Part of my summer reading is a book by Hannah Arrendt titled The Origins of Totalitarianism, published originally in 1968. I decided to buy it after press coverage about covid-19 became fraught with exagerrations and the arguments about staying at home became strange.
I have only begun to read what promises to be an intellectually honest examination of totalitarianism from a well educated Jewish intellectual who lived through that horrible time in history when the Nazis tried to take over the whole world, waging war against all resistance. The volume that I have is a compilation of three books, the first on antisemitism, the second on imperialism and the third on totalitarianism. I’ve just read the preludes to all three.
According to Arrendt, attacks on Jews under Hitler’s fascism were outrageous in that they were unexpected and horrible and made no sense. Jews had assimilated into society across Europe and they were part of everyday life in many nations, participating as workers and property owners. After WWII, several histories claimed that antisemitism accompanied life in Europe all the way from the Middle Ages but Arrendt states that this is a false history that was assembled after WWII.
As a Jewish woman who aspired to becoming a scholar from a young age, she remembers that only crackpots cared about a person’s Jewish heritage. The commonplace of Jews living across Europe was exploited by Hitler to take away Jewish economic opportunity and give that opportunity to others. He used hurting Jews as a fulcrum for his power. No one expected that. The large numbers of Jewish Europeans made his final solution one that he could apply everywhere. It was outrageous, didn’t make sense, was murder on a gigantic scale and moved economic fortunes into new pockets while terrorizing everyone. It politically disempowered people who deserved to belong and cast them out as a demonstration of total power.
Why does this remind me of press responses to covid-19? First of all, illnesses from microbes have been common across all nations for all of history. They are widespread, much as Jews were widespread across many nations during WWII. To single out one microbe and make it a mascot-excuse for controlling people’s movements and choices doesn’t make sense–like how attacking Jews didn’t make sense. The original excuse of preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed by a new virus by isolating healthy people has been replaced with an argument that no one can be safe in public because of covid-19. This is in spite of the low threat that covid-19 poses for most people. Press coverage has been phony and has failed to enhance anyone’s understanding, appearing instead to be more like fear enhancing propaganda. It’s not science. Over history, isolating sick people has been how quarantine works. Isolating healthy people is a new strategy that has actually failed to prevent the spread of the virus.
Does isolating people across the globe because of covid-19 make sense? Not now. Is there a reason to single out this illness when the CDC says that the overall death rate in the U.S. hasn’t exceeded what was seen last year at this time? No. Is it outrageous? Yes. It’s not anything like Hitler’s plan for mass murder but it is an effort to control people and prohibit their lives in specific ways that don’t respect natural rights.
A long time ago, a psychologist warned me about being conned with “if” statements in everyday life. In philosophy, you can use if/then statements to make arguments. But prefacing a real world generalization by “if” usually means that you are departing from reality and entering the world of fantasy, where any idea may be deemed valid even when it’s contradicted by real experience. This morning I heard a radio announcer say that if covid-19 can be carried by children and make even one child sick then it isn’t safe for public school to go into session this fall. But wait. Illness often makes children sick. It is a commonplace happening. There’s no reason to keep schools closed now that it has become clear that the threat from covid-19 has passed from being huge threat to becoming a small one.
Is the resemblance between covid-19 phobia and the outrageousness of antisemitism just a case of one absurdity resembling another? Is the additional absurdity of arbitrary declarations calling people’s jobs essential vs. non-essential another resemblance because it singles out one group for economic hardships? A haunting detail of commentary from Arrendt is the idea that totalitarian systems get more power by destroying their economy. Ever since the Great Recession, parts of our economy have been destroyed. Homelessness increased after the Great Recession and it is thought to be increasing after the covid-19 economic downturn.
Let’s keep our eyes and ears and hearts open to a better understanding about covid-19 than the one being handed to us in the press. Let’s recognize that arguments about the continued necessity of social distancing are not credible and that human rights are being abused by our government when it restricts people’s freedoms.
If you want to learn more about politics in the world and how economics and politics combine in everyone’s life to affect opportunities, buy a copy of Political Catsup with Economy Fries available at Amazon.com.