Stirring Songs of the 20th Century

Political commitments and political passions have found expression in what is known as “stirring songs.” To what extent does such music contribute to causes ? The question also comes up in relation to the use of music in religion, to which I may wish to devote another posting.

La Marseillaise

The Internationale:

Horst Wessel Song:

God Bless America !

Oh Canada


Earl Browder, being interviewed by Mike Wallace, 1957

I have just discovered this fascinating video.

It’s sort of long, but what an experience !

Earl Browder was the boss of the American Communist Party for fifteen years prior to his sudden expulsion in 1945. Why and how did this take place ? The issue is explored by John Earl Haynes: Moscow was displeased by some independent thinking on the part of Browder. He was warned by the Kremlin, ignored the warning, and was then unceremoniously kicked out.

Hannah Arendt

I was 26 years old in 1952 when I devoted several weeks to a close study of Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism,” which had appeared the previous year. I was a college graduate by then (from the then-famed CCNY), but otherwise innocent of the world of scholarship. “Origins” made a tremendous impression on me, as it did on many others at the time. Nobody was aware of, or would have cared if aware, her strange love life as the mistress of Heidegger.

First and perhaps foremost, “Origins” boldly proclaimed an equivalence between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. ( Since then specialists have pointed to the pitfalls in insisting on equivalence in history: two things are never exactly the same, and, it is now argued, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, while similar in many ways, were different in others.) To her great credit, Arendt went against the fashions of her time, a time when prevailing moods held the Soviet Union to be somehow on the Left and the Nazis on the Right. Of course, Arendt was neither the first nor the most incisive of the writers who insisted on the striking similarities between Soviet and Nazi domination.

The other noteworthy feature of Arendt’s book, it struck me then and still strikes me now, was her observation that neither of the totalitarian movements could be explained by the self-interest of its supporters. The Marxist “materialist” explanations needed to be exposed. She was foremost in describing these movements as irrational and, in that sense, selfless. (Recent research, of course, has shown both self-interest and selfless “idealism” in these movements.)

Beyond these enduring aperçus, the book was full of what seemed to me erudite references to historical events and movements. Huge sections of the book were devoted to British and French history, and, I was led to believe, all this detail showed how profoundly educated the writer was, how deep a thinker. Now, more than half a century of commentaries by specialists, it is obvious to one and all that much if not all of Arendt’s book place her into that category of know-all writers who start with having an idea (sometimes quite a good one) and then dress it up with whatever footnote references they can find to prove this idea. She had strong opinions, many of them valuable, but she had neither the inclination nor the scholarly habits to test these opinions.

A year or two after I studied her book, I enrolled in a graduate seminar with her at the New School. I thought then, and I think now, that she was the most arrogant person I ever met in my life, or at least tied for that position. She insisted that every one of her thoughts, no matter how fleeting or obviously ridiculous, be accepted as truth beyond any doubt.

Eleven years ago now, Walter Laqueur, in an indispensable article “The Arendt Cult: Hannah Arendt as Political Commentator,” shows many instances of a petulant narcissism in her personal and professional life, and also demonstrates the irrationality of the admiration that her writings have inspired since her death. He also shows how prone she was to anti-Jewish prejudices (being Jewish herself was no inhibition).

So what is new ? Plenty. The Times Literary Supplement of October 9, 2009, carries a lengthy article entitled “Blame the victim. Hannah Arendt among the Nazis: the historian and her sources,” by the distinguished historian Bernard Wasserstein (I have not been able to find an on-line version of this piece.) Much of Laqueur’s older criticism is amplified here, with much new detail of Arendt’s personal anti-Semitism, her haughty relations with others, the unscholarly nature of her “Origins of Totalitarianism:”

Her conception of the dynamics of historical change was confused, a mishmash of the structural, the social-psychological, and the conspiratorial. She was painfully ignorant of political economy, diplomacy, and military strategy and had little grasp or interest in the mechanics of the political process in the states about which she wrote. She snapped up unconsidered trifles of evidence and inflated them into richly coloured balloons of generalization.

But Wasserstein’s most telling criticism comes when he details Arendt’s ignorant use of anti-Semitic sources to reach her generalizations about the nature of the Jews. Sometimes she relies on such sources just carelessly, but more often she seems malicious. We all know, of course, that some years after writing her “Origins,” Arendt repeatedly insisted that groups of Jews, particularly those incarcerated by the Nazis, collaborated with Nazis in ways that, presumably, she herself never would. She didn’t much like Jews, and she didn’t seem to care that her personal tastes and prejudices, and not only about Jews, ruined her objectivity as a writer.

UPDATE, March 13, 2010: read “Where Hannah Arendt Went Wrong,” by the distinguished Israeli scholar Shlomo Avineri, in Haaretz Books of March 2010.

UPDATE, Nov. 11, 2013:  read Gertrude Ezorsky’s “Hannah Arendt Against the Facts.” (1963), and Michael Ezra’s “The Eichmann Polemics:  Hannah Arendt and Her Critics” (2007).

UPDATE, March 12, 2014:  David Nirenberg’s remarkable Anti-Judaism, The Western Tradition (2013) details (pp. 461-5 and 573)  how Arendt’s views, even in her Totalitarianism book, relies on traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes in her understanding of “the Jewish Question.”   When she reports the alleged high proportion of Jewish capitalists, she uses sources produced by Nazi propaganda.

A new website devoted to the "Goldstone Report"

There is a new website, Understanding the Goldstone Report. I find the site marked by sobriety and restraint, and think that it is an important resource that you will wish to consult. The site’s sponsors outline the conclusions that they have reached about the Report, as follows:

  • The report violates international standards for inquries, including UN rules on fact-finding, replicating earlier UNHRC biased statements.
  • The Commission systematically favored witnesses and evidence put forward by anti-Israel advocates, and dismissed evidence and testimony that would undermine its case.
  • The commission relied extensively on mediating agencies, especially UN and NGOs, which have a documented hostility to Israel; the report reproduces earlier reports and claims from these agencies.
  • At the same time, the Commission inexplicably downplayed or ignored substantial evidence of Hamas’ commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of terror, including specifically its victimization of the Palestinian population by its use of human shields, civilian dress for combatants, and combat use of protected objects like ambulances, hospitals and mosques.
  • The Commission openly denies a presumption of innocence to the Israelis accused of crimes (while honoring Hamas’ presumed innocence) and acknowledges that it made accusations of crimes without proof that would stand up in court.
  • The report contains numerous gratuitous digressions into issues beyond the purview of a fact-finding commission that are inaccurate and profoundly hostile to Israel and Jews.
  • The Commission distorted legal standards, imposing on Israel standards that reverse their generally understood and applied meaning, while ignoring important rules of international law that put the onus of responsibility on an organization as base, by Goldstone’s own standards, as Hamas.

Here is the testimony of Col. Richard Kemp of the UK Army, Ret.

When the Authority Figures Improvise

If a person doesn’t know, should he improvise an answer, or should he admit that he doesn’t know ?

Here is an example from the field of Jewish studies, one in which I am not expert at all. It concerns a problem I have encountered in the Hebrew prayer book, and I have made an effort to consult a number of experts with whose help, and that of books they recommended, I found what I believe to be the correct answer.

The problem arises from the daily Amidah prayer, part of which I reproduce here:

(Text, transliteration, and translation courtesy of a Christian group).

Now here is the problem. In the first line shown above, the prayer addresses G’d twice, each time asking, rhetorically, “who is like you ?,” each time using a personal, second person pronoun-suffix. The first time the pronoun-suffix is used,  in “khamokha,” G’d appears to be addressed as a male, but the second time, in “lakh,” G’d appears to be a woman.

How is this apparent inconsistency to be explained ?

Ask people charged with being knowledgeable about such things, and you will get one of three answers:

1) I do not know.

2) Since G’d is neither male nor female, the writers of this prayer here indicate the gender neutrality of the deity by alternating the grammatical gender indicators. Some variation of this is the most commonly elicited answer. It happens to be ignorant, wrong, and unacceptable from one whose professional responsibility is to either know better or, at least, to understand the limitations of his own knowledge.

3) The correct answer, which I will not fully give away here, can be found by consulting a work on pausal forms in the history of the Hebrew language, for example pp. 96-98 of Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, Second English Edition, 1910.

The problem with improvising knowledge about materials that come to us from the past is that this improvisation tends to be in the direction of what is now, currently, fashionable. In the case at hand, the improvised interpretation looks at the ancient text in the light of current, fashionable “gender fairness.” Historians call this error one of anachronism.

Why is this kind of error so bad ? To put it most briefly, it robs us of understanding the text at hand. It suggests meanings to the prayers we utter that these prayers do not contain. In short, in this case, it reduces the actual Hebrew text to a mumbojumbo of phrases that are recited by rote without understanding.

For a stimulating discussion of gender in Jewish prayer, see the article by Lois C. Dubin

Hat tip:  Professor Alan F. Segal

A Lesson from the Torah

Rabbi Wolpe, whose mini-column I read every week in the Jewish Week, had a particularly important lesson last month. Here is an excerpt:

The Dubno Maggid told a story that should be learned by every Jewish child. He told of a father in a small Eastern European village who was walking his child to cheder, to school. Suddenly they heard a fanfare of trumpets and an elaborate coach pulled by beautiful horses rode down the road. The coach stopped right by them and out stepped a man wrapped in lush furs and dripping with jewels, dazzling the onlookers.

The father whispered to his son: “Take a good look, my child. For unless you learn and live Torah, that’s what you are going to look like!”

Learning Torah — and living Torah — can save us from the excesses that masquerade as meaning. How many of us are wise enough to whisper those words to our children — or heed them ourselves?

Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. His latest book is “Why Faith Matters” (HarperOne).

From: Jewish Week, Sept. 15, 2009