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.
Laura Kipnis wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on sexual paranoia in the academy. She argued that new campus sexual misconduct codes "infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives." She also asserted that "students' expanding sense of vulnerability, and new campus policies that fostered it, was actually impeding their educations as well as their chances of faring well in postcollegiate life, where a certain amount of resilience is required of us all." Students at her university, Northwestern, protested. Instead of responding to her arguments, they filed a petition with the University President to have her disciplined. Two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, suggesting that her published essay "had a 'chilling effect' on students' ability to report sexual misconduct." Kipnis, noting the irony that such Title IX cases are having a chilling effect on professors and academic freedom, quickly found herself immersed in the non-transparent quasi-legal world of the Title IX kangaroo courts: "I'd plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn't supposed to tell anyone about it.... The Title IX bureaucracy is expanding by the minute. A recent emailed update from my university announced new policies, programs, hires, surveys, procedures, websites, and educational initiatives devoted to sexual misconduct. What wasn't quantified is how much intellectual real estate is being grabbed in the process. It's a truism that the mission of bureaucracies is, above all, to perpetuate themselves, but with the extension of Title IX from gender discrimination into sexual misconduct has come a broadening of not just its mandate but even what constitutes sexual assault and rape. Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong. They pronounce on the thorniest of philosophical and psychological issues: What is consent? What is power? Should power differentials between romantic partners be proscribed? Should eliminating power differences in relationships even be a social goal--wouldn't that risk eliminating heterosexuality itself?" What is often forgotten in the debate around Title IX is that bureaucracies Title IX has spawned are aimed not simply at the real problem of rape and the potential problems of ambiguous sexual relations but also at the discussion, writing, or reading of anything sexual. There is a desire to make college campuses safe, not merely physically safe but intellectually safe, which flies in the face of the very idea of a university. Kipnis' essay is more than worth reading to see how the Title IX bureaucracy is morphing and expanding to insist upon intellectual and political conformity. And you can read a draft of my new essay discussing campus Title IX sexual misconduct codes here.
Colson Whitehead interrogates our obsession with photographs in an iPhone world, arguing in the NY Times Magazine that pictures offer a window into our souls. "Lynching photography proves the enduring truth of the phrase 'The eyes are the window of the soul.' In a 1919 picture of the burning corpse of William Brown, for example, dozens of men pose for the camera while the body is consumed by flames in the foreground. One man knows which is his 'best side' and offers his strong right profile to the lens. Some of the men are smiling over their accomplishment. One boy touches his fingers to his chin thoughtfully, his lips curled in amusement. What do we see in their eyes, what glimpse of their souls? Pure American darkness. 'When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.' That was Nietzsche, and he could have been describing the scene at the lynching of Rubin Stacy in 1935. It was an all-ages affair. In the intimate photograph, Stacy hangs from a tree, while a few feet away two young girls of 5 or 6 squint up at his limp body, their faces covered by a shadow. Another girl, a bit older, is more adventuresome and stands closer to the dangling man. She grins up at his corpse. Given her youth at the time of the picture, she may still be alive today, occasionally sifting through her box of souvenirs to reminisce. There were plenty of pics, and yet it didn't matter. 'Or it didn't happen' is a colossal mandate, undermining the brutalities that escape the lens. Certainly the current surfeit of footage chronicling lethal encounters doesn't speak to an increase in incidents, but merely an increase in our ability to capture and transmit. 'Or it didn't happen' erases all those victimized when there was no one present to record, the thousands of human beings strung up when there was no one to testify for them. When there was no one to say, This is our history, whether we want to remember it or not."
Amidst all the articles and analyses of the Great Recession over the last seven years, only a few pointed out the racial implications, that the retreat of public sector jobs and the attacks on public sector unions (whether right or wrong) has had a disproportional and disastrous impact on the Black middle class. Patricia Cohen has an essay in the NY Times that gives the issue some context. "Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics. 'Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,' said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject. During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions."
Rebecca Onion takes a look at an online archive of 19th century boyhood, a "library" of nearly 60 hand-written books created by the three young Nelson brothers as a way to pass the long New Hampshire winters: "An existing set of 19th-century juvenilia produced by children like the Nelsons--farmers' kids, who lived in a rural setting and didn't go on to become famous authors--is rare. Reading the Nelsons' books, we get a unique perspective on late-19th-century American childhood, learning how farm kids felt about farm work; how young, rural readers processed and remixed the books and magazines they read; and how boys absorbed the era's ideas about manhood. Like the Brontës, the Nelsons created an imaginary world--what scholars call a 'paracosm'--and all of their stories took place inside of it. The Nelsons' paracosm, the Big, Long, and Round Continents, had a history of war and colonization and was undergoing rapid and enthusiastic infrastructural development and agricultural improvement. This backdrop provided plenty of room for adventure stories, but also for world-building of a more prosaic nature. Most of the publications that the Nelsons created were for imaginary readers who lived on one of the continents: newspapers like the Chit-Chat, which reported on the visits of residents of one continent to another; seed catalogs trumpeting varieties specially adapted to the growing conditions in an imaginary place; and 'history' books remembering military events like the fictional Battle of Poplington. The Nelsons were influenced by the print culture they had access to in rural New Hampshire. The town had a library during the years that the Nelsons were producing their books, though we don't know which titles that library held. (Walter Nelson, who wrote a history of Goshen in 1957, described the collection that formed the basis for the town library of the 1890s as 'rather extensive and cosmopolitan.') A few years after the boys ceased production on their collaborative writings, Elmer, the oldest brother, wrote a school assignment on the topic 'My Library'; from this composition we know that the Nelsons liked to read adventure fiction. Elmer mentioned Uncle Tom's Cabin ('intensely interesting'), one Oliver Optic book, a few James Fenimore Coopers, and Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff ('I consider [it] far ahead of some of his book[s] like "A Trip to Moon" [sic] "Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea"'). Elmer wrote that he liked adventure books 'both for the story and for the word Pictures which I get of foreign or distant places.' 'Perhaps [because] I am restless whatever the season,' he wrote, 'such books interest me.'"
Samuel Moyn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a critique of human rights that begins with the ancient King Croesus: "Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus, after the king of ancient lore who, Herodotus says, was so 'wonderfully rich' that he 'thought himself the happiest of mortals.' Impossibly elevated above his fellow men and women, this modern Croesus is also magnanimous. He does not want people to starve, and not only because he needs some of them for the upkeep of his global estate. Croesus insists on a floor of protection, so that everyone living under his benevolent but total ascendancy can escape destitution. Health, food, water, even paid vacations, Croesus funds them all." Croesus' world is, Moyn argues, largely the world of human rights, one in which a tiny rich minority applauds itself for keeping the vast majority alive and free from torture and the worst deprivations. Human rights offers a floor, but little more. Gone in a world where human rights represents our vision of the good is a vibrant vision of social democracy or welfarism. Thus human rights has little or nothing to offer in the fight against inequality. "After the 1970s, Croesus' world came closer and closer to being a reality, for his dreams became our dreams. To the extent that a utopia of justice survived, it was global but minimal, allowing for the worst state abuses to be decried, while in the socioeconomic domain it pictured a floor of protection without a ceiling on inequality. Whatever its potential in theory, the human rights movement adapted in practice to the new ambiance. For one thing, the idea of human rights followed the transformation of political economy to a global outlook. Further, activists no longer gave priority to the agency of states to launch and manage national welfare but rather to the rights of individuals to be free from harm and to enjoy a rudimentary government that averts disaster and abjection. In the economic realm, social equality was forsaken as an ideal. In exchange for its cosmopolitanism, the human rights movement abandoned postwar egalitarianism in both theory and practice."
Megan Garber suggests that, in the internet age, to be a comedian may mean being a public intellectual: "The point of comedy has always been, on some level, a kind of productive subversion. Observational comedy, situational comedy, slapstick comedy, comedy that both enlightens and offends--these are forms of creative destruction, at their height and in their depths, and they've long allowed us to talk about things that taboos, or at the very least taste, might otherwise preclude. Long before Jon Stewart came along, there was Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and George Carlin. There were people who used laughter as a lubricant for cultural conversations--to help us to talk about the things that needed to be talked about. The difference now, though, is that comedians are doing their work not just in sweaty clubs or network variety shows or cable sitcoms, but also on the Internet. Wherever the jokes start--Comedy Central, The Tonight Show, Marc Maron's garage--they will end up, eventually and probably immediately, living online. They will, at their best, go 'really, insanely viral.' The frenzy to post a John Oliver rant after it airs on HBO has become a cliché at this point; its effect, though, is to create a kind of tentacular influence for an otherwise niche comedy show. Some people may watch Oliver's stuff live, or DVRed; but most watch it while riding the bus, or waiting for a meeting, or eating a sad desk lunch, delivered via Facebook or Twitter or the Huffington Post. Most people watch Schumer's stuff that way, too. And Wilmore's. And Stewart's. Comedy, like so much else in the culture, now exists largely of, by, and for the Internet. Which is to say that there are two broad things happening right now--comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention--and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They're exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They're sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They're providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day. Amy Schumer on misogyny, Key and Peele on terrorism, Louis C.K. on parenting, Sarah Silverman on Rand Paul, John Oliver on FIFA ... these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers--as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment."
Frederick Bohrer places the recent destruction of Iraqi antiquities by ISIS into a global context: "The destruction of artworks and antiquities is hardly the unique behavior of a single group much less an essential property of any culture. We can recall the allied bombs that dropped on the Dresden Museum as on that of Baghdad, or the savage shelling of the Parthenon by Venetian armies that resulted in the disastrous collapse of its roof. If we had a video of the almost complete destruction during the French Revolution of the legendary medieval church of Cluny, or similar devastations wreaked on St. Denis or Notre Dame, it would likely have much the same effect as that of ISIS. Moreover, to any listing of secular destructions in the West must be added those of religious authorities, such as the systematic and wholesale destructions of images under the periods of Byzantine iconoclasm. As in ISIS', these attacks on the human image were accompanied by attacks on humans themselves in a long-running history of mutilations of the bodies of enemies--blinding, castration, rhinokopia (cutting off the nose), and more. Of course, the murderous activities on behalf of Christianity are hardly confined to Byzantium. The French wars of religion in the 17th century slaughtered as many as 4 million people. The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in Paris alone, in 1572, was responsible for the deaths of up to 30,000 lives of French Huguenots. For that event, 'The Pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung as special Thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) [...].' Accordingly, there is no unique Islamic propensity to perpetual iconoclasm and violence, much less one to be contrasted with a civilized and 'iconophilic' West. Rather, there are enough crimes to go around."
The short film Everyday Borders tracks "bordering from the margin into the center, from the extraordinary to the everyday life," which in the wake of the UK's 2014 immigration act "is threatening to destroy the conviviality of pluralist, metropolitan London and multicultural Britain in general," says Nira Yuval-Davis in the film's opening minutes. It goes on to consider what it means to be British, while not looking so, in an environment that encourages citizen surveillance and restricts the actions and movement of Britons, naturalized or not, within Britain.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, June 5, 2015
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Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson uses Arendt and David Eggers' The Circle to understand man's quest to free himself from nature and to infinitely expand his knowledge in the Quote of the Week. C. S. Lewis distinguishes a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth from one committed to finding comfort in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt's copy of The Foundations of music in human consciousness in this week's Library feature.
This coming Friday, June 5th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the ninth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 24-26 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!
“Snow Fall” is an essay by John Branch that appeared on the NY Times online yesterday. It is, simply, gripping. I read it holding my small screen, shaking, and could not put it down.
Here is how Branch describes the internal life of Elyse Saugstad as she experienced beings swallowed up by an avalanche.
She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out.
Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.
At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.
I know the pressures and allure of back-country skiing. Fresh powder and immeasurable quiet beckon. So too do adventure and risk. The first time I hooked up with some off-duty ski-patrollers and went looking for powder outside of a ski-area was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing atop a huge mountain of snow and looking down into the gully below, we prepared our dynamite. They asked me to throw a charge. Reason kicked in a bit and I asked, “This is safe, right? You’re an expert.” The answer I received was direct: “All the experts are dead.”
Adrenaline and camaraderie bring one to the top of a risky and bountiful snowfield. Once fear and reason kick in, it is often too late. Or so it seems.
One of the skiers, Megan Michelson, recalls her misgivings, and how she suppressed them:
"If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people,” Michelson, the ESPN journalist, said. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss. And not to play the gender card, but there were 2 girls and 10 guys, and I didn’t want to be the whiny female figure, you know? So I just followed along.” Others suppressed reservations, too.
There is great writing in Branch’s essay. And many life lessons. How did 16 of the best, most knowledgeable back-country skiers in the country make such a colossal misjudgment? Why did they do so, even as some of them knew what they were doing was a mistake? How is technology making us feel safer and take ever-greater risks? What is the place and importance of risk in human life? Branch’s re-creation of the 24 hours bookending the fateful avalanche and the insightful reporting on the persons involved, makes this one of those rare essays appearing in the New York Times recently that should be a must read for all.
As the Arendt Center readies for its annual Winter relocation to the Colorado Rockies, I plan to be skiing on piste this year. I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday Season.
For now, wherever you are, cuddle up and enjoy Snow Fall. It is your holiday read.