Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30Nov/110

“Ojos Sin Luz” (Eyes Without Light)-Dan Gettinger

Dan Gettinger is a student at Bard College.

Lately I've been reflecting on my activity surrounding Occupy Wall St. Remembering the minutes before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I wonder what I was thinking in those moments.  The truth is that I was there largely by accident. I read about the Occupy movement and a friend of mine who had gone down encouraged me to go that weekend. One thing led to another and I was spending eight hours at One Police Plaza, NYC. What led me there? Why did the NYPD decide to arrest 749 people? Why are people pitted against each other in anger?

These questions flew through my mind in a nervous rush in those interminable minutes. As my friend in front of me got hauled away he told me to call his Mom. A girl next to me scribbled a phone number on my arm but, sadly, it was that of the National Lawyers Guild and not hers.  I looked up to another Bard student who was safe on the pedestrian walkway and smiled.  Chaos and distress and sadness were etched across the faces of those around me. As I came to the realization that I would be arrested I felt more at ease and relaxed. And alone.

All my life I've been for or against something. Growing up overseas I was for America; representing a homeland that I barely knew but swelled with pride over. In the past decade it has become starker. I despised Bush and loved Obama, protesting one and campaigning for the other. My generation is one of extremes and totalities. We grew up defined by the trespasses of the last President, and now we watch as our confidence in this one seeps away. With a crushingly uncertain future we grasp at hope, looking to fill this void with promises.

Why is this? How is that we are so empty that we must be filled with language that is distilled into slogans and ideologically transparent? Why do we allow ourselves to be categorized and set into camps against each other? I think it is because we are lonely. A generation of drifters set loose by the misdeeds of those who came before. Around us we see everything being commodified and isolated. We value the world in terms of totalities, the cold language of polls.  Discussion becomes debate. Politics becomes personal.  Language gives leeway to the violence of our time. Philip Cushman writes, “We are told by self psychology and object relations theory that the empty self is the natural configuration of human being... that the essence of psychological growth is consumption”.  Ideas become values, a list of priorities rather than inquisitions.  Instead of questioning the origin of a problem, we invest in the answer.  The world becomes a sheet of cookie-cutter shapes and we, the unseeing eyes of selfish sentimentality.

Occupy Wall St. has exposed us as a generation of reactionaries.  This era is one of immediate responses instigated by the ceaseless swirl of the cyber world.  The Internet, modern telecommunications and globalization outline our existence. The information age confines our imagination, creating shapes in which we can mindlessly ease into.  It conditions our thoughts.  “The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” says the poet Wallace Stevens.  The compression of information and language forces immediate reactions, instinctual expressions of sentiment.  Instead of taking the time to think, our feelings gush into the abyss that is the Internet.  And lost.  ‘Once more into the breach!’ shouts the exhausted soldier and student alike.

The power of online reaction in the cyber world has prompted the opposite in the physical.  I see it in the ease in which students are called ‘apathetic’.  Apathy is the absence of pathos, the detriment of passion. Students, the supposed vanguard for intellectual pursuit, are considered to be endowed with such an extreme indifference that we are devoid of concern, excitement or motivation.  This word shows the extent to which isolation has infested our campuses and social activity.  It reveals how difficult it has become to really engage with politics and to create community.  When the ancient Greeks entered into the public realm of life they expected to enter into discussion with each other.  We’ve seen the opposite occur.  As a result of the outpouring of ourselves in the cyber world we withdraw from the physical, preferring to slide into a virtual abstraction of reality and of ourselves.  Our passion is put towards filling that inner void and in doing so we exhaust ourselves in chasing our own superficial creations.  We live in a TV democracy, secure in our insecurity.

Hannah Arendt writes that loneliness leads to complacency, an unwillingness to judge truthfully and think. We fill ourselves with the tenets of ideology and in doing so we build walls around each other. This isolation prevents communication. It destroys dialogue and leaves us more susceptible to the shallow language of ideologues.

I'm far from regretting my experience on the bridge. It brought so much that I was feeling to the fore and was an illustration of the frustrations of a generation. But I do not revel in that act nor do I celebrate the movement as the answer anymore. The minute that we begin to consider Occupy Wall St the answer to our problems is the time to stop and think. Here is the time to re-evaluate the reasons why it's happening and why we should support it. It's when we've commodified Occupy, making the movement more about ourselves than the problems it confronts. That's when our loneliness is exposed.

The greatness of Occupy Wall St is that it gives people the opportunity to think. The absence of demands or a structured hierarchy allows the true problems that plague this nation to come first. It begins to cleanse the mind of all these barricades we've erected around ourselves by providing a space to talk about issues like class and privilege that we haven't confronted in decades. We've come to the threshold where unless we get a hard punch to the gut we'll continue to resort to phrases and slogans, packaging up our thoughts into sound bites and deluding ourselves with the belief that this is thinking.

David Graeber writes that the word revolution does not, and cannot, mean “a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression,” a storming of the Winter Palace or Bastille.  It is rather exposing and de-legitimizing the origins of an oppressive system, striking down the pillar of injustice that fuels our plight.  Some of those in Occupy Wall St may say that pillar is the bankers that control our democracy.  I say the roots of these dark times are within us.  They’re the fictitious frames, the keyholes and the kissing booths that we use to define our world.  A society predicated on constant caffeinated consumption, seeking desperate deliverance in passing fashions, is a violent one.  One that seduces our imagination, leaving it languishing in infomercials and Italian leather.  We may not be the cause of this crisis, but our complacency leaves us complicit.

Do not expect the revolution to be televised nor even talked about immediately.  Hannah Arendt says that true thought occurs in solitude, in those quiet moments of intense reflection.  This follows from the Socratic notion that thinking in solitude is the “conversation one has with oneself,” a particularly active questioning and critical self-examination.

I would add that the validation of these thoughts occurs in dialogue with others, in the inter-personal connections that we form through experience.  Thinking is the relentless investigation of an idea, it’s an exploration, but it’s also engaging with others in this way on a non-emotional level, allowing for a substantive discourse.  To separate one self from an idea and be open to the thoughts of others is an extremely difficult process that requires patience and critical listening.  But it’s here where we must begin.  The lack of curiosity is the greatest symptom of being lonely and the surest way to complacency.  Questioning and imagining are activities essential to our freedom.

The raids with batons and bulldozers continue to intrude on unstructured spaces across the nation.  The future of Occupy Wall St is impossible to predict and the consequences even more difficult to anticipate.  However, we may be certain that Liberty Square has reminded us of a far darker occupation that exists within each of us.  An oppressive installment in our hearts that leaves us yearning and fighting for the illusive insoluble ‘I’.  But, “sudden as a shaft of sunlight,” we are experiencing ways of thinking and acting that free us from the past and future, placing this movement in our moment.

-Dan Gettinger

29Nov/110

On Telling Stories & Telling the Truth – Victor Granado

Victor Granado is an Arendt Center Fellow, visiting from Spain.

In his introductory lecture at this year’s Arendt Center conference, “Democracy: Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts,” Roger Berkowitz reminded us that in present day, facts have been relegated to mere opinion.  There has been a dissolution of the facts, in other words, a transformation of the factual truth into mere doxa; judgment versus opinion. This change illustrates the confrontation between judgments based on facts, which offer us definitive knowledge, versus unfounded opinion, which undermines the basis of this knowledge and prevents the possibility of a rational debate.

“The loss of the truth amounts to the loss of the world,” Berkowitz stated, reminding us of one of Arendt’s most crucial notions. “Truth” in this case refers to the world of events shared with other people, about which it is possible to speak, and in which it is possible to act. Thus when there is nothing to share, that commonality disappears. This seems to be our situation today, which Berkowitz summarized by noting, “dissensus is the norm and the consensus is the exception.” Perhaps most worrisome is that without the shared understanding of facts, there is no possibility of real political discourse.

Today, nobody can say or show the truth, because the truth can only be told. After the period of positivism, in which the facts were considered definite, it is no longer possible to believe that they are objective, independent and real. Facts have a social and historical context, and while many may argue that they come to be socially and historically constructed, it doesn’t mean that they in turn, do not reflect the reality of the given world.

Facts and pictures about reality may have more than one single meaning. It is possible to approach them and try to understand them from various and different perspectives. They are no longer one-dimensional but a discourse, a tale about reality. This does not eliminate the truth of facts, but it is important to bear in mind that the fictional dimension of facts is not a rejection of the truth, but rather can provide another foundation for the rational truth. What does it mean that something is true? Today, truth—the historical, political or scientific truth—means the majority of people hold it as common.  Consensus plays a capital role in the actual meaning of truth.

We need to tell the truth because in this capacity, truth is narrative—truthtelling means storytelling.  We can understand this process with the help of Max Weber. As we have learned, when there is no explanation of reality, the need arises for some kind of sense to be made of events. In that case we can say that the truth is a method of explanation: of accurately describing and illuminating the story that we tell of reality. The question of how to narrate the truth is the question of how to find a way to make sense of the facts. As Hannah Arendt said:

“Who says what is…always tells a story, and in this story the particular facts lose their contingency and acquire some humanly comprehensible meaning.”

At a time in which ‘being true’ means that the majority believe that such a thing occurred, it is more important to tell the truth than to say something ‘right.’

It is only then that thinking about the truth leaves the area of theories of knowledge and instead leans toward ethics. Rather than concentrating on science and correct judgments, the most important thing is to be honest and to say what you hold as true. Therefore, telling a story about reality requires one to be sincere and brave.  Or as Wolfgang Heuer said in his speech:

“Truth-telling can be unpleasant when it contradicts the opinion of the majority. Telling the truth can easily lead to a minority position and expose the truth-teller to the pressure of the majority. It takes courage to resist the strain.”

Today telling the truth means telling a story. Offering a story that accurately reflects reality requires both honesty and courage.

 

-Victor Granado

29Nov/111

Filming Underway in Israel for Arendt film

Fifty years after the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt returns to Israel:

"Upon entering the film studio in Petah Tikva, one is hit with the sensation of time travel.

Dozens of people, most of them men, sit at a long table, dressed in suits and sporting hairstyles particularly fashioned to the 1960s, clacking away at their ancient typewriters, rummaging through the piles of documents surrounding them, or chatting softly with their wives.

The cigarette smoke rising from a plethora of ashtrays clashes with the beams of light washing over the room, accompanying the sporadic glances shot over at the television screens set up in various corners of the room.

This is the press room at Jerusalem's Beit Ha'am, 1961. Dozens of reporters from countries all over the world are here to the cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann."

Click here to read the full piece on the filming of Hannah Arendt.

29Nov/110

Arendt in Palm Beach

Eichmann in Jerusalem being read in Palm Beach, FL.

Submit your pictures of libraries/books/reading to arendt@bard.edu

28Nov/110

Reconciling Our Role in History-Jennie Han

“…poetically speaking, [history’s] beginning lies…in the moment when Ulysses, at the court of the king of the Phaeacians, listened to the story of his own deeds and sufferings, to the story of his life, now a thing outside itself, an ‘object’ for all to see and to hear. What had been sheer occurrence now became ‘history.’” (“The Concept of History,” Between Past and Future, 1977, p. 45)

-Hannah Arendt

In the middle of text describing history as a project of historians and poets to memorialize the great deeds of actors so that these deeds can “remain in the company of the things that last forever" (p. 48), this quote about Ulysses seems out of place. It suggests that history has its origins not in the potential greatness of action, but in the almost private moment of hearing about and confronting one’s own deeds. Arendt describes this moment when Ulysses hears the story of his own life as a moment of “reconciliation with reality,” which moves Ulysses deeply (p. 45). Here, history has little to do with the greatness of his actions: Ulysses is not moved because he finds his actions glorious and worthy of eternal existence. In fact, the character of the deeds is irrelevant to Ulysses, for with respect to these deeds, he is at once “listener, actor, and sufferer” and therefore has no “curiosity” about them, nor does he have any “lust for information” (Ibid.).

Arendt’s description of the origins of history as the actor’s confrontation with his own acts is ever more puzzling because one of her main points about action and history is that the actor himself can neither realize the completion of his actions nor comprehend their significance. She writes, “…the light that illuminates processes of action, and therefore all historical processes, appears only at their end, frequently when all the participants are dead” (The Human Condition, p. 192). Yet here, the founding moment of history is not the moment that others listen to the story of Ulysses’ deeds and give them meaning as a part of human history, but rather the moment that Ulysses himself hears it.

How is it that history’s origin lies in this moment when the actor confronts his own deeds? And what exactly is the reality which history forces us to reconcile ourselves to during this confrontation?

I submit that the reality Ulysses confronted in listening to the story of his deeds as an “object” outside of himself, then solidifies his presence in the everlasting timeline of history. This reconciliation is an acceptance of the fact that one is visible to all others in the world and that the world’s history—the character of its immortal existence—while not entirely a product of one’s own making, finds its origins in one’s own self and actions.

To tell a history of the world as a story of human presence, the individual as actor must give way to the individual as historian. The historian is not only an actor, but also an audience to his actions. In confronting his deeds as a part of the narrative of history, the historian appreciates that the innumerable stories that describe the world are nothing more than singular moments of the lives and actions of individuals, himself included.

Confronting this reality of one’s presence in the story of the world is not about recognizing our own greatness, be it potential or actual. In fact, when confronted with such reality, greatness becomes an external object, no longer within our control or part of our powers.  It is only when viewing his greatness through a filter of detachment, that Ulysses’ deeds could move, rather than just bore him.

Reconciling ourselves to a reality in which individual human beings are its sole creative agents imposes on us a heavy responsibility.

And it should temper too great a commitment to, and love for, ourselves as actors whose potential freedom and power are boundless in their miraculous natality. History is a story not just of our greatness, but of our selves. It ensures that there is always a name and a face attached to actions. Ulysses could not help but be moved in the face of a world that, even in its vastness, appears to him as his own. He is moved—and a bit frightened—by the realization that what he does is constitutive of the reality in which he and everyone else must live.

What it is to live in a world whose history does not reflect a mirror of individual existence is dramatically illustrated in the totalitarian regime’s notion of historical progress. The Nazi and Soviet regimes conceived of history as a product of “Nature,” an inevitable progression of events in which individuals could, at most, enact a series of events whose meaning has already been determined. Totalitarian consistency requires that the past flow inexorably into the future, without any gaps created by individuals which might distract from its course. Totalitarian history thus goes beyond the dehumanization of turning men into “functionaries and mere cogs” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 289) and erases individual human presence indiscriminately and completely. History as a story of Nature might support a world of actors, but it cannot support a world of historians. And it is only as historians that we can create a space for ourselves, and not just our actions, in the world.

-Jennie Han

27Nov/110

William James on Thinking

"Many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."

-William James

25Nov/110

The Morality of Debt

On July 13 of 2011, David Graeber published an essay in the Canadian journal Adbusters called  "Awaiting The Magical Spark," an essay asking what it would take to set off a revolution in the West similar to those in the Middle East. It was the same day Adbusters put out its now infamous call for a movement occupying Wall Street.

On August 2nd, Graeber attended what was advertised as a General Assembly meeting on Bowling Green. An experienced anarchist, Graeber became angry that the General Assembly was actually a traditional protest meeting not interested in hearing ideas from the protesters. With two friends, he organized a splinter group that gathered on the other side of Bowling Green Park. It was this alternate General Assembly initiated by Graeber that, over the next six weeks, organized the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is one reason that David Graeber has been called the anti-leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Beyond his actual role as the original facilitator of OWS, Graeber has claim as well to being one of the movement's intellectual torchbearers. A Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmith's University in London, he has published widely on anarchism both in the ancient world and in the contemporary west. His book Direct Action: An Ethnography, is an ethnographic account of the anarchist movement and protests at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Just this year Graeber published Debt: The First 5000 Years, a rambling and also rambunctious revisionist history, one that argues against the moral grounds for repaying our debts. A constant refrain in Debt is that the moral responsibility to repay debts is part of an inhuman commercial logic.

Both Graeber's anarchism and his calls for a universal forgiveness of consumer and international debt—a forgiveness in the spirit of a biblical jubilee—has set him at the forefront of debates that swirl around the storm that is Occupy World Street. As he writes in Debt:

“It seems to me that we’re long overdue for some kind of biblical-style jubilee, one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary, not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality. That all these things are human arrangements and, if democracy is to mean anything, it is to the ability for all to agree to arrange things in a different way.”

Graeber's views may strike fear into the heart of Wall Street and the bankers who hold all those credits, but his radical proposals are catching on amongst many in the 99%. And some in the business press are taking notice. He was recently featured in an essay in Business Week Magazine. And the investing website Minyanville just published a rich interview with Graeber. This interview, done by Kevin Depew over at Minyanville, is your read for this Thanksgiving weekend..

In the Minyanville interview, Graeber says:

And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt. I would tell stories to people, very sympathetic people, liberal lawyers, well-meaning do-gooder types, and you’d tell these stories about horrible things. You know, in Madagascar, for example, the IMF came in with these policies, you have to cut the budgets because, god knows, we can’t reduce the interest payments you owe to Citibank, they owed all this money. And they had to do things like get rid of mosquito eradication programs, as a result that malaria returned to parts of the country where it had been wiped out for a hundred years and tens of thousands of people died and you had dead babies being buried and weeping mothers. I was there, I saw this sort of thing. You described this to people and the reaction would be, well, that’s terrible, but surely people have to pay their debts. You’re not suggesting they cancel it or default, that would be outrageous. And one of the things that really fascinated me was the moral power of the idea of debt.

Well just such an outrageous act is what Graeber has in mind. Read on.

23Nov/110

Arendt-Eichmann Meshugas

Whoever is looking for a complete list of charges launched against Hannah Arendt and her book on Eichmann may turn to chapter 6 of Deborah Lipstadt’s recently published book, The Eichmann Trial. As it seems, Lipstadt assembles almost every single item of the “Arendt controversy”, telling her readers that Arendt had “a personal disdain for Israel that bordered on anti-Semitism and racism;” that she was prejudiced against Eastern European and/or Oriental Jews (while her mother “spoke German with a thick Russian accent”); that she described Eichmann as a Zionist, attacked, even “condemned” the Jewish Councils, and took aim at the Sonderkommandos. More so, Arendt got the case of Yehiel Dinur (Ka-Tzetnik), Auschwitz survivor and author, wrong; she was “contemptuous of Rabbi Baeck, […] echoing the language of the enemy.” Arendt’s statement that Eichmann was “a clown,” Lipstadt insinuates, was a conclusion that she may well have reached before coming to Israel.

Lipstadt thus takes issue at the eyewitness nature of Arendt’s report. She declares Arendt guilty of a “breach of faith with readers” because she presented herself as an observer of the trial, while she had attended it for a few weeks only. Furthermore, Arendt may have written her book “subliminally […] for her teacher and former lover,” Martin Heidegger; etc. etc.

For most of the charges and allegations Lipstadt doesn’t provide full reference as to who launched them, or where, or when.  Nor does she discuss them in the context of what Arendt actually wrote or said. But, not only that. Lipstadt lets fly at Arendt’s critics as well, arguing, as may seem in Arendt’s defense, that the critics “unduly ignored” the complexity of her “analysis!” Then, coming full circle, she places herself on top of Arendt and her critics. From there the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies pronounces her verdict: Hannah Arendt “was guilty of precisely the same wrong that she derisively ascribed to Adolf Eichmann. She – the great political philosopher who claimed that careful thought and precise expression were of supreme value – did not ‘think.’”

There is no response to such Arendt-Eichmann meshugas; it rather qualifies to be met with an Arendt-Blücher inspired “Schweigen und Vorübergehen”— "say nothing and pass by."

But a reminder to Lipstadt & Co. needs to be added. Hannah Arendt’s book-length report on the Eichmann trial is left to posterity as a historical document, the evaluation of which has been and may remain controversial. Arendt also left a philosophical proposition, coined in the expression “banality of evil,” which has been and will remain worth being discussed seriously. A prerequisite for both, evaluating the book and discussing the proposition, is reading Arendt carefully. Actually, that doesn’t hurt, or does it?

-Ursula Ludz

Click here to read additional reviews and discussion related to Lipstadt's book, The Eichmann Trial

 

22Nov/110

Opinions, Facts and Roots – Solveig Botnen Eide

Today marks the four month anniversary of the terrorist attack on Norway by one of its own, Anders Behring Breivik.  Solveig Botnen Eide, an Arendt Center Fellow visiting from Norway reflects on the uncomfortable reality of truthtelling when terror strikes too close to home.

As a native of Norway, my attention was piqued when I heard Jonathan Kay’s talk at the recent Hannah Arendt Center Conference:, “Truthtelling in An Age Without Facts”. Kay began by referencing this summer’s terror attack in my home country to illustrate how conspiracy theories can evolve from unfathomable events. While I want to weigh in on Kay’s thoughts, my interest is not in the conspiracy theories themselves.  I would rather reflect, on the confused sense of reality surrounding the event, the opinions that encouraged the wrongdoing, and the challenge Norway faces in acknowledging the roots of these opinions.

 In brief the Norwegian terrorist has, through his 1500 page self-published manifesto, given us an insight into the conspiracies and thoughts that led him to carry out the attack. The terrorist’s worst fear is Europe being taken over by Muslims – a threat he feels that is all too real and must be battled, whatever the cost. Subsequently, he also feels the need to protect Europe as a Christian continent. Those to blame for this present threat, in his estimation, are the government and youth, whose continued indifference would lead to an almost ensured de-evolution of Norwegian purity and thus a Muslim takeover This is how he justified and explained bombing a government building and shooting 68 young people at the Labour Party summer camp on July 22nd, 2011. 

The acts and mindset of the terrorist were driven by opinions with no basis in fact. However, these opinions still had the power to create a perceived, though illusionary reality. Words and meanings become dangerous when they serve to invent one’s universe and become ‘truths’ that must be substantiated whatever the price. Even though these opinions do not reflect the world as it is, websites, blogs and at times public debate, show that the roots of these opinions go deeper than the manifesto of the terrorist. Messages of hatred towards Muslims, politicians who are accused of naivety towards the “threat of Muslims”, and the fear of the de-christening of Europe are not products of just one man’s mind. The terrorist was a lone wolf in allowing his thoughts to flourish into violent action, but he is not alone in his mindset.

He and those who share his beliefs are essentially basing truth on opinions and not facts. According to Hannah Arendt, it is risky when facts become opinions and opinions become facts. The risks have many dimensions, as the case in Norway demonstrates. The image of reality is twisted and facts are left unchallenged without being subject to critical thought and debate. Yet the twisted image of reality has roots in Norwegian popular belief as it draws arguments and attitudes from the extreme right of both politics and religion. This is itself a fact that is hard to acknowledge. It would no doubt be easier if the terrorist had been a stranger and not one of Norway’s own. Yet we can only escape this fact by excluding him from the community of humanity, and declaring him a monster. That he represents opinions with roots in our community seems harder to accept.

How could this terrible event happen? In her essay “Home to Roost” (1975), Arendt considers such questions when they are raised after shocking and unbelievable events. The challenge is not to let it become an obscuring exercise that causes us to hide and allows us to forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are. Arendt finishes her essay with a challenge –a demanding one in light of the 22nd of July: “When the facts come home to roost, let us try at least to make them welcome.”

-SBE

22Nov/110

A Student Library

A student desk at the Stevenson Library at Bard College.

Submit your library, reading, book images to arendt@bard.edu.

21Nov/110

Resisting Violence-Kathleen B. Jones

“It is the function…of all action…to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably.”

   -Hannah Arendt, On Violence

Writing at a time when she perceived and worried about an increase in support for violence as a means to right wrongs on behalf of the dispossessed, Arendt wrote On Violence. In it, she argued for a clear distinction between violence and power. To Arendt, power was the “human ability to act in concert” and “it belongs to a group” and continues to exist “only as long as the group keeps together.” Rule by violence signals the absence of power. In its fullest expression such rule is sustained by terror, which depends upon social atomization, or the isolation of people from one another, to achieve domination. How can such rule be undone? Will violence be required to undo violence?

After fourteen years of civil war in her native Liberia, Leymah Gbowee had had enough conflict and violence. Helping mobilize a group of women across ethnic and religious divides, she rallied them to participate in actions of civil disobedience aimed to bring the brutal dictatorship of Charles Taylor to an end. Thousands of women descended on the capital city of Monravia, putting themselves between the Taylor government and rebel leaders. When peace talks stalled they barricaded the site of negotiations until a deal was settled. The tactics the women deployed are a clear illustration of Arendt’s concept of power. Fasting, praying, and protesting together, they demonstrated that power grows not out of the barrel of a gun but through concerted action.

In her book, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, Gbowee described the moment when the women appeared at city hall to bring their demands for peace to the warring sides:  “In the past, we were silent,” I told the crowd. “But after being killed, raped, dehumanized and infected with diseases, and watching our children and families destroyed, war has taught us that the future lies in saying no to violence and yes to peace! We will not relent until peace prevails!” The women erupted. “Peace! Peace!”

Where the rebels had failed to oust Taylor, Gbowee’s protests succeeded. Because she brought an end to the long war in Liberia and helped secure women’s participation in open elections that brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor she shared with Sirleaf, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen. The Nobel committee recognized the non-violent actions of all three women, who struggled for women’s rights and demonstrated the importance of women’s involvement in peace movements. Gbowee’s actions were featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the second of five films in the PBS series, Women, War, and Peace.

Arendt did not take an absolutist stand against violence. She acknowledged that sometimes violence was needed to “dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” But she cautioned that even the use of violence to achieve short term goals was dangerous. The danger lay in the ever-present possibility that the means of violence would “overwhelm the end” and become the end itself. Gbowee’s statement that her experience of war had taught her that a future was possible only by saying no to violence expresses the Arendtian principle that only action can interrupt “what otherwise would have proceeded automatically.” And even if Arendt’s worry that the capacity for action was fragile and threatened in particular by the conditions of the modern age, we need to keep such stories as those of the women of Liberia central in our imagination as reminders that power is the opposite of violence.

-KJ

 

21Nov/111

Plato on Thinking

"Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself."

-Plato

18Nov/111

The Sport of Politics

This weekend's suggested read is an interview with Lawrence Lessig, author of Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. For years Lessig has advocated for the freedom of information and helped to found and establish the Creative Commons. Recently, Lessig has set his sites on freeing politics from corruption, and his book has been claimed as one of the intellectual foundations of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In this vibrant conversation, Lessig discusses finance reform, the Occupy Wall Street rallies, and how to rehabilitate the public sphere.

Lessig’s recent work addresses how the corruption pervasive in modern institutions is corrosive to public confidence and hence the arena of politics.  What he terms “invidious, systemic wrongs” has led to a total loss of  authentic civic trust:  “the financial collapse is the most astonishing of these examples, “ he states, “not so much because of what happened before 2008, but because of what happened after.” As bad as the crash was, the bailout of bankers was an unparalleled giveaway, a transfer of money from taxpayers to the wealthiest denizens of the financial world.

Lessig encourages the current Occupy Wall Street movement to tap into this exasperation, focusing not on wealth, but fraudulence: “if [OWS] can say, whether or not you believe in capitalism, nobody believes in crony capitalism, and crony capitalism is what we’ve got, it would stand a greater chance of success.”  Lessig’s emphasis on corruption is a reminder that it is the perversion of the facts and the rewarding of failure at the highest levels that that is responsible for the weakened state of our political world.

A provocative thinker, Lessig proposes several solutions to restore the political space he sees as dangerously thinned in the era of C-SPAN.  These include the establishment of constitutional conventions—‘citizen juries’ where people could come together to debate the issues of the hour.  “It would demonstrate something that I think people forget,” Lessig remarks to David Johnson of the Boston Review, “which is that politics is the rare sport where the amateur is better than the professional.”

Click here to read the interview.

18Nov/110

The Fifties

"These are the fifties, you know. The disgusting, posturing fifties."

-Hannah Arendt

17Nov/110

What Books Inspire You?

 In celebration of  Hannah Arendt's love of thinking, reading and books,

(her personal library which resides at Bard, contains approximately 4,000 volumes),

we'd  like you to share the role books play in your life.

Send us pictures of yourself reading Hannah Arendt or any other writer who inspires you to think.

Send us pictures of your Hannah Arendt books.

Send us pictures of your library.

Send us pictures of your dream library.

Send us pictures of your favorite place to read.

Send us pictures of your favorite book.

You get the idea...

Submit your photos to arendt@bard.edu

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To get things started, we thought we would post a picture of the Hannah Arendt Library at Bard College.