Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Letter from HAC Academic Director – Roger Berkowitz

September, 2012

My life’s work concerns the relentless inquiry into human thinking and the need to prize creative thought over and against mere knowledge. Otherwise machines and people who are automated in their thinking will one day govern or even replace us. It is for this reason that in 2006 I founded the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities: To forge a middle ground between, on the one hand, partisan think-tanks churning out white papers and, on the other hand, universities living in a bubble. All my experience since the founding confirms the truth that there is a yearning for passionate thinking about the major questions and challenges of our age.

I turned to Hannah Arendt as a symbol and the embodiment of humanistic thought grounded in thorough understanding of the times in which we live. No other American thinker so engages (and, yes, sometimes enrages) citizens and students from all political persuasions, resisting all attempts at categorization on the right or the left, and all the while insisting on human dignity. Arendt’s writings attract the minds and hearts of indi- viduals who wish to think for themselves. She is that rare writer who compels her read- ers to think and re-think their most fundamental ethical and political convictions.

The Arendt Center is not a mausoleum to Arendt's legacy. Our conferences bring thought leaders from the academy, business, and the arts together to think together outside of tired clichés and jargons—insisting that passionate thinking knows neither partisan nor disciplinary boundaries. Over the last five years we vigorously have pursued our mission to think what we are doing, sponsoring six major conferences that continue Arendt's legacy of public thinking. Arendt Center conferences—including Thinking in Dark Times; The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis; Lying and Politics; Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts; Human Being in an Inhuman Age, and Does the President Matter?—are public events that impact the wider political discourse. The Center's conferences are major events in the intellectual life of the nation, attracting speakers like Christopher Hitchens, Zadie Smith, Ray Kurzweil, Sherry Turkle, Bernard Kouchner, Ralph Nader, Lewis Lapham and Walter Russell Mead. Attended by Bard students, guests from around the Hudson Valley and New York City, and High School students from Bard's early colleges in Manhattan, Queens, Newark, and New Orleans, these conferences bring together a diverse audience of engaged citizens.

I insist the Center engage citizens everywhere in the relentless examination of issues from multiple points of view, with an emphasis on unimagined and unintended consequences—what Arendt called “thinking without banisters. We can no longer count on the ways of the past to guide us in a global and technologically enhanced world. Arendt Center events nurture the foundational thinking that encourages the active citizenship that can humanize an often-inhuman world.

-Roger Berkowitz

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  1. Dear Mr. Berkowitz: I don’t intend this comment to be published; it’s just a small editorial question for yourself. Can this sentence be right? “Arendt’s ‘banality’ suggests that the sacrifice of common-sense aversion to evil and authoritarian obedience cannot happen in absent, thoughtless people like Eichmann.” How could the sacrifice of thought to obedience not happen in people like Eichmann? (If not in him,…who?) I suspect something has been dropped–or what am I missing? Also, you might want to fix this repeat, a little later: “…to commit to commit…”
    With sincere appreciation for all the rest—
    Prudence Crowther

  2. Dear Mr. Berkowitz:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your Q+A session after the showing of “Hannah Arendt” last Sunday at Symphony Space in Manhattan (I was the one who asked the question about her interview with Guenther Gaus).

    I studied under – and was very close to – Professor Erich Heller at Northwestern. A fellow refugee from Nazi Germany (in his case, the Sudetenland), he had been a close friend of Arendt’s and enjoyed telling me stories about her.

    One story I have always remembered: Shortly before the Eichmann trial, he was at her apartment for dinner. It was only as he was putting on his coat to leave that she disclosed – very reluctantly – that she was planning to travel to Jerusalem to cover the trial. According to Heller, her reluctance stemmed from the fact that she knew that he was quite aware of her ambivalence as to Zionism, Israel and Ben Gurion. He claimed to have told her flat out that she would regret covering the trial. Although he never said so directly, I always felt that he believed that her decision to do so was a terrible mistake.

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