the intellectual conveniences—until we are fat with clichés or ideologies or whatever is fed to you," said Ushpiz.
When I mentioned this to Ushpiz, she scoffed. "Don't forget that I am coming from a country where that is a habit for us. What Trump suggests is already done. It is sometimes really encouraging to see at least the Democrats in America saying not to fall into this racist trap. In Israel," she elaborated, "racism against Muslims is presented as a no-choice situation. The occupation is presented as a necessity. It is a politics of justifying the world as it is and even enhancing violence so that you can say, 'Yes, see, there is no other choice.' That's how it is. That's the nature of it."
By marking cliché, generalization, and demonization as tools used by fascists, Arendt helps us see precisely how to avoid being taken in by their influence. The only defense is clear and critical thought, where "thought" must be, in part, defined by the ability to think from the other's perspective. Arendt asks us to reject ideology that serves to reduce populations of people to stereotypes and embrace plurality and subtlety in thought. This may be easy for some of us when Donald Trump is speaking—"Even in Israel we laugh at Trump," remarked Ushpiz. "We can laugh at your fascist because he's not our fascist"—but the most powerful aspect of Ushpiz's film is that it reminds us that we are all unavoidably implicated in unthinking evil on some level.
"Arendt tells us that we must live beyond the horizon of everyday life," said Ushpiz. "We must not disappear into the conveniences of everyday life—the physical conveniences, the emotional conveniences, the intellectual conveniences—until we are fat with clichés or ideologies or whatever is fed to you. Thinking is always about undermining the convention, what is current, what is expected. You always have to invite all the devil's advocates into discussion; you have to include the world, include the other. You have to think. Yes, all roads lead back to thought."
Chloé Cooper Jones is a writer and philosopher who studies and teaches in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.
Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt is playing through April 19 at Film Forum in New York, and then touring nationally.