Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
Quote of the Week

‘Burlesque Philosophy,’ or ‘Stupid Thoughtfulness’

By Samantha Hill

“The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of thought; thinking is always result-less.”

–Hannah Arendt, Letter to Mary McCarthy, Chestnut Lawn House, Palenville, N.Y. August 20, 1954


By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38896086

There is an exchange about doubt, fear, and thinking toward the beginning of Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt’s correspondence. Mary is working on her novel, A Charmed Life, and asks Hannah for her thoughts on the phenomenon of doubt within the tradition of western political thought:

“One thing I’m anxious to talk to you about is a problem connected with the novel, which is about bohemianized people and the dogmatization of ignorance. Or about the shattered science of epistemology. ‘How do you know that?’ once of the characters keeps babbling about any statement in the realm of fact or aesthetics. In morals, the reiterated question is ‘Why not?’ ‘Why shouldn’t I murder my grandmother if I want to? Give me one good reason,’ another character pleads. . . .When did this ritualistic doubting begin to permeate, first, philosophy and then popular thinking?”

Hannah replies:

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 05/01/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Arendt in Egypt

Amro Ali argues that Hannah Arendt’s understanding of power and violence can help understand the failure of the Egyptian revolution. “Egypt – politically, economically, and socially – cannot be saved through violent attack on dissenters, there is an urgent need for a broad political consensus to tackle longstanding crises.” To make this point, Ali enlists Arendt’s distinction between power and violence:

“Hannah Arendt’s understanding of violence can provide fundamental insights into the [Egyptian] regime’s behaviour. In her 1972 work Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution, Arendt points out that the rise of state violence is frequently connected to a decrease in substantive power as regimes mistakenly believe they can retain real control through violent measures (CR 184). Real and sustainable power arises when a concert of people get together in a space to exchange views. Thus, power arises through free choice. Violence sits outside the realm of legitimate politics. It is an expression of desperation. It renders speech, discussions and persuasion impossible, making support from the public harder to come by.”

Arendt does not argue against violence in all situations and she... continue on Medium.




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Fantasy Strongmen, Real Strongmen

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump

Putin by Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, Trump by Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 2.0

Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books has an essay on the Trump-Putin relationship. “It is not hard to see why Trump might choose Putin as his fantasy friend. Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television. Trump’s financial success (such as it is) has been as a New York real estate speculator, a world of private deal-making that can seem rough and tough—until you compare it to the Russia of the 1990s that ultimately produced the Putin regime. Trump presents himself as the maker of a financial empire who is willing to break all the rules, whereas that is what Putin in fact is. Thus far Trump can only verbally abuse his opponents at rallies, whereas Putin’s opponents are assassinated. Thus far Trump can only have his campaign manager rough up journalists he doesn’t like. In Russia some of the best journalists are in fact murdered.

Quote of the Week

A Higher Understanding of Freedom


By Richard A. Barrett

“Freedom. . . is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, life as such would be meaningless. The raison d'être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action. . . . I think the reader may believe he has read only an old truism when I said that the raison d'être of politics is freedom and that this freedom is primarily experienced in action.”

—Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?”

Politicians, despite their divergent views and their distaste for each other, share at least this common ground: they believe in the vigorous pursuit and defense of freedom. In campaign speeches and party platforms freedom is one of the most frequently used terms. Freedom is set forth as a goal, as something that goes hand and hand with democracy.

Yet if we pause to think what we are doing, if we ask what precisely we want, what is it that we value enough to risk life and national wealth? What is our answer? When I ask this question of college students—students who are bright, engaged in their studies, and interested in politics—they are at loss. To be sure, they can list things they would like to be free to do, but why freedom is among the highest goals, why it is worth great sacrifice to achieve or maintain, they have difficulty articulating. To be fair, adults typically have the same difficulty, even when they happen to be professors of political science. Some will argue that the guarantee of individual freedoms is necessary to avoid

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 04/24/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Centralization and Duplication

cctv logoOrville Schell writes in the NY Review of Books about the rise of “an old-style Leninist party in a modern world.” The Chinese Communist Party Schell argues is using a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption to execute a massive purge of opposition leaders. “As different leaders have come and gone, China specialists overseas have become accustomed to reading Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tea leaves as oscillating cycles of political “relaxation” and “tightening.” China has long been a one-party Leninist state with extensive censorship and perhaps the largest secret police establishment in the world. But what has been happening lately in Beijing under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is no such simple fluctuation. It is a fundamental shift in ideological and organizational direction that is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations. At the center of this retrograde trend is Xi’s enormously ambitious initiative to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he calls “tigers and flies,” namely corrupt officials and businessmen both high and low. Since it began in 2012, the campaign has already netted more than 160 “tigers” whose rank is above or equivalent to that of the deputy provincial or deputy ministerial level, and more than 1,400 “flies,” all lower-level officials. But it has also morphed from an anticorruption drive into a broader neo-Maoist-style mass purge aimed at political rivals and others with differing ideological or political views. To carry out this mass movement, the Party has mobilized its unique and extensive network of surveillance, security, and secret police in ways that have affected many areas of Chinese life. Media organizations dealing with news and information have been hit particularly hard. Pressured to conform to old Maoist models requiring them to serve as megaphones for the Party, editors and reporters have found themselves increasingly constrained by Central Propaganda Department diktats. Told what they can and cannot cover, they find that the limited freedom they had to report on events has been drastically curtailed. The consequences of running afoul of government orders have become ever more grave. Last August, for instance, a financial journalist for the weekly business magazine Caijing was detained after reporting on government manipulation of China’s stock markets and forced to denounce his own coverage in a humiliating self-confession on China Central Television (CCTV). And more recently media outlets were reminded in the most explicit way not to stray from the Party line when Xi himself dropped by the New China News Agency, the People’s Daily, and CCTV. All news media run by the Party [which includes every major media outlet in China] must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions, and protect the Party’s authority and unity,” Xi warned. In front of a banner declaring “CCTV’s family name is ‘the Party,’” Xi urged people who work in the media to “enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking, and deeds to those of the CCP Central Committee.” Then, only days later the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced new regulations banning all foreign-invested media companies from publishing online in China without government approval.”

Courage To Be

The Courage to Be: Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou


(Images courtesy of Jessica Chappe.)

Our Courage to Be fellows Jason Toney and Ava Lindenmaier reflect on Reverend Sekou's lecture, "The Courage to Rebel: Ferguson, Faith and the Future of American Democracy." We'd also like to acknowledge and express our appreciation toward our performers for the evening (included below):

(Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou - Lead Vocals)
Ajana Nanabuluku - Piano
Ethan Evans - Guitar
Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, Ava Lindenmaier - Vocals
Sagiv Galai - Drums
Carolyn Heitter - Sax

Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou and Jay-Marie Hill visited Bard College as part of the Courage to Be Program’s lecture series. Reverend Sekou’s presentation, entitled, “The Courage to Rebel: Ferguson, Faith and the Future of American Democracy,” was a combination of lecture and musical performance. With several Bard students accompanying Rev. Sekou and Jay-Marie, the evening began in song. The first track, “Goodbye, Baby,” tells the story of the mother of a martyred son — a son killed by police brutality. Without fail, the songs served as reinforcement for the content of the lecture.

Rev. Sekou staged his lecture around three spiritual ages; the spirit of the age of angst (zeitgeist der angst), the spirit of the age of freedom (zeitgeist der freiheit), and the spirit of spiritual love (zeitgeist der agape). These distinct spiritual conditions, as Rev. Sekou explained, shape the kind of society in which we live, and, at bottom, they serve as explanatory mechanisms for contemporary manifestations of protest and courage.

Amongst the major themes Rev. Sekou touched on are wonder, the occupation of public space, contemporary rejections of traditional leadership, and the problematic nature of the nation state. It was these themes that enabled Rev. Sekou to begin to deconstruct the popular mythology of the Civil Rights Movement and place contemporary actors in a re-contextualized history of social action. The Reverend argued that “West Florissant in St. Louis is our Tahir Square” and that, because traditional leadership has been rejected, “Al Sharpton can’t come on that street at night in Ferguson.” These themes, as Rev. Sekou witnessed, are brought to light by actors putting their bodies on the line. This fundamental notion, of putting one’s body on the line, was an essential criteria in his discussion of courage and it was embodied in his performance.

To learn more about our "Courage to Be" program, click here.

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 04/17/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Superfluous People

Pope Francis flew to the Greek Island of Lesbos and returned with 12 refugees. It was, he said, “a voyage marked by sadness.” The Pope rightly called the refugee crisis “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.” And in traveling to witness the refugees first hand, the Pope had a message. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and desperate need and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

refugeesSeyla Benhabib has also recently visited a refugee camp in Greece, at the old Athens Airport, Ellinikon International. “On an early Friday morning in March, we approached the grey shaped non-descript institutional buildings at about 10 am. They could have been part of a warehouse, a factory, a military base. The first thing I noticed was a young boy of 9 or 10, who together with his father, was sweeping the front steps of a room inside the flat building that must have housed them. On the other side of the lot, were rows of tents of all colors such as hikers and campers use. Ahead of us, on the balcony of what was once the airport’s main terminal, hung a clothes-line, extending the whole length of the building, with multi-colored shirts, pants, skirts, and scarves waving around in the wind. One could have encountered such a scene of everyday normalcy on any camping site in the world. Except that nothing is normal when you are a refugee. Everyday life, driven by the needs of the body, asserts itself in ways that lets you take nothing for granted — whether you will wake up in the same room or tent the next morning; whether you will have access to bathrooms; whether there will be a doctor to tend to your wounds or illnesses. Suspended between the home that you have lost and the uncertain destination that awaits you, your sense of time is also warped: should one wake up the children? Ah yes, but there is no school or playground for them to go to, is there?”

Quote of the Week

Education Without Authority?

school children profile

You can also find this piece at our new Medium publication feed.

By Jennie Han

"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable."

-- Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education”

Education carries a heavy burden for Arendt. As in politics, we declare our love for the world, both or own and the world of future generations. To say that education is in crisis, then, is for Arendt not to lament the fact that “Johnny can’t read.” It is to acknowledge a generalized dissatisfaction with and alienation from the world that has us say to our children, “[i]n this world even we are not very securely at home….You must try to make out as best you can; in any case you are not entitled to call us to account. We are innocent, we wash our hands of you.” So alienated, one might still be qualified to teach if one has knowledge of subjects, but one has no authority to do so. For without assuming the responsibility for the world that is necessary to say to the child, “This is our world,” there can be no relationship of teaching and learning between the adult who is to introduce the child to the world and the child who is developing into adulthood to accept this responsibility in turn.

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 04/10/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Cynicism of Paraphrasing

vita activa film bannerRoger Berkowitz reviews the new documentary, Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt. He finds particularly impressive is the choice to employ Arendt’s own words. “While the film features interviews with excellent scholars, the overwhelming majority of the film is dedicated to Arendt’s words. Long segments show Arendt speaking in television and radio interviews. And when Arendt’s recorded voice is unavailable, the Canadian actress Allison Darcy gives voice to Arendt’s written words. In more than 30 extended quotations, Darcy reads Arendt’s sentences to us, quoting Arendt in extended arguments about refugees, totalitarianism, ideology, and evil. The film, Vita Activa, begs to be taken seriously as a sustained and passionate essay.” And yet, the movie has a problem. The director, Ada Ushpiz, changes Arendt’s words in every single quotation used in the movie. While many of these changes are cosmetic and minor, some are not. “Why does Ushpiz reorder Arendt’s sentences without alerting us to the change? Why does she change “fortuitousness” to “random nature”? And why does she change Arendt’s phrase “totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency”—one of the most iconic and felicitous of Arendt’s many quotable aphorisms—to read “totalitarian movements conjure up a false ideological and consistent world”? Ushpiz had an editor go over Arendt’s text to make it read better, to simplify it, to make it more accessible to a film audience. Doing so would be understandable in a fictional film, but it is dishonest in a documentary.

Quote of the Week

Thinking What We Are Doing in the Condition of Plurality

niccolo macchiavelli statue at uffizi

You can also find this piece at our new Medium channel.

By Aaron Cotkin

“Action would be an unnecessary luxury, a capricious interference with general laws of behavior, if men were endlessly reproducible repetitions of the same model, whose nature or essence was the same for all and as predictable as the nature or essence of any other thing. Plurality is the condition of human action because we are all the same, that is, human, in such a way that nobody is ever the same as anyone else who ever lived, lives, or will live.”

-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Central to Arendt’s call for us to “think what we are doing” is for us to think about politics as occurring under the condition of plurality. But we often lack a language appropriate to think in these terms. It may be appropriate for those who study the realm of the social (economics, culture, or society writ large) to speak of human behavior, of the nature of Man, as predictable because individual people, navigating the realm of necessity may seem like repetitions of each other. But Arendt believes that applying such logic to the study of politics, to study politics as characterized by behavior rather than by action, is inappropriate.

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 04/03/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

The Reality of Race

the reality of raceMoises Velasquez-Manoff explores the controversy around “Proper Cloth,” an on-line company that customizes shirts to body type. The problem “Proper Cloth” faced was that its customers were unreliable reporters of their body types and sizes. In search of the perfect fit, the company began experimenting with different questions that would could be connected by algorithm with the given measurements to yield a properly fitting shirt. What the company found is that by asking their customer’s race and ethnicity, it could dramatically improve the fit...

Continue this piece over on Medium, where we're featuring snapshots of the weekly Amor Mundi newsletter.

Quote of the Week

Abolishing the World As It Is


By Charles Snyder

“The eyes accustomed to the shadowy appearances on the screen are blinded by the fire in the rear of the cave. The eyes then adjusted to the dim light of the artificial fire are blinded by the light of the sun. But worst of all is the loss of orientation which befalls those whose eyes once were adjusted to the bright light under the sky of ideas, and who must now find their way in the darkness of the cave ... When they come back and try to tell the cave dwellers what they have seen outside the cave, they do not make sense.“

- Hannah Arendt, “Philosophy and Politics“

Imagine human beings who spend their entire lives confined within a cave peering at a shadowy surface of images. These beings see nothing but images of the real. In the Republic, Plato asks his readers to imagine just this. His provocation does not depict humans held captive by a stream of images projected on mobile devices with bright, sensitive surfaces. Though our own cave tests the limits of the image, Plato’s cave remains instructive. Read the entirety of this piece here on Medium.



Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 3/27/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Perfect Squares

public-spaceMichael Kimmelman writes about the continued, perhaps even revolutionary, relevance of public space in cities from New York to Cairo. There is, as Hannah Arendt so deeply understood, a need for all living things to appear, to be seen, and this is most possible in public spaces. The ancient agora, the public square, makes the polis, since it is where citizens and others can see and be seen. More importantly, it is a place where people can be visible to others in ways that matter. For Arendt, being visible acting and speaking in public is the quintessential human right. Kimmelman explores this need for visibility through modern demographic and architectural trends.

"On another Times assignment, I visited a refugee camp in the southern West Bank called Fawwar. There, a Palestinian architect, Sandi Hilal, worked with residents of the camp to create a public square, something virtually unheard of in such places. For Palestinian refugees, the creation of any urban amenity, by implying normalcy and permanence, undermines their fundamental self-image, even after several generations have passed, as temporary occupants of the camps who preserve the right of return to Israel.

Moreover, in refugee camps, public and private do not really exist as they do elsewhere. There is, strictly speaking, no private property in the camps. Refugees do not own their homes. Streets are not municipal properties, as they are in cities, because refugees are not citizens of their host countries, and the camp is not really a city. The legal notion of a refugee camp, according to the United Nations, is a temporary site for displaced, stateless individuals, not a civic body.

So there is no municipality in Fawwar, just a UN relief agency whose focus is on emergency services. That’s what residents turn to when the lights go out or the garbage isn’t picked up, unless they want to deal with the problem themselves. Concepts like inside and outside are blurred in a place where there is no private property. A mother doesn’t always wear the veil in Fawwar, whether she’s at home or out on the street, because the whole place is, in a sense, her home; but she will put it on when she leaves the camp, because that is outside.

In other words, there is a powerful sense of community. And some years ago, Hilal—who then headed the Camp Improvement Unit in the West Bank for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, along with her husband, Alessandro Petti, an Italian architect—began to talk with Fawwar residents about creating a public square. The residents, especially the men, were immediately suspicious, not just about normalizing the camp but about creating any space where men and women might come together in public... Hilal showed me around the square she’d designed. She said that pushback was initially fierce. “When we merely mentioned the word ‘plaza,’ people in the camp freaked out,” she remembered. But a counterargument gradually took hold, which entailed abandoning what Hilal called “the strategy of convincing the whole world of the refugees’ misery through their architectural misery”... The square has given children a place to play other than crowded streets. Mothers who rarely felt free to leave their homes to socialize in public now meet there to talk and weave, selling what they make in the square, an enterprise that is entirely new in the community and that one of the mothers told me “gives us self-esteem and a sense of worth, like the men have.” --RB

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tunisiaGeorge Packer visits the post-Arab Spring Tunisia: "A few miles northwest of Tunis, with its sidewalk cafés and streets lined by rows of manicured ficus trees and its avenues named after European cities, there is a poor suburb of eighty thousand people called Douar Hicher. The streets are narrow and rutted, with drains cut through the middle, and the houses cluster close together, as if to keep out strangers. In the first days of 2011, thousands of young people from Douar Hicher and other suburbs poured into downtown Tunis to demand the ouster of the country’s corrupt and autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Within two weeks, he had been overthrown, in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. This sudden change was soon celebrated around the world as the first sprout of the Arab Spring. In the new Tunisia, freedom brought tumult as well as joy. Douar Hicher became the scene of preaching, protesting, and, at times, violence by Islamists. Before the revolution, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis—the word refers to the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad—took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighborhoods. Some of the Salafis belonged to an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, the Defenders of Sharia, which opposed electoral democracy and wanted to set off an Islamist insurrection. The group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October, 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post in Douar Hicher. In 2013, faced with a state crackdown, the Salafis went underground, and young men and women began disappearing from neighborhoods like Douar Hicher." The youth of Douar Hicher are leaving to wage Jihad, and Packer offers a rare look into the reasons and impact of their choices. “Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad. “You have a lot of people who have aspirations and can’t meet them,” Monica Marks, an American doctoral candidate who studies Islamist movements in the Middle East, said.”


The Liberty of Minimalism

KonMariArielle Bernstein, herself the grandchild of a couple who first fled the Holocaust for Cuba, and then Cuba for America, considers the enormously popular KonMari method of getting rid of your stuff, and marvels at the freedom that it represents: "Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry. It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have. A Vice article, “All the Stuff Syrian Refugees Leave Behind During Their Journey to Europeshows discarded things ranging from trash to toys to ticket stubs. Each items looks lonely and lost: like evidence of a life left behind. For a project titled “The Most Important Thing,” the photographer Brian Sokol asks refugees to show him the most important thing they kept from the place they left behind. The items they proffer range from the necessary (crutches), to the practical (a sewing machine), to the deeply sentimental (photographs of someone deeply loved, treasured instruments, family pets).Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone."


White Speech

silhouettesLinguistics professor John McWhorter talks about what it means to "sound white": "When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off. The vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. This means that if you are black, upon meeting you, a great many black people will tacitly expect that the two of you will speak more similarly to one another—at the very least in terms of that certain “sound”—than either of you do to white people. That similarity is an index of acceptance and warmth in a society that looks askance on black people in so many ways. Then it turns out that you don’t sound similar, despite your black face. The wrong voice is coming out of you. Although the expectation that you were going to sound black was not conscious, the fact that you don’t is processed quite consciously: it’s the discrepancy that elicits attention. You are heard as talking “like that,” though you know no other way to talk. It seems, perhaps, that you purposefully distanced yourself from the normal black way of talking in a quest to join whites. More certainly, you sound snooty, chilly, not like the type anyone would want to have a beer (or anything else!) with. To a black person who knows only other black people who speak with the same sound, your different sound is not just peculiar but, because it is a “white sound,” snobbish. The matter is not one of perplexity or discomfort, but irritation, even contempt. Plus, these days, the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society through the popularity of hip hop, so increasingly someone like me finds that even whites below a certain age process him as “square.” Call it stereotyping or call it progress, but a lot of white people happily anticipate a certain hipness, “realness,” from a black person. We’re so “down,” so approachable, so “the shit,” apparently. In talking to these people, just as to so many black people, I disappoint. I offend."

Hannah Arendt described a similar phenomena experienced by Jews in 18th and 19th century Germany. The warmth McWhorter writes of is something claimed and valued by all pariah peoples. And speaking white while remaining black is fate of the parvenu. As Arendt saw, Jewish parvenus had to separate themselves from Jews in general. The parvenu must be educated and give up his “Jewish character”; and yet, the parvenu remains always a Jew. It was this tradeoff—denying one’s self to achieve social standing—that Arendt found dehumanizing about social antisemitism. What is more, to be accepted in gentile society, Jews had to perform as exceptional, constantly reminding themselves and others of their distinction from lower class Jews while also maintaining their connection to their native background so that they appeared exceptional, and not merely normal. Arendt refers to a review by Goethe, of a book of poems by a Jewish author; Goethe complained it was merely mediocre and did not have what he hoped it would, something genuinely new, some force beyond shallow convention. In other words, the Jew was merely a good poet, not an exceptional Jewish poet. As Arendt writes, “In this equivocal situation, Jewishness was for the individual Jew at once a physical stain and a mysterious privilege, both inherent in a ‘racial predestination.’” Jewish hipness worked only by reinforcing the quasi-criminal nature of Jewishness.

McWhorter explores the modern complexities of the black voice in English. There is, he writes, “little room in our public discourse for the reality, which is that 1) almost all black people code-switch between standard and Black (not Southern) English to varying degrees, 2) even the most educated black people typically talk with vowel colorings and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” (and not “Southern”) after a few sentences, and 3) there isn’t a thing wrong with that…. Still, when I read that Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century learning English felt like they might open their mouths to speak only for shards of glass to fall out, I identify. I all but stopped doing live talks on race years ago despite the money I could earn, out of a sense that using my “white” voice to have such discussions was ineffective and makes me sound disconnected from the issues. I mainly write on race instead; on paper my vowels and cadence don’t distort my message. Sounding black? What’s that all about? Well, that. A minor problem in the grand scheme, I know. But I’m just saying. (Luckily, in print.)” This is the kind of real talk about race that we at the Arendt Center hope to foster as we prepare for our October Conference, “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” —RB

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Man On Top




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A Hostile Environment

title-9The American Association of University Professors has issued a report on Title IX. Written jointly by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession, the Report argues that Title IX is a well-meaning reform that has gone deeply wrong. “In what follows we look first at the legislation’s history and the expanding definitions of sexual harassment under Title IX. Currently, sexual harassment consists not only of sexual misconduct, but also of speech taken to create a “hostile environment.” When speech and conduct are taken to be the same thing, however, the constitutional and academic freedom protections normally afforded speech are endangered. We do not argue that speech can never create a hostile environment, nor that all speech is protected, only that matters of speech are difficult to negotiate and always require attention to First Amendment guarantees and to academic freedom. We do argue that questions of free speech and academic freedom have been ignored in recent positions taken by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education (DOE), which is charged with implementing the law, and by university administrators who are expected to oversee compliance measures. We offer a critique of the failure to attend to free speech and academic freedom, as well as the resulting negative effects on teaching, research, shared governance, and extra-mural speech. Further, because OCR and university actions have compromised established practices of due process and faculty governance, we also present some reflections on how abuses of Title IX have developed in the context of the corporate university, and we review relevant AAUP policy on these questions. Finally, we offer recommendations—based on AAUP policies—for the OCR, university administrators, and faculty. These include the need for all Title IX policies to be developed through shared governance; the importance of protecting free speech and academic freedom; and the need to provide due process for both complainants and accused, whether or not in coordination with the criminal justice system. We stress the importance, as well, of supporting courses that address issues of discrimination and inequality, and that provide the intellectual underpinnings for sexually healthy campus cultures, where equality and non-discrimination can coexist with freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

The connection between Title IX and the corporate university is insightful and important. Title IX reflects the overwhelming dogma of security at the expense of freedom that is central to bureaucratic Human Resources departments and the national surveillance state. The rise of Title IX is, as Janet Halley has argued, a reflection of a new kind of “governance feminism,” one in which feminists attach themselves to administrative state bureaucracies to police and secure sexual security. Sexual security is of course a necessary and worthy goal. But sexual security is usually thought to be secured through legal processes. IF rape or harassment occur, the response has typically been to seek redress through the law. The problem is that rape cases are notoriously difficult to prove in court. Title IX has thus sought to create a quasi-legal administrative procedure for policing sexual acts. By establishing a bureaucracy dedicated to discovering, investigating and prosecuting sexual misconduct, by requiring a lower standard of proof than the law requires, and by vastly expanding the common understanding of sexual misconduct to include not only rape and harassment but also the ambiguous and expansive creation of a hostile environment, Title IX has led to the disciplining of faculty and students for teaching and speaking in ways that college communities should encourage, not punish. The AAUP report argues, “This broadening of the definition of sexual harassment to encompass any “unwelcome conduct” (including speech) creates a seemingly limitless definition of harassment. Although OCR continues to consider objective factors in defining a hostile environment, its broadened definition of sexual harassment overemphasizes a complainant’s subjective responses in determining which conduct and speech constitute sexual harassment.” The report is required reading for all in the academy.—RB


Contingent Teaching

teachIn a month where one of America's traditionally great land grant universities has chosen to eviscerate the protection of tenure for college professors, it may seem strange to be talking about the more widespread, if much less sexy, plight of those college level teachers with no job security at all. As John Minchillo points out, though, having that conversation always seems a little strange: "Tenured professors tend to thrive at work, their identities intertwined with the goals of the university and puffed up by their interactions with students. Their offices might be clustered together in suites, each door covered in postcards from London vacations, New Yorker cartoons, and a poster of the keynote speaker from a conference they attended eight years ago. These symbols on display, they mean a lot to the professor, and the tenured professor has been able to present the preferred flavors of their intellectual personality for nearly their entire professional career. The insides of their offices are miniature libraries with the bulk of the professor’s personhood represented by shelves and shelves of academic titles, the spines belittling any student who looks up to take it in. Tackling that particular heap is not a task too many volunteer for, apparently. But the student would be wrong in that assumption. There are lots of intellectuals who read, write, ponder, posit, ruminate, debate, or declare — many teach right here in a less permanent and far less compensated capacity. In fact, most of the teaching that occurs at our universities is done by impermanent professors temporarily parked on campus, one rest stop among many along their transitory paths. Instead of sharing an office suite, non-tenure-track professors are more likely to be packed together with mismatched garage-sale quality desks in communal offices not much bigger than the single-occupancy offices of tenured professors. These temporary professors go by different nomenclatures — adjunct, graduate teaching assistant, visiting professor, full-time-temporary instructor — but the effect is the same, they are teachers at the university with advanced degrees, and they are referred to collectively as “contingent” faculty, meaning they can’t advance, and at some point, maybe in a year, maybe in three, maybe in fifteen, they will be expected to leave. Although it is possible they will never leave, the unspoken anticipation of their exit will linger for the duration of their stay. The offices of tenured professors can be deep eccentric caverns, with soft lighting and posters of Nobel Prize winners. Temporary instructors will be scattered across campus in the borrowed rooms of other departments. At the end of any given semester there is always the possibility that a contingent faculty member will be asked to move. The borrowed space is needed again, or there will be scheduled asbestos removal over break, or, responding to some other bureaucratic ripple, a less accommodating room has been found. For this reason I keep all my teaching files in two cardboard boxes and I don’t keep anything else in my office but a coffee maker. Posters will go up at the hands of the other temporary teachers, and I’ll explain over and over again to every student who visits that I like Monet just fine, but that’s not my Water Lilies print."


Celebrity POTUS

celebrity-potusSpencer Kornhaber considers celebrity and the Obama presidency: "It’s easy to forget that virality is a concept that barely existed in popular discourse prior to the Obama presidency: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr all either came about or grew to ubiquity in the past seven years. Celebrities of both the political and non-political sort have used these platforms to great success and to great accidental embarrassment. The Verge’s Michelle Obama profile this week offers a look at how the White House has tried to avoid the latter. At one point, the writer Kwame Opam asks Michelle to perform the Dab—Cam Newton’s famous touchdown move—on camera, with hopes of going viral. Hillary Clinton had done it on Ellen already, after all. But after some discussion with her team, Michelle declined the request on the grounds of “dabbing’s hazy connection to marijuana culture.” Maybe that’s a legitimate objection, or maybe it’s a front for some greater calculation about how much the First Lady should give and withhold from the public. As the holder of no elected office, Michelle has, in the way of presidential wives before her, used her time in the White House on mostly non-partisan causes: helping veterans, reducing childhood obesity, encouraging college enrollment, and promoting education for girls around the world. She has no official budget to spend on these things, so she’s savvily instead cashed in on her celebrity to promote awareness. Athletes, actors, and major singers have put on exercise clinics, concerts, and fundraisers for the First Lady’s initiatives. In turn, pop culture has spontaneously reified her as the pinnacle of female badassery, most notably on Fifth Harmony’s hit “Bo$$.” The chorus: “Michelle Obama / purse so heavy getting Oprah dollars.”... The latest Michelle Obama celebrity charm offensive is in service of her Let Girls Learn campaign, when she triggered a wave of spit-take headlines saying she was releasing a charity single featuring Missy Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, Janelle Monae, and other pop artists. When the song arrived online, it became clear that Obama herself was not actually on the song. Of course she wasn’t: The Obamas make culture work for them, not the other way around. In an essay for Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Obama said she didn’t sing on the track because she can’t carry a tune. But at the South by Southwest keynote panel where she sat alongside Elliott, Queen Latifah, the songwriter Diane Warren, and the actor Sophia Bush, she did sing a snippet of Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” when asked about having to leave the White House soon. The crowd not only whooped in delight—the other women on stage did. The moment recalled what might be the out-and-out coolest moment of Obama’s presidency, when Barack crooned some Al Green onstage in the midst of a speech. The shock and the instant acclaim came in part from hearing the president sing so well. But it was also came from hearing him sing at all. “I’m so in love with you” he began, then stopped and grinned. Six words were all he’d give—an entertaining reminder that the president is not, despite occasional appearances, here to entertain."

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 3/20/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Real Talk

safe space

Robert Boyers defends real talk and worries about the anti-intellectualism of safe spaces. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boyers echoes Hannah Arendt’s insistence that we insist on using words in ways that have distinct meanings. “[I]t is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked.” Consider the idea of “banality.” Find the rest of this piece here on Medium.

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A Future For You, A Future For Me

student protests at Downing StreetDavid Graeber ties the government of austerity in the UK to a feeling of hopelessness, and wonders if there isn't a kind of despair fatigue setting in: "Meanwhile, on the streets and council estates, Britain is undergoing a sea change, a veritable efflorescence of resistance. It’s very hard to know the real scale of it because, unlike in generations past, the media largely refuses to report on it. Perhaps this is because when they do, the results are rarely what they expect. On May 9, 2015, the day after the Tory election victory was declared, before the inevitable new round of cuts could even be announced, there was a minor riot in front of the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street. Hundreds of student activists clashed with police; several of them, on being punched and kicked by uniformed officers, actually punched back; paint bombs were thrown, flares set off, and the Women of World War II memorial was daubed with the familiar slogan “Fuck Tory Scum.” The editors of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail decided that the public mood was such that it might even be possible to actually report this, and ran a huge spread with splashy pictures under the headline “Anarchist Mob Planning Summer of Thuggery.” Within twenty-four hours, they were horrified to discover that in the comments section, opinion among their own readers was running something like five to one in favor of anarchist thuggery. Even the “desecration” of the memorial didn’t raise much in the way of hackles. After all, most Britons are well aware that the first thing veterans did, on returning from the war, was oust Churchill’s sitting Tory government and vote in one that promised to preside over the creation of a modern welfare state. This is precisely the work the current inhabitants of Downing Street are trying to dismantle. The rioters were simply defending those veterans’ legacy and enunciating what they, if alive, would most likely be saying themselves. Between student occupations, housing occupations, street actions, and a revival of radical unionism, there has been an unprecedented upswell of resistance. But even more important, it has begun, however haltingly, to take on a very different spirit than the desperate, rear-guard actions of years past. After all, even the legendary poll-tax riots that dislodged Thatcher were either backward-looking or, alternately, bitter and nihilistic. Class War’s slogans (“The Royal Question: Hanging or Shooting?”) were perhaps charmingly provocative, but hardly utopian. This is where the notion of despair fatigue comes in....One might argue that its beginnings were already visible in popular culture. Witness the emergence of the Scottish socialist school of science fiction, which, after the relentless dystopianism of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led the way to a broader trend by toying with redemptive futures once again. Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over? And is this not a necessary moment of reset before trying to imagine what a genuinely revolutionary twenty-first century might actually be like?"


The Death and Life of Great American Infrastructure

infrastructureResponding to the 29-hour, repair related closure of Washington D.C.'s Metro system earlier this week, Phillip Kennicot thinks that we should be ashamed of ourselves: "Metro opened a decade after the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with the fruition of its Mission 66 program, another major investment in modernizing the country’s federal infrastructure. If Metro was to turn the capital into an efficient and modern city, Mission 66 would restore America’s neglected and overburdened national parks, with new visitor centers and better access for a more mobile population. Aesthetics played a major role in this plan, too, with architects such as Richard Neutra tasked with creating a more contemporary look for park buildings... There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment. But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too. Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute."


Republican Corruption

visual example of corruptionJim Sleeper rightly argues that the offense in Donald Trump’s campaign is not racism or fascism, but corruption. Trump is boorish, low class, narcissistic, and mean. He is uncurious and self-satisfied in his enormous ignorance. His promotion of violence at his rallies is childish. He is a demagogue. Yes, Trump is possessed of a certain genius in marketing. But how does that qualify him to be President? Only because of a fundamental corruption.

“The American republic’s founders wondered a lot about whether people could balance wealth-making with truth-seeking and public decision-making about the modes of wealth-making itself. As soon as King George III was gone, they took a hard look at the people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hot off the press in the mid-1770s, they saw that people can lose their freedom not to a violent coup but to a smile and friendly swagger if they’ve tired of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied into servitude—or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough.

“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. Even as Benjamin Franklin voted for the Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other..."

The more that impulse-buying and escapism become the measures of our well-being, the more we’re like flies trapped in the spider’s web of the 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines with which lenders, insurers, pharmaceutical producers are dissolving our freedoms, not out of malevolence or conspiracy but out of mindless, routinized greed. We resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes, elaborate home-security systems, and vapid spectacles punctuated by mob-like cries for an American Augustus who’ll make our nation great again. American founders believed that, as the historian Gordon Wood puts it,

“It was not force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people… The obsessive term was luxury, both a cause and a symptom of social sickness. This… love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them… unfit and undesiring to serve the state.”

Now a purveyor of illusions of luxury in his palace hotels and casinos has persuaded millions of Americans to serve him as the head of their state. But a liberal capitalist republic needs citizens who voluntarily uphold and impart to one another sturdy public virtues and beliefs such as reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests.”

Hannah Arendt also saw that the danger to the American republic was the corruption of the people and not the corruption of government.

“Corruption and perversion are more pernicious, and at the same time more likely to occur, in an egalitarian republic than in any other form of government. Schematically speaking, they come to pass when private interests invade the public domain, that is, they spring from below and not from above…. [U]nder conditions, not of prosperity as such, but of a rapid and constant economic growth, that is, of a constantly increasing expansion of the private realm—and these were of course the conditions of the modern age—the dangers of corruption and perversion were much more likely to arise from private interests than from public power.”

Beyond his boorishness and immaturity, Trumps’ popularity rests on his unabashed embrace of winning, wealth, and wish fulfillment as opposed to publicly-oriented citizenship as the quintessence of life. —RB

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Who Wouldn't Be Angry?

laborCharles Murray has as good an understanding of the Trump phenomenon as anyone: “White working-class males were the archetypal “Reagan Democrats” in the early 1980s and are often described as the core of support for Mr. Trump. But the grievances of this group are often misunderstood. It is a mistake to suggest that they are lashing out irrationally against people who don’t look like themselves. There are certainly elements of racism and xenophobia in Trumpism, as I myself have discovered on Twitter and Facebook after writing critically about Mr. Trump. But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s. During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males. During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015. Economists still argue about the net effect of these events on the American job market. But for someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational. Add to this the fact that white working-class men are looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses—and that life in their communities is falling apart. To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is nothing conservative about how they want to fix things. They want a now indifferent government to act on their behalf, big time. If Bernie Sanders were passionate about immigration, the rest of his ideology would have a lot more in common with Trumpism than conservatism does. As a political matter, it is not a problem that Mr. Sanders doesn’t share the traditional American meanings of liberty and individualism. Neither does Mr. Trump. Neither, any longer, do many in the white working class. They have joined the other defectors from the American creed.” What Murray doesn’t say, but should, is that Trump is mean, narcissistic, and violent in ways that Sanders is not.


Truths, Facts, Lies

trial by combatJill Lepore muses about the nature of truth: "Historians don’t rely on thought experiments to explain their ideas, but they do like little stories. When I was eight or nine years old, a rotten kid down the street stole my baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger that I’d bought with money I’d earned delivering newspapers, and on whose barrel I’d painted my last name with my mother’s nail polish, peach-plum pink. “Give it back,” I told that kid when I stomped over to his house, where I found him practicing his swing in the back yard. “Nope,” he said. “It’s mine.” Ha, I scoffed. “Oh, yeah? Then why does it have my name on it?” Here he got wily. He said that my last name was also the name of his baseball team in the town in Italy that he was from, and that everyone there had bats like this. It was a dumb story. “You’re a liar,” I pointed out. “It’s mine.” “Prove it,” he said, poking me in the chest with the bat. The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof. Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts...I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures."


Arendt And America

early americaBenjamin Aldes Wurgaft has a review of Richard King’s new Arendt and America. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wurgaft argues that life as an immigrant in America had an important impact on Arendt’s thinking.   “IN 1975, AT THE FUNERAL of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hans Jonas asked a counterfactual question. Jonas, a friend of Arendt’s since their days as students of Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, before they both took flight from the rise of fascism in Europe and came to North America, noted that she first took an interest in politics during a sojourn in Paris. But, he asked, “[W]hat would have become of that, had she not come to these [American] shores — who knows? It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought. America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.” Arendt and America, Richard King’s ambitious and illuminating new book, is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt, and its central question is related to Jonas’s. How did America change Arendt? If Jonas was correct that the uncategorizable Arendt had found, in American political history and thought, a new way beyond the impasse of left and right, what exactly was that path? And what might Arendt have written in the book on the United States she and her husband Heinrich Blücher dreamed of writing but never wrote?”


Stranger Than Non-Fiction

ta-nehisi coatesPreviewing his take on the superhero Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing how reading comic books influenced his journalism: "Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more...But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count."

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 3/13/16


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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Politics of the Deal

Arthur Goldhammer understands that Donald Trump is hardly Hitler and The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf. The Trump phenomenon may feed on racial tension, but it is not founded upon fascism, racism, or authoritarianism. Recognizing this is important because lazy criticism can be worse than the failure to criticize, as it only solidifies the sense of righteous anger in those are unfairly targeted. Calling Trump and his huge numbers of supporters racist or fascist may make a small group of intellectuals feel morally superior, but it will hardly convince those voters. The Trump phenomenon is powerful and potentially dangerous and it needs to be understood. What it promises is something new, the anti-politics of "the deal"; Trump outlines his philosophy with clarity in his book The Art of the Deal. Goldhammer is one of the few critics who pay attention.  "Some observers have argued that Trump exemplifies the authoritarian personality, who answers his supporters' craving "for order and a fear of outsiders," but that is not the right way to think about Trump. He is not an authoritarian but a celebrity. The French historian Antoine Lilti has described "the invention of celebrity" in the late 18th century. For Lilti, celebrity is a phenomenon of fusion. The relationship of admirer to celebrity is a mediated one, but in the mind of the admirer the mediation disappears: She becomes one with the object of her devotion, his desires becomes hers, his fulfilments as well. What he detests or fears, she detests or fears. One sees this urge to identify, to erase critical distance, in this video of a group of young women being shown around Trump's penthouse. One sees it in his assumption that the things (and women) he collects are what everyone else covets as well. One sees it in his followers' belief that no opposition will be capable of resisting him, because he has mastered "the art of the deal." "The deal," ultimately, is the trumpenproletariat's answer to the potential for paralysis that the Founding Fathers built into the American Constitution to allay their fears of faction and tyranny. To prevent a faction or a tyrant from seizing power, they installed checks and balances into our system of government and sought to ensure that no individual or group would likely be able to control every possible veto point. But in recent years this veto-ridden system has shuddered to a halt. Immobilized, the great engine of government has failed to respond to the needs of many groups of citizens, not just those who see their salvation in Trump. With celebrity and the illusion of omnipotent wish-fulfillment it bestows, Trump now promises to slice through this Gordian knot. He has made a career of portraying himself as a man who gets things done, who builds buildings, beds women, pummels opponents, hires and fires apprentices. His followers want things done and, having identified with his self-presentation to the point of fusion, they have convinced themselves that with him their wishes, no matter how contradictory, will all be fulfilled. They mistake their man's celebrity for the kind of power and mastery needed to unfreeze the system. And why shouldn't they? As Thomas Hobbes put it, "Reputation of power is power." Thanks to his reputation of power, Trump's ignorance of government, of foreign policy, of economics counts in his favor, because as Hobbes also said, knowledge "is small power," since the truths it contains are evident only to "such as in a good measure have attained it." Ignorance cloaked in celebrity appeals to the many, while knowledge, with its frustrating acknowledgment of difficulty and of incompatible goods, does not please crowds."

To understand Hitler, it helps to read Mein Kampf. Similarly, those who would understand Trump would do well to stop psychoanalyzing his supporters and look at what he wrote. The Art of the Deal is Trump's manifesto. When Trump says that building a wall is the beginning of his negotiations with Mexico and that he will have to negotiate a final deal, you can hear his words written 40 years ago: "My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I'm after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want." When Trump responds to insults with invective and anger, you can hear his self-analysis in The Art of the Deal. "Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation. In most cases I'm very easy to get along with. I'm very good to people who are good to me. But when people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is that you'll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don't recommend this approach to everyone." And when Trump shoots from the hip, seeming both uninformed and flippant, one should recall his well-established strategy of deal making: "Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don't carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can't be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you've got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops." And finally, when one listens to Trump joking, needling, and provoking, one should hear the resonance with his philosophy of life:  "I don't kid myself. Life is very fragile, and success doesn't change that. If anything, success makes it more fragile. Anything can change, without warning, and that's why I try not to take any of what's happened too seriously. Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done differently, or what's going to happen next. If you ask me exactly what the deals I'm about to describe all add up to in the end, I'm not sure I have a very good answer. Except that I've had a very good time making them.""

There is an unmistakably racial undertone to many of Trump's rallies and remarks. I've written about that here. But it is important to recognize that Trump's focus on illegal immigrants, protectionism, the wall on the Mexican border, and the terrorist danger posed by Muslims transcends race. Illegal immigration is a problem in a society governed by the rule of law. Free trade does hollow out the jobs that have for generations sustained the working class. And while not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists practice Islam, the rise of international Jihad and ISIS are inseparable from contemporary Islamic movements. Trump could and should make these distinctions clearer than he has. But it is hardly racist or fascist to take the positions he has. Indeed, both Democrat candidates have been supporters of a fence in Mexico and rigorous screenings of Muslim refugees. The difference between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders is one of rhetoric and degree, hardly of policy. And as Janell Ross has recently written in the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders' supporters have pushed the limits of racial propriety as well. The real difference is that Sanders has shown a willingness to condemn excesses by his supporters while Trump has not. That shows a difference of character that's is considerable and important. It shows Trump to be low class. It hardly makes Trump a racist.

For those who think this is quibbling, distinctions and definitions are not arbitrary and they are important. First because we should all try to speak with a clarity that allows others to understand us. Second, distinctions allow us to speak with those with whom we don't agreed. To call Trump a racist is to score points amongst your friends, pile up "Likes" and "Loves" on Facebook, and win Twitter followers. But it will not persuade those with whom one disagrees because it does not truthfully engage with their reality. Politics, Hannah Arendt taught, is not about truth, it is about opinion. When Trump refuses to condemn violence or when his rhetoric is excessive, he should be called on it. When he makes up facts, he should be shamed. But too often the vitriol against Trump comes from a belief that his supporters have illegitimate beliefs. To delegitimize political beliefs with charges of racism and fascism is to drive a deeper wedge between the liberal and conservative elites who self-righteously condemn Trump and the bi-partisan working class Americans who have turned to Trump after decades of Republican and Democratic refusal to respond to their interests. The hope that a narcissistic deal-maker can save the country may be a shallow and desperate hope. But the worry that our political class is not up to the job is born from experience. -RB


Georg Diez writes about the anger of Jürgen Habermas and his newly empowered fight against European elites. We live at a time where western representative democracy has lost its legitimacy because it has ceased to be either representative or democratic. Habermas calls this post-democracy.  ""Zur Verfassung Europas" ("On Europe's Constitution") is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d'état. "On July 22, 2011, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise -- which is certainly open to interpretation -- between German economic liberalism and French etatism," he writes. "All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement." Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a "post-democracy." The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has "an odd, suspended position," without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty -- one that Habermas views as an "anomaly." He sees the Council as a "governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so." He sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head."

For so many today, the failure of democracy leads to pessimism and cynicism. Not for Habermas. As Diez writes, "Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better." Hannah Arendt also rejects pessimism. Never afraid to look reality in the face, Arendt confronts the undemocratic element of representative democracy and the corruption of a citizenry that prefers acquisition and luxury to self-government. But Arendt also insists that we not only face up to reality, but resist it. Resistance for Arendt does not embrace the fantastic ideal of the "rationality of the people." Such mythic ideals are an avoidance of reality. Instead, we must develop institutional incentives and constitutional institutions that habituate people to the joys of acting and speaking in public. Arendt shares Habermas' optimism, but not his rationalist fantasies. What is needed, she suggests, is a wide-eyed confrontation with the way individuals can act and speak in ways that inspire new the ideals of citizenship, new institutions, and new ideals. The first step toward such action is a willingness to say what is and speak one's opinion with vigor and newness. And that requires bold and provocative thinking that is out of step with public opinion. New political opinions will frequently be unpopular. But only new and even shocking opinions are those that can make others take note and talk about them. Only when truly new and surprising actions and opinions enter the public realms is there a real chance to create new ideals and new institutions. But new opinions will most often be attacked rather than embraced. That is why Arendt calls courage the first political virtue. -RB

The Public Safety State

Thinking about the rhetoric and legal bases of the War on Terror, Kade Crawford differentiates between kinds of public safety and, in turn, kinds of public good: "Both Democrats and Republicans justify Terror War abuses by telling the public, either directly or indirectly, that our national security hangs in the balance. But national security is not the same as public safety. And more: the things the government has done in the name of preserving national security-from invading Iraq to putting every man named Mohammed on a special list-actually undermine our public safety. That's because, as David Talbot demonstrates in The Devil's Chessboard, his revelatory Allen Dulles biography and devastating portrait of a CIA run amok, national security centers on "national interests," which translates, in the brand of Cold War realpolitik that Dulles pioneered, into the preferred policy agendas of powerful corporations. Public safety, on the other hand, is concerned with whether you live or die, and how. Any serious effort at public safety requires a harm-reduction approach acknowledging straight out that no government program can foreclose the possibility of terroristic violence. The national security apparatus, by contrast, grows powerful in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the terrorist (or in yesterday's language, the Communist) threat-and requires that you fear this threat so hysterically that you release your grip on reason. Reason tells you government cannot protect us from every bad thing that happens. But the endlessly repeated national security meme pretends otherwise, though the world consistently proves it wrong." The confusion of national security with public safety is a theme of Arendt's work; she insists that what we justify in the name of national security is rarely about the security of the nation and frequently in support of economic or imperialist adventures. And the turn toward public safety furthers the tenuous connection of our national security state to any meaningful connection to the security of the nation. The debate is really between personal freedom and personal security; the question is whether the seemingly unique unlimited human desire for security will corrupt the essential republican freedoms of free speech, free assembly, and free protest that are at the root of our constitutional freedoms.

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 Art in Dark Times

aleppo-wsj-amor-mundiUrsula Lindsey visits Egypt's literary elite and, through their struggle with the country's repressive, but secular, military government, tells a story of its history since Tahrir: "Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city's cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak's twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime's corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition. Two years after Mubarak's downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood's post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead. As an Islamist insurgency grew in the Sinai Peninsula and the country's economy faltered, the Sisi regime's repression expanded in every direction, driving a generation of young activists into prison, exile, or silence. Egyptians are still dying regularly in police custody or being kidnapped and held for weeks or months on end in a secret, parallel prison system where torture is rampant. The authorities harass media outlets, human-rights groups, universities, civil-society organizations, and cultural institutions-anywhere citizens might congregate, reflect, and express themselves. In the entrance to Merit's office hangs a tattered, framed gray sheet of paper covered in signatures. At the top is written i was in tahrir. So many waves of violence, fatigue, disappointment, and confusion have swept over Egypt since the uprising five years ago that these days, one almost forgets, or doubts, it ever took place. Sisi's regime wants not only to rewrite the past-it insists the Arab Spring was a conspiracy hatched by the West and Islamists-but also to forbid any honest accounting of the present crisis and to disable the capacity to imagine alternatives. To the government, the motley spirit of defiance displayed by institutions like Merit is unacceptable."

The Rise of the Social

Emily Bell takes stock of the new media landscape: "Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability-virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging, and chat apps. We are seeing massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many. Social media hasn't just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks...The reintermediation of information, which once looked as though it was going to be fully democratized by the progress of the open Web, is likely to make the mechanisms for funding journalism worse before they get better. Looking at the prospects for mobile advertising and the aggressive growth targets Apple, Facebook, Google, and the rest have to meet to satisfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that unless social platforms return a great deal more money back to the source, producing news is likely to become a nonprofit pursuit rather than an engine of capitalism. To be sustainable, news and journalism companies will need to radically alter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news media companies will be fashioned around a studio model of managing different stories, talents, and products across a vast range of devices and platforms. As this shift happens, posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyperdistribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely."

The Common Turtle Pile

Diane Ravitch, citing a certain couplet loving children's author, takes stock of the divide between educators and the people who write education policy: "In New York State, 220,000 students refused to take the state tests in 2015. This is called “opting out” of the test. A survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents sixty-eight urban districts, reported that the average student takes 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to the end of high school, most of which are mandated by the federal government. The new online tests for the Common Core require children in grades three to eight to sit for fifteen to twenty hours over a two-week period to measure their reading and math skills. National opinion polls showed that a majority of parents thought there was too much testing in schools. In response to such expressions of parental opposition, the Obama administration announced in late October that it was taking action to reduce the burden of standardized testing. Secretary Duncan issued a statement saying that testing was consuming too much instructional time and “causing undue stress for students and educators.” The one concrete proposal in the Obama “Testing Action Plan” was advice to states and districts to limit tests to no more than 2 percent of class time. Since most schools are in session 180 days a year for at least six hours a day, the limit translates to twenty-one hours of testing time. In other words, the 2 percent “limit” merely confirmed the status quo, while giving the appearance that the administration was making genuine changes. Nothing in the administration’s plan allowed states to drop the failed practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. In early December, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new federal law, replacing Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is another way of saying “no child left behind” (why Congress feels the need to put an unrealistic prediction into the title of legislation is baffling). Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education. The best metaphor for education reform today is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, the master turtle, forced all the other turtles to pile themselves into a very high stack so that he could survey his kingdom. From where Yertle sat, perched on top, everything looked grand and glorious. Those on the bottom were not experiencing anything but pain and frustration. When the pile collapsed, Yertle was brought back to earth and got his comeuppance. This will likely be the fate of the politicians, economists, and business leaders who decided to reform the nation’s schools, at a distance, without consulting working educators."

Quote of the Week

Enlarged Thought in Arendt and Kant

Front cover of Hannah Arend't Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy

By Jeffrey Champlin

"The greater the reach — the larger the realm in which the enlightened individual is able to move from standpoint to standpoint — the more 'general' will be his thinking. This generality, however, is not the generality of the concept — for example, the concept 'house,' under which on can then subsume various kinds of individual buildings. It is, on the contrary, closely connected with the particulars, with the particular conditions of the standpoints one has to go through in order to arrive at one's own 'general standpoint.'"

-- Hannah Arendt, Kant Lectures, sixth session

In her Kant Lectures, Arendt draws a bold vision of Kant's political philosophy out of the Enlightenment thinker’s Critique of Judgment. Famously, Kant turns to aesthetics after having revolutionized the theory of knowledge in The Critique of Pure Reason, and moral philosophy in the Critique of Practical Reason.