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.
Adam Gopnick sees a nationalistic error in the way that some are defending the crimes revealed by the CIA torture report: "The North Vietnamese were under far more direct threat from American bombers than Americans have ever been from mostly remote Arab terrorists, yet no one would ever suggest that the Vietnamese were justified in torturing American pilots, even if they could have found out about, say, the targeting and timing of bombing raids, which might conceivably have saved Vietnamese lives. That was, we said, and would say again, no excuse. We have none, either. This is a good place to make it clear that, in this case, comparisons to Nazi and Communist tortures, far from being some kind of wild violation of decorum, are exactly what's essential--essential because without the belief that, even in wartime, there are acceptable and unacceptable forms of violence, the post-Second World War war-crimes trials, in which we place great pride, would indeed be no more than what the ex-Nazis always said they were: pure victor's justice. If we believe, as we do, that those trials were truly just, then that is because the acts that they sanctioned, including the torture of prisoners, were evil inherently, not just evil when done by other folks." The idea that we must be making those kinds of comparisons is compelling, but we must also remember that the fact that torture on the scale described in the report was committed in the name of a nominally liberal democracy. The comparisons are important so that we keep our heads in the right place, but we must not forget that these crimes were committed and also repudiated in our name and for our benefit.
On the day the Senate's torture report was released, Andrew Sullivan and his team at The Dish read through the document and responded to both it and reactions in real time. The transcript is fascinating because it follows Sullivan's commentary as the report unfolds right there in his hands. The magnitude of unredacted things that were revealed, the nature and kind of the torture perpetrated by the US under the auspices of national interest, seems even larger when consumed in this way. Here's one of Sullivan's comments on the text: "Here's a real bombshell: Bush was first briefed on waterboarding in 2006! And he didn't like it: '[D]espite agency efforts to keep the Bush administration informed about the program, top White House officials repeatedly resisted having the CIA brief cabinet-level figures about the details, and CIA officials were not permitted to brief Bush directly until mid-2006, more than four years after the president signed a broad executive order authorizing the program, according to Senate Democratic aides who briefed reporters ahead of Tuesday's release. When Bush finally heard the details of the harsh interrogation techniques that were used against CIA detainees, he was "uncomfortable" with some of them and expressed dismay that some detainees were required to remain in stress positions for long amounts of time, to the point that they had no choice but to soil themselves, the aides said.' What does it say about our democracy in the last decade that the one person ultimately designated to run the war was utterly oblivious to what was actually going on in such an extraordinarily vital area such as torture? That others were really running the country? That he was a disastrously disengaged and incompetent figure-head? Well, I guess what we suspected is now out there. But who was ultimately responsible for torturing suspects in a manner far far worse than stress positions if the president wasn't?"
In an interview, poet and National Book Award Finalist Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, discusses the way that seeing oneself as a progressive liberal, defining oneself as not-racist, can be a kind of trap for those who want to see a better world: "That's one of the fallacies that are out there, that we're above it, that these kinds of things belong to a supremacist world and not the world that the ordinary citizen lives in, that the ordinary educated middle-class person would never do these things, would never say these things. Not many people in writing about Citizen note that the book really lives in that space, in a kind of liberal American space. I'm sure the prosecutor in Wilson's case felt he was a liberal-minded person and his own liberal subjectivity was going to allow him to then move forward in a fair way."
Ian Johnson takes a peek at a Chinese history newsletter that, at least officially, doesn't exist: "E-mailed to subscribers as a seventy- to ninety-page PDF every other week, Remembrance's articles and first-person accounts are helping to recover memories that the Communist Party would prefer remained lost. Remembrance has no listed address, let alone bustling editorial offices. But if it has a home, it is here, in one of Tiantongyuan's concrete apartments, a dark, ground-floor unit lined with bookcases and stacked with boxes of banned books--a fittingly anonymous home for a publication that officially doesn't exist. Remembrance is part of the rise of unofficial memory in China, a trend that resembles the appearance in the Soviet Union during the 1980s of groups like Memorial, a historical research society that helped undermine the regime by uncovering its troubled past. Today's China is more robust than the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, but memory is still escaping the censor's grasp, posing challenges to a regime for which history represents legitimacy. The government still controls official history through textbooks, museums, movies, and the media. But memory is more private, and setting it down on paper can be presented as a personal enterprise, even when the outcome is highly political."
The Jacobin republishes an interview with Daniel Zamara on his controversial new book about the philosopher Michel Foucault. Zamara has ruffled feathers by arguing that Michel Foucault was, in point of fact, sympathetic to the neoliberal order he explored and described. Ballast asks: "By making Foucault compatible with neoliberalism, your book could ruffle a lot of feathers." And Zamara answers: "I hope so. That's sort of the point of the book. I wanted to clearly break with the far too consensual image of Foucault as being in total opposition to neoliberalism at the end of his life. From that point of view, I think the traditional interpretations of his late works are erroneous, or at least evade part of the issue. He's become sort of an untouchable figure within part of the radical left. Critiques of him are timid, to say the least. This blindness is surprising because even I was astonished by the indulgence Foucault showed toward neoliberalism when I delved into the texts. It's not only his Collège de France lectures, but also numerous articles and interviews, all of which are accessible. Foucault was highly attracted to economic liberalism: he saw in it the possibility of a form of governmentality that was much less normative and authoritarian than the socialist and communist left, which he saw as totally obsolete. He especially saw in neoliberalism a 'much less bureaucratic' and 'much less disciplinarian' form of politics than that offered by the postwar welfare state. He seemed to imagine a neoliberalism that wouldn't project its anthropological models on the individual, that would offer individuals greater autonomy vis-à-vis the state."
A story in The Princetonian revisits a 1959 speech by Fidel Castro at the Wilson School specifically to a seminar titled "The United States and the Revolutionary Spirit." One participant at this seminar was Hannah Arendt who later credited her time at Princeton as the inspiration for her book On Revolution. Arendt's book argues that the American Revolution succeeded where the French Revolution failed because it focused on the foundation of freedom over the satisfaction of needs. No evidence exists that Arendt heard Castro's speech, and she doesn't mention Cuba in her book. But Castro's words do mirror Arendt's own view of the American Revolution that, free from misery, set its sights on the public happiness of acting together with others. According the Princetonian archives, "Castro told the Princeton students and faculty members that one of the particularities of his revolution was that it had triumphed in a Latin American nation with a relative degree of social welfare. The Cuban revolution, according to this young Castro, had been more a political and moral revolution against a corrupt dictatorship than a class-based uprising of poor against rich. For this reason, the revolution had been supported by '95 percent of the people,' generating 'unanimity of opinion,' a phenomenon unheard of in Cuban history."
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 - 7:00 pm
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
A conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015 - Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Location and Time TBA
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Aspinwall Room 302, Bard College, 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Claudia Hilb reflects on how Adolf Eichmann's crimes awakened in Arendt an archaic sense of justice that is at the same time restrained by the limitations of modern judicial systems in the Quote of the Week. French essayist and moralist Joseph Joubert provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In this week's Video Archives, we remember a 2012 presentation by Peter Beinart on his book "The Crisis of Zionism." We acknowledge how Aristotle helped shape Arendt's philosophy in our Library feature. And we reveal the winners of our 2014 Thinking Challenge!
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“If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…. There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”
--Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
Intergenerational justice is a central idea in contemporary political thought about the environment, sustainability and global climate change. That we must live today in a manner that does not degrade the life chances of future generations is an intellectual response to the depletion of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the global warming fostered by the use of these sources of energy. As one political response to climate change caused by fossil fuel use, intergenerational justice may be described in terms of a revivifying of public life and a corresponding cultivation of trust in politics. That is to say, intergenerational justice is conceived best not in abstract terms, but as a matter of directing concrete political action, which Arendt argues has a transformative nature, against the anti-political and anti-ecological encroachments of “the social realm” that prioritizes economic thinking, growth and bureaucratic efficiency over concerns for the future. In this sense, we appeal to Arendt, who shows us in On Revolution that the founding of new public space and the revitalization of citizenship are always possible.
Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).