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How Hannah Arendt’s Zionism Helped Create American Gay Identity

The pioneering gay writer and editor Michael Denneny, who died on April 12, learned from his teacher Arendt that an individual can be free only as part of a free community

Blake Smith
May 10, 2023
Original photos: Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images; Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
‘Arendt’s life had for so many years been lived for the Jewish people that she could not look on “them” as something separate from “herself.”’Original photos: Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images; Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Original photos: Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images; Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images
‘Arendt’s life had for so many years been lived for the Jewish people that she could not look on “them” as something separate from “herself.”’Original photos: Fred W. McDarrah/MUUS Collection via Getty Images; Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Hannah Arendt left behind little in the way of an obvious institutional or intellectual legacy during her brief years at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought during the 1960s. The student who best understood her ideas—and the example of her life—as a summons to action in the world, was Michael Denneny, who died recently, shortly after the publication of a memoir-anthology, On Christopher Street. The book records how his teacher inspired him to abandon his Ph.D., follow her to New York, and found what would become America’s most important magazine for gay men—Christopher Street, along with its associated publishing line, Stonewall Inn Editions—in the late 1970s and 1980s, those pivotal years that saw first the emergence of a distinct gay male urban culture and then its near-annihilation from AIDS.

Arendt would not seem to be an obvious inspiration for a gay men’s magazine. Even if there is a certain chain-smoking archness in her 1964 interview for the German television show Zur Person, she is not among the straight women whom gay men single out for a typically ambivalent yet ardent brand of admiration, in what is usually a perverse sort of drag-performance-by-proxy. Arendt’s political philosophy, organized around claims about human nature supported by examples taken from ancient Athens (while engaged in a covert but insistent critique of her own former mentor, Martin Heidegger, who had awakened her to philosophy before covering himself with shame as a proud member of the Nazi Party), can seem both frustratingly distant from the historical present and icily indifferent to the problems of minorities. Denneny’s insight, however, is to have grasped how the apparently abstract universals of Arendt’s teaching grew out of her urgent engagement on behalf of the Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s.

Reading Arendt’s philosophical writing in light of her Zionist activism from that era, Denneny saw how central concepts of her later work made what can be easily dismissed as “lifestyle politics”—the publishing of magazines and novels; the demand for a space of cultural distinction—not a distraction from “real” politics, but an urgent task that makes politics, in Arendt’s special and widely misunderstood meaning, possible. Arendt, Denneny continually reminds readers in On Christopher Street, held that a person can be connected to humanity in general, to his own uniqueness, and indeed to the possibility of transforming himself, only insofar as he is a member of a free community—of a group that possesses the power to build and maintain what Arendt called a “world,” a domain in which members of a group can appear to each other, revealing, remaking, and remembering themselves.

Today, Arendt has many admirers in American academia, and a wide midwit readership that consults her writings for political and moral apothegems applicable to our ongoing crisis, whose origins they imagine as coming from the right and never from inside their own intellectual homes. Every university of any repute has on staff some left-liberal scholar who mistakenly sees in Arendt an ancestor of her own utterly conventional politics while doing her best to ignore the difficult, apparently reactionary positions Arendt took on everything from racial integration to immigration and the welfare state. If Arendt had been a man, she would have been, if not “cancelled,” then consigned by right-thinking scholars (and therefore cherished by right-wing cranks) among such other Teutonic anachronisms as Oswald Spenger and Eric Voegelin. Arendt is spared this fate at the price of being misunderstood.

Homosexuality is perhaps only a little less ancient than Adam and Eve, but, like Zionism, gay male life is a much more recent creation, one elaborated by activists who tried to transform themselves into something like a people.

She gets no better treatment from her centrist humanist admirers, who transform her into a defender of the warmed-over nineteenth-century liberalism that passes among them for “free thinking.” Her work—with its horror of cliché and mental conformity, its appreciation for the exchange of diverse perspectives, and its appeal to the fragile vitality of independent thought (its reminder, indeed, that these two words form a pleonasm) —is one of the fragments that hold-outs within the academy shore up against their ruin. To find a prestigious ally (a woman! a refugee!) in their resistance to the identitarian posturing that has become essential to elite self-performance, they make of Arendt a liberal individualist, an understanding to which Arendt would surely have responded with a Germanic feminine version of the genteel revulsion that Marshall McLuhan summons for the movie-goers in “Annie Hall.”

Arendt’s famous 1963 letter to Gershon Scholem, who had reproached his old friend in the aftermath of her reporting on the Eichmann trial for her apparent lack of love of the Jewish people, seems, but only seems, to confirm the cosmopolitan tote bag re-imagination of the philosopher. Her famous statement, “I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective… I indeed love ‘only’ my friends,” seems to find Arendt a kindred spirit of those who wish to thwart our hastening spiral of mutually antagonizing collective narcissisms by insisting—in an apparently more humane version of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum—that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. But, as Arendt continued in her letter, if she could not “love” the Jewish people it was because “I cannot love myself.” Her response should be read not as a declaration of independence from the demands of the collective, but as a political equivalent of Cordelia’s speech to Lear.

Arendt did not remind Scholem that from 1933 to 1949 she had abandoned scholarship for Zionist activism, sometimes at personal risk, engaging in everything from the practical organizing of relief efforts to writing essays for German and English-language magazines like Aufbau and Menorah Journal—in which she called, with urgent anger sharper and hotter than any merely speakable “love,” for a Jewish army and a new Jewish self-consciousness. Arendt’s life had for so many years been lived for the Jewish people, she implied, that she could not look on “them” as something separate from “herself.” She was not proclaiming the sovereignty of the individual, but rather the non-existence of the latter in isolation from the group that provides its stage of action and frame of meaning—what Arendt called its “world.”

Arendt’s Zionism was as idiosyncratic—and to many, as frustratingly perplexing—as her view of a person’s constitutive mix of personal uniqueness and un-withdrawable membership in a human community into which we find ourselves thrown. She called for Jewish unity while acerbically critiquing every Jewish political institution, tradition and perspective, from Europe to the United States to Palestine—advocating an implausible post-war order in which a Jewish homeland would be secured as part of a vast post-Ottoman federation of nationalities extending from Europe to the Middle East.

Her disappointed hopes, her years of struggle alongside and against other activists, and, as she reminded Scholem, her sense of propriety—her inner alertness that to speak of such things would be an obscene self-sundering, bringing to light feelings that have their authentic life only in intimate darkness—perhaps explain why in her later reflections on politics, such as The Human Condition (1958)and On Revolution (1963), Arendt wrote as if she had not spent a decade and a half as a Jewish activist. Some would say, hardly as if she were a Jew. But the political experience she did not acknowledge having was specifically Jewish, and the path to the rediscovery of what she often called the hidden treasures of ancient Greek thought went directly through Zionism.

Indeed, many of the claims Arendt makes in her work after the 1940s should be understood as translations into universalistic terms of lessons she derived from her reflections on the world-historical emergency of European Jewry. What she described in later years as the problems of modernity—the end of authoritative traditions for orienting moral and political thought and action, the dangerous seductions of Marxism and ethno-nationalist fascism, and the stupidity of self-satisfied liberal elites unable to recognize these desperate conditions—were a cosmopolitanized version of the story she had told in her Zionist writings about, and to, Jews. She saw the latter as unable to return to traditional religion (cut off from it forever by the failure of Sabbatai Zevi’s messianism and the transformations of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform movement) and faced with the task—from which Communism and Revisionist Zionism threatened to divert it—of building a specifically secular Jewish “world” anchored by, although by no means taking place only in, its historic homeland.

So what about Arendt’s vision appealed to Michael Denneny, a young man from a working-class Irish Catholic background? In part, simply the brilliance of the teacher. As a friend of his told me after his death, Denneny had met Arendt while working as a busboy in the faculty dining room. He would talk with her as he cleaned tables; gradually, she began timing her meals to coincide with his shifts. Arendt convinced Denneny, then an undergraduate with dreams of serving in the newly founded Peace Corps, to stay on at the university for doctoral study under her supervision. When she left Chicago in 1967 for the New School in New York, he followed her, continuing to sit in on her seminars even as he left academia for publishing.

In an essay written during these years about her own teacher, “Martin Heidegger at Eighty,” Arendt recalled that he had made her believe that “thinking can be learned.” That is—and rather contrary to the solitary vision of thinking Heidegger provides in much of his written work—thinking, however much it happens only within an isolated person, is a relation between people. Arendt, too, taught thinking; and, in a manner surpassing her teacher, taught how thinking is an uncanniness that connects and recombines us.

Michael Denneny
Michael DennenyDavid Morgan, 2023

Arendt taught thinking—and she taught that thinking requires what she called a “world.” Just as the student needs a teacher, the thinker, in order to think at all, needs a community whose members she can address and argue with. It is not a question, of course, of creating a community out of thin air, or of taking an abstract, universal humanity as one’s audience. Rather the task, which is explicit in Arendt’s Zionist writing but only implicit in her later work, is one of more fully and expansively elaborating the world we already share with those with whom we are by virtue of historical circumstance, but perhaps not yet by virtue of our own conscious concern, in community.

Denneny saw Christopher Street magazine, which he helped found in 1976, and its associated publishing line Stonewall Inn Editions at St. Martin’s Press, as instruments for building a gay male world. In Arendt’s theory, a world is sustained by, and maintains the possibility of the exchange of, different perspectives on what interlocutors understand as being—albeit in a not yet fully agreed-upon way—the same object. In her later work, this is usually presented as a problem of “judgment” in which people have diverse points of view about some third thing—whether they are making aesthetic judgments about, say, a painting, or ethical judgments about an action. But in the case that most compelled her early thought, as in the case that preoccupied Denneny, the “object” at stake was the supposedly common identity that did not quite unite those who debated its meaning.

For it was not at all obvious how different sorts of Jewish people from across the globe constituted a single Jewish “world” as a stage for debate about so-called Jewish politics. Indeed, Arendt in her Zionist writing insisted that this world and this politics would have to be created through exchanges of judgments, and through appeals to a community that as yet existed more in the eyes of its enemies than in the hearts of potential future members.

Homosexuality is perhaps only a little less ancient than Adam and Eve, but, like Zionism, gay male life is a much more recent creation, one elaborated by activists who tried to transform themselves into something like a people. In its cultural politics of building a gay male world, Christopher Street featured poetry and short stories, helping launch the careers of the major gay writers of the late 20th century, such as Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, and Larry Kramer. It also ran many essays that contributed to an emerging awareness that there was a gay male canon in American letters, running from Walt Whitman and Hart Crane to John Ashbery and James Merrill.

Christopher Street was by no means the only venue for the construction of a gay world, but Denneny and his colleagues were perhaps the sharpest-minded defenders of its specificity—their demand that it be a world for gay men. In a debate that has now been largely forgotten, but which dominated gay intellectual life in the 1970s, Denneny’s Arendtian perspective, with its debts to Zionism, was ranged against a vision of politics in which gay men were to be a kind of shock force for a broader sexual-cum-socialist revolution.

Christopher Street’s main rival for the minds of gay male intellectual readers was the Boston-based Fag Rag, a self-proclaimed “radical” left newspaper. Fag Rag’s writership did not see gay men as a distinct group that needed to build a world of their own. Rather, it saw them as one of a number of oppressed groups with a common interest in overthrowing heterosexual, patriarchal, white, Christian, etc., power. Its pages gave equal space to women and men (Christopher Street, after a few experimental power-sharing issues with lesbians, booted them from the magazine). It featured gay men who made feminist-inspired critiques of masculinity, pornography, and leather, while promoting a supposedly sex-positive, gender-bending neo-paganism. They were the eunuch vanguard of the post-male alphabet soup left.

In the years before the AIDS crisis (1976-1981) Christopher Street did not have an obvious line on “sexual liberation” countering that of Fag Rag. While some of its articles cheekily investigated the history of gloryholes where anonymous oral sex was on offer, many others lamented what was already seen by many gay intellectuals as the excessive hedonism of the era immediately before AIDS. One March 1980 essay critiqued the “Tyranny of the Penis”—a title that could have been taken from an issue of Fag Rag. But promiscuity tended to be seen as problematic because it might undermine the possibility of forming stable couples among gay men, rather than because it epitomized the patriarchal power of the phallus (Christopher Street’s contributors did not evince any great opposition to the latter). They tended to be sympathetic observers or active participants in the shift over the course of the late 70s towards a more masculine gay male style of dress and comportment, featuring denim, cowboy boots, and other items of masculine accessorizing.

The lack of agreement, however, was the point—Christopher Street was meant to be a space in which gay men could disagree with each other about what gay men should do (what they should wear, read, and suck), and even about what it meant to be a gay man, provided they agreed that there are, and should be, gay men. Christopher Street did grant occasional room for feminist perspectives, from an interview with Gloria Steinem to a short story by Andrea Dworkin, and to representatives of the Marxist left like Jean-Paul Sartre. But these were presented as glimpses on something of potential interest to an imagined gay community, not as voices that must be, as we say today, “centered”—as a moral-political teaching to which gay men should conform.

Michel Foucault—whose thinking in his last years was deeply informed by his encounter with the emerging American gay culture presented in its pages (and thus, in a strange roundabout way, to Hannah Arendt)—explained in an interview with Christopher Street that he was excited to see that gay men were, thanks to its efforts, at last able to imagine themselves as political agents in their own right without recourse to feminism, Marxism, and other rhetorics of the left. Foucault had perhaps read Denneny’s 1981 “manifesto,” published in Christopher Street, consisting of sixteen “propositions” for gay politics. The central proposition, number eight, began with a quote from Arendt, in which she claimed that “a man can live as a man,” that is as an individual (although perhaps with a special unintended resonance in its new context as a call for gay male specificity), only “within the framework of a people.” The word “framework” is deliberate and significant. “A people” is something made—to be sure, out of existing materials. Culture—the exchange of perspectives in philosophy, fiction, criticism—creates the framework within which we can act together. Denneny concludes, “a gay culture is a political necessity for our survival.” The point of gay politics, Denneny insisted, was not to make gay men’s discontent a kind of lever for the overthrow of our regime, but to build “power” so that gay men could invent forms of life together, creating the cultural resources by which they could pursue their necessarily mutual happiness.

Many readers took issue with Denneny’s propositions, and particularly with his ninth, which rejected the Fag Rag line that gay politics was just one iteration of a broader “social question.” In a response to discontented readers’ letters, charging Denneny of decoupling gay liberation from its alliance with the left, he answered that “genuflecting before the icon of socialism,” as he, in passing, charged his long-time collaborator Ed White of doing, “is an act of cultural piety, not political insight… a very weak basis on which to build a new politics.” (When I emailed White to ask about Denneny and his Arendtian view of politics, White replied tersely that he had never known Denneny to speak of her—a statement that contrasts with the memories of others in their circle).

The first issue of Christopher Street Magazine, 1976
The first issue of Christopher Street Magazine, 1976Library Thing

Denneny countered that a “radical gay politics” was one reflecting and contributing to the creation of the forms of gay male life that were developing in the present—“not to the century-old theoretical tradition of the left, which strikes me as intellectually conservative, even old-fashioned.” That tradition subsumed supposedly local and contingent struggles in an over-arching agenda intended to bring about a new social order. It had a place for gay men qua gay men (or for Jews qua Jews, women qua women, etc.) only to the extent that their social movements could be interpreted as vehicles for progress towards a universal egalitarian horizon in which antagonisms would, at last, be dissolved.

Although many activists and academics try to prove the contrary, the left’s grand horizons have have often disappointed gay men. For much of the twentieth century, their primary manifestation was Marxism, which saw male homosexuality either as a revolting bourgeois (even fascist) practice—or as one of the many sites for political combat to be redirected towards the Revolution. Gay men who desired the freedom to create a specifically gay male culture were at best nuisances and at worst enemies.

The New Left of the 60s and 70s was only apparently more open to sexual minorities. If it promoted “sexual liberation,” it was in order to use gay men as a battering ram against traditional morality—not least masculinity. That gay men remain men—that their stubborn inassimilable particularity consists in nothing less than their attachment to masculinity, even if it might strike Judith Butler as ‘parodic’—made them permanently suspect allies of the post-Marxist cultural left that saw men (white men anyhow) as the oppressor class. Attachment to masculinity, however much attenuated today, makes gays equally unreliable members of the coalition of supposedly marginalized groups imagined to constitute the “progressive” or “woke” left, or whatever it is one might call the current ruling ideology of the Democratic Party and its associated elites in corporate life, media and academia.

Arendt was a critical reference point not only for Denneny but a number of other contributors to Christopher Street, who often compared the gay male experience in the 1970s with the historical experience of Jews in Europe and the United States. Some of the appeal of such parallels, doubtless, was that so many writers and subscribers were New Yorkers, whether Jewish or not, who were living in a milieu where debates about Jewish identity, culture and politics were commonplace. Moreover Jews—like gays and unlike most women, black people, prisoners or the other oppressed groups whose troubles were given much place in Fag Rag—had to think about their relationship to the non-Jewish world with some connection to the problem of “passing,” of having it within their power, to an extent that was always uncertain, shifting, and never total, to hide or reveal their “identity.”

It was no accident that the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had made Jewishness (in the 1944 essay “Antisemite and Jew”) and homosexuality (in his 1952 book Saint Genet) special topics of analysis; they illustrate, with particular clarity, what he understood as the complex union of determination and freedom that makes up every human life. We are born with certain traits, and involuntarily acquire others in the course of living. We are said by others to be such-and-such kinds of people on the basis of these traits, and are treated accordingly. Thrust by our bodies, desires, environments, families, cultures into roles, we are free within them, to a degree we can perhaps never rightly know, to act them out in various ways, including, sometimes, to deny them and “pass” as something else.

If Arendt had been a man, she would have been, if not ‘cancelled,’ then consigned by right-thinking scholars among such other Teutonic anachronisms as Oswald Spenger and Eric Voegelin.

Gay men and Jews—that is, those homosexuals who choose to live a distinctly modern “gay” life and those Jews who, with whatever relation they bear towards their religious traditions, live in a secular society—have seemed at times to instantiate the problem all modern people face of having to invent a life for themselves out of materials we have not chosen, to wrest, in some measure, autobiography out of biography. For the contributors of Christopher Street, Arendt’s ideas could be a call to resoluteness in addressing this challenge—or the grounds for a condemnation of what seemed to be the sterility of gay and Jewish life in America.

In a 1981 essay, “The New York GayCult, the Jewish Question… and Me,” journalist Neil Alan Marks used Arendt’s writing on political theory and Zionism to critique the “bourgeois” gay male scene that had emerged in New York, San Francisco and, to varying intensities, other major American cities. Gay and Jews in the United States, he argued, were still at the level of what Arendt had described as the “parvenu” Jews of pre-war Western Europe. These parvenus were often more “European” in taste and consciousness than the gentile elites they thought they were imitating. But, as Arendt saw it, they lacked both religious and political virtues. They had lost the faith of their ancestors but had not become true secular elites; they merely play-acted as wealthy Frenchmen, Germans, etc., and as beneficent leaders of charity organizations that cared for their ostensibly less fortunate brethren in the same manner that animal-rights activists care for animals: as ignorant recipients of benevolence.

Instead of building a modern, secular, Jewish world, Arendt implied, parvenu elites kept playing to a gentile audience that regarded them with condescension or hatred. Their charity to poor and foreign Jews was not an attempt to create a world in common with them by recognizing them as both an audience and actors on Judaism’s stage. It was because they were alienated from the very possibility of, or desire for, such a world, that parvenu Jewish leaders were so unable to respond to the steadily worsening challenge of antisemitism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Marks drew parallels between what he saw as the American Jewish parvenu experience and that of the emerging gay culture. American Jews with a “traditional humanist middle-class” sensibility hoped they, or at any rate their children, could succeed at “making it”—that combination of economic success and social climbing—“without taking advantage of anyone along the way.” Likewise, gays had hoped for a kind of “sexual liberation” that would free them from legal repression and moral stigma while also giving freer rein to the “universal desire to be sexually exploiting and exploited.” Both groups wielded progressive slogans appealing to the possibility of a gentler, less discriminatory America, while organizing their personal lives around competition for status—which is indeed another name for the American dream.

Denneny’s account in On Christopher Street, understandably but regrettably, writes out voices of despair likes Marks’, which reveal how, even on the verge of the AIDS crisis, some who shared his intellectual debts to Arendt saw a much bleaker picture than he did. Denneny likewise wrote out of his story how Charles Ortleb, for many years Christopher Street’s editor-in-chief, drew on Arendt in a hyper-ventilating 1979 essay that treated the release of William Friedkin’s film Cruising, set in the gay S&M subculture, as a prelude to anti-gay hatred that could culminate in something like the Holocaust. In a grim irony, as AIDS devastated the world of Christopher Street in the following years, Ortleb frequently denied, in print, any connection between the disease and sex, making himself responsible for innumerable deaths (having survived the crisis, Ortleb now devotes himself to COVID denialism—battling in both struggles the same foe, Dr. Fauci).

Invoking the ideas of Arendt—and using them to build a shared world in which ideas can be exchanged among members of a group to enlarge their inseparably collective and individual freedom—offers no guarantees of decent outcomes, anymore than it did for Arendt herself, whose campaign for a particular, perhaps impossible, kind of Zionism linked to a peaceful, federal solution in Palestine, ended in a failure on which she rarely reflected in public. But Arendt’s legacy still challenges us, as she put it in The Human Condition, to consider “that the innermost meaning of the acted deed and the spoken word is independent of victory and defeat and must remain untouched by any eventual outcome, by their consequences for better or worse… action can be judged only by the criterion of greatness.” In this breathtaking departure from all conventional standards, in her declaring the building of a world for magnificent action and thoughts to be as much beyond good and evil as it is beyond prudent and foolish, Arendt shows herself to be, no less than Foucault and more than her despisers like Costin Alamariu, a radical heir to Nietzsche whom we have only begun to understand.

Denneny’s 1979 essay, “The Privilege of Ourselves: Hannah Arendt on Judgment,” is the only scholarly paper in which he addresses the work of his mentor. It begins where Arendt ended, with the opening sentence: “After Hannah Arendt’s death in December 1975, friends found in her typewriter the title page, with two epigrams, of her projected work on Judging.” It then brilliantly retraces the problem of judgment throughout Arendt’s work, showing how the thread linking her otherwise confounding redefinitions of terms like “world” and “politics” is the exchange of different perspectives on a common object or problem, within a community of interlocutors whose points of view vary but who remain committed to communication and to the sense that what they are disagreeing about is in some not-yet-defined way the same thing.

For the next four decades, Denneny pursued what he called, in an email to me, “Arendtian praxis, putting many of her ideas into practice in a concrete way” by building a world of gay letters in which the pursuit of individual excellence within a community of competitors, admirers, peers and fellow strivers was directed towards an open-ended freedom to invent new forms of life. When I emailed him earlier this spring, for an essay on their relationship that has suddenly become an obituary, he was reading again through her complete works. A few days before his death, he told me that he had not read his 1979 essay since it had been published, and, looking back over it, in what he did not know were some of his last hours, he was relieved to find that he and Arendt had been struggling with the same problems. To continue that struggle is to continue their world.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.