I recently gave a talk on Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Western political experience. Afterwards, a man came up to me and said “There’s no such thing as equality.” He doesn’t get it. Of course there is no equality of traits like strength, talent, good looks, education, social status, and economic position among humans. But the equality in which Arendt is interested, and we surely ought to be, is political equality, which is established by the existential facts of birth—that every person is born into this world (i.e., comes out of woman’s womb, test-tube or author’s pen)—and mortality—the fact that we all must die one day, to cease to be among other living beings. This ultimate source of our political equality is also the ground of our shared moral dignity, something that every sentient person possesses and cannot lose or be stripped of regardless of criminal acts, heretical or offensive thoughts and speech, or even the most foolish behavior. This political and moral equality constitutes the dignity that properly belongs to every human being, which is why it is wrong to torture prisoners. Equality and dignity are no guarantee of political freedom; for that to exist requires enforceable, positive, man-made laws, there being no such thing as Natural Rights, as the French Revolution discovered.

…The fact that we are born into this world means that we are by nature beginners—natals—uniquely capable of initiating processes over which we ultimately have no control, except for our human ability to promise and to forgive, as Arendt points out in The Human Condition. The fact that not all promises can be kept, that some are ineluctably broken despite our most earnest intention, is the reason that forgiveness is necessary. Of course not every breach of promise is forgivable; you have to be able to understand human motivation, intention, speech in concrete instances (“on the ground,” as journalists like to say); this capacity for judgment, which is also not equally developed and distributed among the human race, is intrinsically political.

…Since 1980, coinciding with Ronald Reagan’s reactionary presidency, the extreme right has so demonized the very notions of politics, the political and government that a majority of Americans no longer grasp their own heritage. Driven by corporate wealth and raw organizational power, even elected representatives in the state-houses and Congress repudiate our political heritage, accusing each other of “playing politics” when they wish to attack or degrade an opponent’s position. These “officials” are not actually engaged in politics and are really nothing more than an entrenched caste of bureaucrats and cronies who have forsaken their traditional function of representing the interests and welfare of the total population of citizens in order to invade the realm of political action reserved in the Constitution to the executive branch and the people.

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