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.
Hasan Elahi started a self-surveillance art series when he was mistakenly reported to the FBI's terrorist watch list in 2001, and he's been reporting his movements online through his website every day since. But what started as a series on the way people are being watched became a series about the way we're watching ourselves: "Making the mundane details of his life publicly available became 'a very pragmatic solution to keep from being shipped off to Guantanamo.' He still faithfully updates his location every time he makes a major move--from his house to the gas station, from the gas station to his job. And he takes pictures of literally everything he does, whether shopping at the grocery store, eating at his favorite Chinese restaurant, or peeing in the bathroom. Strangely enough, Elahi says doing so has allowed him to live a relatively anonymous, quiet existence. 'I like to think of it as aggressive compliance,' he said. 'I've always been fascinated with Magellan and the concept of circumnavigation: going far enough in one direction to end up in the other.' But while the project started out as a response to state surveillance, it's become a parody of the way people now put their entire lives online for anyone--friends, stalkers, government agents--to follow. And it's remarkable how quickly it's happened: when Elahi first started photographing his meals, his friends thought it was weird. Now everyone does it, and some restaurants even have no-photo policies. Elahi doesn't think what he's doing is any stranger than if he were constantly tweeting, checking in on location apps, or posting photos on Facebook. 'These days, we're so wired 24/7 that you have to go out of your way not to be connected,' he said." All of this recalls Richard Sennett's "paradox of visibility and isolation" in his classic The Fall of Public Man. As we are ever more visible in public through cameras, data collection, and the expressiveness of clothes, tweets, and public displays of affection, there is the consequent compensation that we insist on not revealing our true selves. As Sennett writes: "Isolation in the midst of visibility to others was a logical consequence of insisting on one's right to be mute when one ventured into this chaotic yet still magnetic realm." There is a way in which we expose ourselves, but in doing so neutralize and appease those who observe us without actually revealing our true passions, hopes, and desires. The problem, as Sennett argues, is that we then begin to lose the ability to "imagine social relations which would arouse much passion...." The result is that we come to imagine a passionless "public life in which people behave, and manage their behavior, only through withdrawal, 'accommodation,' and 'appeasement.'"
Rosemary Pooler and Richard Wesley penned Turkmen v. Ashcroft, an important decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals this month. (h/t Alan Sussman) The decision reinstated a lawsuit against John Ashcroft and other prison and government officials. The plaintiffs are a group of eight Muslims who were arrested on immigration charges after 9/11 and who were then held and interrogated for between three and eight months. The complaint concerned discriminatory treatment based upon a policy by Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller "whereby any Muslim or Arab man encountered during the investigation of a tip received in the 9/11 terrorism investigation . . . and discovered to be a non-citizen who had violated the terms of his visa, was arrested." The plaintiffs in this suit were arrested, sent to maximum security prisons, subjected to constant strip searches, sleep deprivation, and other harsh interrogation techniques on no evidence except their apparent Muslim faith. Pooler and Wesley, in deciding to reinstate the plaintiff's lawsuit, offer these stirring and more than appropriate final thoughts: "If there is one guiding principle to our nation it is the rule of law. It protects the unpopular view, it restrains fear-based responses in times of trouble, and it sanctifies individual liberty regardless of wealth, faith, or color. The Constitution defines the limits of the Defendants' authority; detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits. It might well be that national security concerns motivated the Defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy. Holding individuals in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al Qaeda violated the detainees' constitutional rights. To use such a broad and general basis for such severe confinement without any further particularization of a reason to suspect an individual's connection to terrorist activities requires certain assumptions about the 'targeted group' not offered by Defendants nor supported in the record. It assumes that members of the group were already allied with or would be easily converted to the terrorist cause, until proven otherwise. Why else would no further particularization of a connection to terrorism be required? Perceived membership in the 'targeted group' was seemingly enough to justify extended confinement in the most restrictive conditions available." Plaintiff's brought this lawsuit in April, 2002, over 13 years ago. Justice can be slow. But one hopes that at least eventually it will be served.
Tom Engelhardt asks the important and difficult question--Is there a new political system emerging in the United States? His five-part account suggests that may well be. "Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name. And here's what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it's as if we can't bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so. Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of 'we the people.' Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray."
Thinking about global warming and environmental disasters can be numbing and depressing. But in the New Yorker this week, Bill McKibben offers a reason to hope. He tells of Mark and Sara Borkowski in Rutland, Vermont. With help from Vermont's Green Mountain Power, the Borkowski's "stuffed the house with new insulation, put in a heat pump for the hot water, and installed two air-source heat pumps to warm the home. They also switched all the light bulbs to L.E.D.s and put a small solar array on the slate roof of the garage. The Borkowskis paid for the improvements, but the utility financed the charges through their electric bill, which fell the very first month. Before the makeover, from October of 2013 to January of 2014, the Borkowskis used thirty-four hundred and eleven kilowatt-hours of electricity and three hundred and twenty-five gallons of fuel oil. From October of 2014 to January of 2015, they used twenty-eight hundred and fifty-six kilowatt-hours of electricity and no oil at all. President Obama has announced that by 2025 he wants the United States to reduce its total carbon footprint by up to twenty-eight per cent of 2005 levels. The Borkowskis reduced the footprint of their house by eighty-eight per cent in a matter of days, and at no net cost. I've travelled the world writing about and organizing against climate change, but, standing in the Borkowskis' kitchen and looking at their electric bill, I felt a fairly rare emotion: hope. The numbers reveal a sudden new truth--that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use. The Borkowskis' house is not an Aspen earth shelter made of adobe and old tires, built by a former software executive who converted to planetary consciousness at Burning Man. It's an utterly plain house, with Frozen bedspreads and One Direction posters, inhabited by a working-class family of four, two rabbits, and a parakeet named Oliver." McKibben also writes of Richard Kauffman, the NY State energy czar, who cites Hannah Arendt for inspiration. "Kauffman has all sorts of plans, from a 'green bank'--to attract private-sector capital to finance extensive energy-saving retrofits--to new rules that would pressure utilities to play nicely with outside partners like Solar City. 'It's kind of a Hannah Arendt thing,' he said. 'There's not a lot of intentional evil in utilities. But we've created a golden cage for them, protected them from enormous trends.' We were on the subway again, and as it clattered back toward Manhattan Kauffman had to shout to be heard: 'Our aim is to create a policy environment that is not standing against the forces of history but is in line with them.'"
In an interview, author and ghostwriter Hilary Liftin talks about the way she interacts with her subjects: "I have a particular role: to represent the person I'm writing for and to create a voice for that person. But the other thing that I bring to it is empathy. There are certain jobs I don't take because I feel no connection to the person. But if somebody is open with me, and honest about their motivations, and has some level of self-awareness, then I'm going to understand them. The same way you'd feel if you sat down with a criminal and they told you their life story. You would probably understand the crime and forgive it. None of my clients are criminals, but to a much lighter degree that's what goes on. I hear the story, and I hear it with the level of detail that breeds empathy.... I'm not creating a voice out of thin air. Everyone has a public voice, and a lot of actors have developed sound-bitey public voices. But that doesn't translate to paper. That's why they can't just dictate a book, even if they're good storytellers. So the question is: how can I manifest the quirks and thoughts and uniqueness of their own personalities? In part, I do that by typing when they talk. I don't record. That is a way for my brain to take in the voice. My goal is that when my client reads a book they feel like, 'Hilary did something but mostly she just made it happen quickly.' I think people dismiss celebrity memoirs as unreal, contrived and maybe partially made up. But that's definitely not true for anything that I write."
Tamar Adler waxes poetic about preserves: "I have felt lucky, as a grown person, to discover that this thing I loved in innocent abstraction had real importance. Salting and drying meat and fish helped human beings to last through long winters, sea voyages and treacherous overland trails. If cultivating soil was what let us settle, it was harnessing bacterial cultures and sugar, salt, acid, fat, sun and wind to paralyze microorganisms and save food from decay that let us unmoor, discovering all the world that was not visible from our cabbage patches. Basque cider allowed seamen to cross oceans. Dutch pickled herring fueled the exploration of the New World. Vikings spread cod in the riggings of their ships to dry and stiffen in the cold wind, then traded on it as they battled through Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Cheese was first a way of preserving milk; wine, of grape juice; sauerkraut, of cabbage; prosciutto, of pork. In this sense, all preserved things are additionally miraculous, in that they all are also ways of storing other things: part vessel, part content."
Tiffany Jenkins responds to the query, "Why Value Privacy?" with this answer citing Hannah Arendt. "Where privacy is as important, but perhaps less obviously so, is in relation to the development of the human person. Privacy allows us to retreat from the world, for a while, to not be 'on show' all the time, to take our face off. It is space without scrutiny and immediate judgment in which we can take time out and reflect. Here, we can be vulnerable. Here, we can experiment and try things out. Here, we can make mistakes. We can be ourselves; learning and developing what that means. And that we have some say over what others know and what they do not know, is a way to develop autonomy and self-possession. All this helps us to sure up psychological and social depth. As the writer Hannah Arendt put it: 'A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.'" We couldn't agree more, which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is hosting our 8th Annual Conference "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" The Conference is Oct. 15-16. You can read about it and register here.
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, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reflects on how dianoetic laughter frees us from the misery that arises from our constant failure to be able to converse with ourselves in the Quote of the Week. Australian philosopher Peter Singer discusses how thinking helps constitute the meaning of philosophy in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we share an image sent to us by the Goethe-Institut New York of some of Arendt's writings housed in its library in this week's Library feature.
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.