Words Into Action

The Origins of Totalitarianism BY Hannah Arendt. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. . $19.

The book I have in mind does not exist, but it can. Take James Baldwin's short 1984 essay for Essence, "On Being White . . . And Other Lies," and attach it to the front of Hannah Arendt's 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Baldwin's tone, both elegant and impatient, carries him through a brief description of how the concept of whiteness (and the State of Israel) is maintained. Arendt focuses, nominally, on anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. These categories are wide enough that she is able to describe many distinct realities, possibly from a point in the middle distance, even when discussing antiquity: "The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality."

Sasha Frere-Jones is a critic living in Los Angeles.