Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 11/15/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upAmor Mundi

paris isis attacksIn 1955, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: "Out of gratitude, I want to call my book about political theories Amor Mundi." She suffered through antisemitism, totalitarianism, and even genocide. But somehow, she was determined to not lose hope. Arendt eventually called her book The Human Condition (and Vita Activa in German). But what was Arendt grateful for? The question arises in the wake of terror attacks by ISIS in France and Lebanon over the past two days. Our hearts go out to the hundreds who died and the hundreds more who were wounded, senseless violence which forces us to ask ourselves: can we still find the ability to "love the world"? And if so, how? Here we look to Arendt, who leads us to recall that evil first enables the good. She writes in her Denktagebuch: "The Path of Wrong--anti-Semitism--imperialism--world historically--totalitarianism--. How is it that only the paths of wrong have been accessible, have been relevant, above all still had a relation to the actual questions, difficulties and catastrophes and that there are never paths of right and cannot be? This is the cardinal question." Arendt's point is that horrific wrongs are, in the end, the only meaningful events of human history. She quotes Hegel's maxim that "a ripped stocking is better than a dirty stocking," which she glosses to mean, "being ripped first makes noticeable the original unity.... The stocking thus appears as a 'living unity' in the ripped stocking precisely then when it proves its uselessness for life." All unity and thus all being begins in negation. For Arendt, it is in confronting evil and knowing it as it is that we can imagine the good and the just. Tragedies are part of human history; without the depths of evil, we would not climb the heights of the good. This is neither to justify or excuse evil nor to accept it. Against Hegel, Arendt insists that reality may at times simply be irreconcilable, that there are some evils so horrific that they cannot be loved. But still, evil carries with in the seeds of greater good. Even as we condemn the ugliness of evil, we also affirm that with evil comes the possibility of the good. That is the beauty of the human condition: amidst the darkness, new light can shine forth. The conviction that human action will light up the dark is how and why Arendt took such pride in being able to love the world.--RB

Missing the Obvious

ben carsonAmy Davidson debunks the debunkers who are trying to find mistakes and inconsistencies in Ben Carson's biography. She considers two of the more widespread stories, first that Carson made up a story about being given a small cash award for being the only student in a psychology class at Yale to have proven honest, and the second that he had been offered admission to West Point. For Davidson, in each instance, Carson's stories hold up better than the debunkers'. What Davidson finds troublesome, however, is why the media is so obsessed with trying to debunk Carson's biography while it refuses to seriously question his inaccurate and false claims underlying his policy proposals. "The odd thing is that the Carson campaign is what might be called a target-rich environment for journalists--or it should be. He has been utterly dismissive of climate change, and he has fostered the idea that vaccines cause autism. The numbers for his tax plan, insofar as there are any, don't add up. He has said that Joseph, of the coat of many colors, built the pyramids in order to store the grain of the seven fat years--a statement that, as I've written, was troubling not because we expect our Presidents to be up on the distinction between Early and Middle Kingdom dynasties but because Carson presented it as an example of why one should reject the theories of experts and scientists and turn, instead, to the Bible. Similarly, his claim that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in elective office, when a great number of them did, is significant not only because it is false but because it speaks to a particular view of history and politics. (Carson later amended the statement to say that none had federal experience. Of course, they couldn't have, because there was no federal government when the Declaration was signed.) He has suggested that President Obama might declare martial law, and that the 2016 elections might be cancelled amid scenes of untenable civil disorder. He has compared Obamacare to slavery and to Nazism. He has also made what PolitiFact judged to be outright false statements in the last Republican debate about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company. (In contrast, PolitiFact rated Carson's description of West Point's 'scholarships' as mostly true.) Perhaps the problem isn't that the media is too partisan but that, in looking at Carson, there was a hope that there might be a non-partisan way to address a campaign whose success is hard for observers of American politics to understand."

You Like That?

critique of booksTim Parks wonders what it means that we don't all like the same books: "Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts? Not that superficial togetherness in celebration that the publishing industry, the literary festivals, and the interminable literary prizes are forever seeking to generate, the happy conviction that we have found a new literary hero and can all gloat together over his or her achievement. But all the heated debate that actually preceded the prize-giving; the shifting alliances as each book was discussed, the times you just couldn't believe that the fellow jurist who supported you over book A is now seriously proposing to ditch book B, and so on. In this view our reaction to literature becomes a repeated act of self-discovery. Our contrasting reactions to the books we read tell us who we are. We are our position in relation to each other as understood in the reaction to these books. Reading other peoples' takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we're up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself. If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one's own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree. Though even a fudge is a declaration of identity. And nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging."

amor_mundi_sign-upWhence Your Tomato?

farmer marketLouise O Fresco suggests that sustainable agriculture requires sacrificing a few sacred ideas but not just eating less meat: "The logic of farmers' markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That's fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it's a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well-organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours... our thinking about sustainability should not limit itself to technical optimisation or cost efficiency. There is a cultural dimension to factor in, too. Urban consumers in the US and other affluent countries might always respond to the humanity of small-scale, traditional farming. But we must reckon with the realities of current and future food production. The belief that only small-scale, non-mechanised agriculture without the use of chemicals respects biodiversity, and that tradition is key to the future, is illusory. In reality, small-scale unfertilised farming of annual crops or unregulated grazing in the tropics are major causes of destruction of soils and forests. In reality: an ever-declining number of farmers will need to feed rapidly growing megacities."  

Closing Frontiers

myanmarIn the wake of the elections in Myanmar, Francis Wade takes stock of the country's periphery: "To get something approaching an accurate reading of Burma today requires a process of telescoping in and out, of contrasting grand narratives with hyper-local experiences. The international fixation on Burma's transition, of which the November elections have been billed as the next step in democratization, if not the final leap to democracy, obfuscates the fact that processes begun decades ago in areas of the country little scrutinized by international observers will persist, regardless of whatever changes occur in government in the coming months. The manipulation of ethnic tensions has long been a principal strategy of Burma's rulers, for it locks ethnic groups in a state of perpetual instability that the military can profit by. The original Na Ta La villages were by and large built on land confiscated from the Rohingya, and therefore were deeply resented by Rohingya communities who could no longer work the soil and reap its produce. But these new settlers from central Burma and elsewhere in Rakhine State were also resented by local Rakhine who, while ideologically supportive of whatever strategy could weaken the Muslim population, knew that the scheme meant a further mixing of the Rakhine identity. And the Rakhine more recently resettled from Bangladesh have been gifted houses of a quality beyond the reach of most other Rakhine, thereby drawing ire from neglected communities among their own ethnicity, but also that of the Rohingya and of the older generation of resettled Bamar who, from their buckled wooden houses, wonder what became of their promises of a better life here. Burma's rulers have been able to triangulate communal tensions in Rakhine State, as they have elsewhere, in a way that keeps each ethnicity there in a state of persistent antipathy towards one another. Local tensions then distract from the workings of their real nemesis--the central state--and weaken any prospect of a cohesive front of persecuted minorities that could rally together against it. This has been the regime's crowning achievement, and its effects, both in Rakhine and all around Burma's periphery, have forever stunted the country's political and social development."   

The Right Feelings

yale universityJelani Cobb makes an important point writing in the New Yorker: "The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus--important but largely separate subjects--is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point." The shouts by many about the loss of free speech at Yale are overblown insofar as all the speech that has happened at Yale has been free and none of it has been punished or sanctioned (at least so far). The original letter from the Dean was a bland and bureaucratic missive sent to thousands of students. It represented a coherent if somewhat weak official plea. For many 18 year olds, such a plea might lead to a rebellious desire to do precisely what was counseled against. But the email itself was fine and affirmed the right of free speech. Similarly, the response by Erika Christakis was quite tame. It acknowledged the good intentions of the Dean's email, even agreed with them. Christakis simply raised an intellectual question, asking whether such good intentions were unintentionally having other negative impacts. In no way did Christakis incite students to uncivil or racist behavior. So too are the students within their rights to protest Christakis' email and to argue that they found it offensive. None of this raises free speech issues. Finally, the extensive discussions between Christakis, her husband, and the students have been exemplary models of impassioned speech, even if some of the students became uncivil at times. None of the speech crossed the boundary into hate speech. One should also note that there have been personal insults and even death threats hurled at a few of the students, all of which must be condemned. Even when students called for Christakis to be fired, that is protected speech. Overall, what we have seen throughout this controversy at Yale is quite hopeful. Unpopular speech was met with more speech. No one was censored. We should give the Yale administration, faculty, and students credit. Those involved have been engaged in a serious and difficult debate, one that has been waged vigorously and for the most part quite respectfully.

In defending the students at Yale, however, Cobb diminishes the problem that current racial discourses pose to a free society. His central thesis is: "These [systemic racial tensions (rb)] are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one's liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another." Cobb turns the controversy around: those arguing for free speech are powerful bullies imposing on the liberty of the students to make their case about the damage that systematic racism is doing to their campus. But to see the students as "relatively disempowered" and to imagine the press as bullies is to look past the fact that the students' case is frequently articulated in the absolutist language of affect and trauma. This is part of a broad movement on campus that holds that students should not be forced to confront ideas or texts that remind them of traumas. Just as Cobb is right to bring in the racial context at Yale to help understand the situation, so too is it important to recall the pervasive rhetoric of trauma, trigger warnings, and Title IX bureaucratic procedures to understand the worries of those defending free speech.

Take for example Cobb's discussion of the student demand to change the name of Yale's Calhoun College. He writes: "Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun's name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students' situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors." Cobb raises a question: What does it mean for students (presumably of all races) to live in a building named for such a man? Good question. What does it mean? I imagine it means many, many things. For the vast majority of students, it means nothing. Some may, as Cobb implies, be bothered that Yale named a building for a man who fought for and justified chattel slavery in the South. But others might find it fascinating that Calhoun originally was a defender of Federal power but over time developed a constitutional and political theory designed to protect minority voices. That the minority Calhoun sought to protect was Southern whites does not necessarily reduce the power and importance of his efforts to develop constitutional protections against the power and potential tyranny of the majority. Students interested in questions of government corruption might also find it interesting that Calhoun as Secretary of War helped develop a professional bureaucracy that replaced the corrupt system of patronage appointments. One might hope that students living in a building named for Calhoun might be prompted to think about the republican and democratic principles at the foundation of American democracy alongside the fact that our democratic republic somehow emerged from out of a people that was deeply divided by economic, philosophical, as well as racial opinions. Would some students living in Calhoun dormitory be uneasy to know that he strongly defended chattel slavery? Surely. Are there better people to name a residential college for? Undoubtedly. But does Cobb's rhetorical question do justice to the complex question of what to do with monuments and celebrations of great persons who were also flawed? Hardly. Instead, Cobb seems to suggest that since some students might be upset by living in Calhoun dormitory, their feelings are determinative, the complexities of the issue fall away, and it is an affront to these students that Yale has refused to rename the dormitory. It may be time to rename the College--we should hear how people feel--but the demand that some feelings necessitate action is hardly an argument.

Many at Yale are defending the student reaction as part of an overall context of racial problems at Yale. That is a good argument, and I am excited to see how quickly the original threats and demands have morphed into a serious discussion about race and justice. This speaks well for the fate of serious and difficult debate at Yale.  It is time to reject the discourse of trauma and the idea of a college is a "safe space." We must resist those who demand firing and disciplining others for nothing more than expressing their considered opinions. This is a truly corrosive idea. And it is depoliticizing in the extreme. As Cobb and others are arguing, we need to replace the language of trauma with the practice of politics.--RB

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Critical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita BischofCritical Theory and Surreal Practice: A Conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof

In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno's death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin's disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk's essays and Bischof's introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.

Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm



How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reminds us that while human natality can make freedom appear and disappear, the busy nobody also has the capacity to block the initiative that would manifest human freedom in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on the true and the right as expedients in the way of our thinking in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Christo Datso shares an image of his personal Arendt library that attempts to convey how every thinker, including Arendt, comes into connection with others in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi 6/28/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upLove--And Dignity--Win

gay marriage 6/26/15Justice Anthony Kennedy finally put the shame of marriage inequality behind us. "The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations.... That history is the beginning of these cases. The respondents say it should be the end as well. To them, it would demean a timeless institution if the concept and lawful status of marriage were extended to two persons of the same sex. Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held--and continues to be held--in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world. The petitioners acknowledge this history but contend that these cases cannot end there. Were their intent to demean the revered idea and reality of marriage, the petitioners' claims would be of a different order. But that is neither their purpose nor their submission. To the contrary, it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners' contentions. This, they say, is their whole point. Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect--and need--for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment. Recounting the circumstances of three of these cases illustrates the urgency of the petitioners' cause from their perspective. Petitioner James Obergefell, a plaintiff in the Ohio case, met John Arthur over two decades ago. They fell in love and started a life together, establishing a lasting, committed relation. In 2011, however, Arthur was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. This debilitating disease is progressive, with no known cure. Two years ago, Obergefell and Arthur decided to commit to one another, resolving to marry before Arthur died. To fulfill their mutual promise, they traveled from Ohio to Maryland, where same-sex marriage was legal. It was difficult for Arthur to move, and so the couple were wed inside a medical transport plane as it remained on the tarmac in Baltimore. Three months later, Arthur died. Ohio law does not permit Obergefell to be listed as the surviving spouse on Arthur's death certificate. By statute, they must remain strangers even in death, a state-imposed separation Obergefell deems 'hurtful for the rest of time.' He brought suit to be shown as the surviving spouse on Arthur's death certificate." It is worth noting as my colleague Omar Encarnación points out that 19 countries have already legalized gay marriage, including South Africa, Ireland, and Brazil. There is simply no reason for a constitutional state to tell two consenting adults of any race or gender that they cannot choose with whom to build a life. This is, as Hannah Arendt writes, a basic right of privacy and dignity. "The right to marry whoever one wishes is an elementary human right compared to which 'the right to attend an integrated school, the right to sit where one pleases on a bus, the right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement, regardless of one's skin or color or race' are minor indeed. Even political rights, like the right to vote, and nearly all other rights enumerated in the Constitution, are secondary to the inalienable human rights to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence; and to this category the right to home and marriage unquestionably belongs."

A Politics Neither Mean Nor Small

obama eulogy pinckneyPresident Obama eulogized the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney. "He was in the pulpit by 13, pastor by 18, public servant by 23. He did not exhibit any of the cockiness of youth, nor youth's insecurities; instead, he set an example worthy of his position, wise beyond his years, in his speech, in his conduct, in his love, faith, and purity. As a senator, he represented a sprawling swath of the Lowcountry, a place that has long been one of the most neglected in America. A place still wracked by poverty and inadequate schools; a place where children can still go hungry and the sick can go without treatment. A place that needed somebody like Clem. His position in the minority party meant the odds of winning more resources for his constituents were often long. His calls for greater equity were too often unheeded, the votes he cast were sometimes lonely. But he never gave up. He stayed true to his convictions. He would not grow discouraged. After a full day at the capitol, he'd climb into his car and head to the church to draw sustenance from his family, from his ministry, from the community that loved and needed him. There he would fortify his faith, and imagine what might be. Reverend Pinckney embodied a politics that was neither mean, nor small. He conducted himself quietly, and kindly, and diligently. He encouraged progress not by pushing his ideas alone, but by seeking out your ideas, partnering with you to make things happen. He was full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes. No wonder one of his senate colleagues remembered Senator Pinckney as 'the most gentle of the 46 of us--the best of the 46 of us.'"

Peculiar Manners

civil warTa-Nehisi Coates applauds South Carolina governor Nikki Haley for supporting the removal of the Confederate battle flag off of the grounds of that state's capitol, but he thinks her reasoning is based on a bit of intellectual slight of hand: "Nikki Haley deserves credit for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. She deserves criticism for couching that removal as matter of manners. At the present moment the effort to remove the flag is being cast as matter of politesse, a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. The flag is a 'painful symbol' concedes David French. Its removal might 'offer relief to those genuinely hurt,' writes Ian Tuttle. 'To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,' tweeted Mitt Romney. The flag has been 'misappropriated by hate groups,' claims South Carolina senator Tom Davis. This mythology of manners is adopted in lieu of the mythology of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great drawback of being rooted in a lie. The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren't quite sure why."

amor_mundi_sign-upIndexes and Atlases

google mapsPaul Ford thinks that Google Maps is changing the way we interact with our world: "In recent years, Google Maps has become increasingly three-dimensional. The early versions were built on top of a document-delivery platform: the Web. But now the experience is far smoother. Gone is the liminal space between layers and the pauses between zooms. You just zoom in and out of the world. Amidst all the maps, layers, and views, Google has created more map than territory. Google calls this the Ground Truth project, or its effort to map the world via an 'authoritative' mix of 'algorithms and elbow grease.' In the hot center of San Francisco, the amount of detail on Google Maps can feel overwhelming--each floor of the Nordstrom's on Market Street, for example, is mapped. God help us when store inventory systems are tied to this leviathan, and you'll be able to drill down from high above the ocean to the books on the shelves at the bookstore. Except there will be no bookstores. One thing you can do when you have Ground Truth, when you really, truly understand where things are, is make a self-driving car. You start with a set of points describing the roads, and then you turn a car into a rolling computer. It seems almost inevitable, in retrospect."

Wisdom On the Other Side of the World

talmudRoss Arbes wonders at the Talmud's popularity in South Korea and describes the path it took to get there: "Every bookstore I visited in and around the [Seoul], including a small kiosk at the airport, sold at least one version of the Talmud. Rabbi Litzman, the Chabad rabbi in Seoul, told me that copies of the book are available in convenience stores and in some train-station kiosks. According to the Jewish Chronicle of London, the book can be found in book-vending machines. Most people I met in South Korea had at least heard of the Talmud, even if they had not read it. Aviya Amir, a master's student researching the translation of the Talmud and its popularity in Japan and South Korea, told me that, in Japan, 'nobody has a clue' what the Talmud is. 'It's not like in Korea,' she said, 'where you ask random people on the street and tell them you're researching Talmud, and they go, "Ah, Talmud."' Lee Kyou-Hyuk, a famous speed skater who carried the South Korean flag at the 2014 Olympics, recommended the Talmud to his fans. 'I read the Talmud every time I am going through a hard time,' he told reporters. 'It helps to calm my mind.' Kyobo, the largest bookstore in South Korea, keeps a list of the top two thousand 'steady-sellers,' books that have sustained strong sales for multiple years. Six different Talmuds are currently on the list. Dr. Jeongso Jeon, a professor of children's education at Bucheon University, near Seoul, said that, if you consider all of its versions, the book is 'the second-best-seller in South Korea,' behind the Bible. (Another scholar I spoke to disputed this claim as an exaggeration.)"

Our Technological and Functioning Selves

heideggerSantiago Zabala turns to Martin Heidegger in the LA Review of Books to ask: "[I]s it possible to live an authentic life in this metaphysical age, where Being has been forgotten in favor of entities? What does this world look like? As Heidegger once told Der Spiegel: 'Everything functions. That is exactly what is uncanny. Everything functions and the functioning drives us further and further to more functioning, and technology tears people away and uproots them from the earth more and more. I don't know if you are scared; I was certainly scared when I recently saw the photographs of the earth taken from the moon. We don't need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of human beings is already taking place. We only have purely technological conditions left.' These technological conditions are the result of overlooking Being in favor of beings, that is, the disclosure of worlds for what gets revealed within those worlds. This is why science 'does not think' but rather 'calculates.' Ever since modernity, when the human subject became the point of reference for everything and nature was reduced to what can be subjected to human domination, the essence of the species has been framed (Ge-Stell) by a power we do not control. This, after all, is the sensation we all have today where 'the only emergency,' as Heidegger once said, 'is the absence of a sense of emergency.' The fact that in 2015 we are all monitored, spied on, and soon also biogenetically engineered confirms the German philosopher's prediction of a world 'where self-certainty has become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do.' This is why, as we can see in this video from 1969, Heidegger does not believe we need to better describe the world in order to change it; rather, we must learn to interpret it differently. Heidegger, like many other philosophers after him, was alarmed not only by human beings living inauthentic lives in technological societies but also by the way we are becoming technological ourselves. In this condition philosophy, as an analysis of our concepts, traditions, and world, would lose its educational and critical role within society."

The Repercussions

humansNeil Genzlinger reflects on how a new spate of popular culture TV shows is exploring the increasing dependence of humans on robots. "We are, we keep being told, right on the verge of having robots become omnipresent in our lives. 'Humans' invites us to contemplate the consequences of that, and look beyond the obvious problem of what happens when the robots achieve independence of thought (which, it bears repeating, they always, always, always do). One of the show's themes is how ceding our roles and choices to machines threatens us. What happens to motherhood when a robot can read a bedtime story to a child more entertainingly than Mom can, a reality Laura confronts? What happens to aging with dignity when an eldercare robot bosses you around as if you were a child? And let's not even get into how difficult it will be to make corrections once robots swarm our lives. It takes us years just to recall faulty airbags; imagine the obstacles to retreating from the robotic future if, 10 or 20 years into it, we decide we don't like the repercussions." As is so often the case, we are told this is happening, as if we humans have lost our political will to decide. If there is a warning in the package, one barely notices it from the shiny paper, which makes them more a celebration than provocation. Still, the overarching question is clear: as robots and drones take on more of the traditionally human activities and do so in ways that are rational, efficient, and cheap, will we humans embrace brain and bodily prostheses and implants and choose to become ever more like machines?

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #10

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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!

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa discusses how Arendt's regard for storytelling reveals a difference between meaning and purpose, which in turn yields an important element of political and human life, in the Quote of the Week. Author H. G. Wells reflects on the clumsiness with which the human mind is able to grasp the truth in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Mark Olson, one of our followers on Twitter, shares a picture of his personal library of Arendt, whose works he used to create two independent study courses while studying in college, in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi 4/12/15


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.

amor_mundi_sign-upA Poet of Ordinary Life

toni morrisonIn a long profile of Toni Morrison, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tries to define the arc of the novelist's career: "On one level, Morrison's project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. This is the project most readily understood and accepted by even her least generous critics. But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, 'You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I'm glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn't built for you or by you.' Here, blackness isn't a commodity; it isn't inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It is a project that, although ignored by many critics, evidences itself on the page. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes black life--regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn't sell out concert halls or sports stadiums--complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation. It is both aphorism and beyond aphorism, and a result has been pure possibility."

Offense Heard Everywhere

claudia rankineNick Laird in the New York Review of Books writes about the poetry and essays of Claudia Rankine. Rankine describes everyday slights that condition her experience of being black, what increasingly are called "microaggressions"--those daily and often unconscious and unintended slights that individuals perceive as burdensome and deadening. The dialogue around microaggressions can be helpful insofar as people of all races reach across divides and try to understand each other. But too often the discussion of microaggressions is itself an aggressive accusation. Then attention to microaggressions takes over one's life. As Laird writes: "This is how racism works: it blocks the possibility of living an undefended life. For those who know 'the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day,' every incident is a possible example of it. In an open letter discussing 'The Change,' a poem by her erstwhile colleague the poet Tony Hoagland (Rankine maintains that 'some readers perceived [it] to be...racist' and Hoagland maintains that it is 'racially complex'), she writes that 'when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.'"

The Woman in Pain

woman traumaThe corollary of microaggression in feminism today is trauma, something explored by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review. "Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter's manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born--yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another. I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity--and from the way pain became a polemic.... If you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach. If you are wounded, you get to say that any portrayal of a woman as lying or manipulative is harmful to the culture and all of the future wounded women. If you are wounded, you get to control what is said and thought about you, and you get to try to create a criticism-free world."

amor_mundi_sign-upCan We Have an Intelligent Debate?

RFRAOver at Commonweal, Paul Horwitz has produced perhaps the most intelligent commentary yet on Indiana's religious freedom law and its impact on gay and lesbian rights. Horwitz worries that the quality of debate is so poor as to make questionable our capacity to have public debates about difficult and important questions: "That the debate is playing out so publicly and with such fervor is understandable, even commendable. It speaks to how far our society has come in a short time on the question of the equal dignity of gays and lesbians. For those who have long yearned for such recognition, questioning the quality of this debate may seem like mere carping--like caviling over the proper placement of commas in the Declaration of Independence. But the quality of this discussion matters. Nothing, I think, will--or should--stop the basic recognition of gay rights, and the heat of the current debate in part reflects this inevitability. But the details are still in flux, especially regarding same-sex marriage, and the current debate will surely affect some of the particular details of our new social settlement. Moreover, this debate raises questions about our very capacity to engage in the kind of thoughtful, careful public discussion that serious issues like this demand. By that standard, there is good reason to be dispirited. The public furor over Indiana's religious freedom law, or 'RFRA,' was long on heat and short on light. There is a difference between attempting to persuade by careful reasoning and simply trying to play on emotions or rely on rhetorical tropes. Public arguments needn't observe the rules of the seminar room, of course. But it may be possible to offer a few tips to inoculate readers against some of the more questionable or manipulative arguments." The rest of Horwitz's essay considers three common misconceptions around the religious freedom debate. It is necessary reading for anyone who wants to think intelligently about the contest of religious freedom and full rights for gays and lesbians. As Horwitz concludes: "It is difficult for any one legal system to fully recognize both LGBT rights, broadly understood, and religious freedom--also broadly understood. No; it is impossible. It is important nevertheless that we try--and that, when the contest produces winners and losers, we are candid about it, rather than try to pretend that there was no real conflict to begin with because one side was wholly unreasonable. We should have high expectations about what our public discourse looks like, do our best to hold ourselves to those expectations, and treat with caution anyone whose arguments fall short. Contrary to the old saying, not all is fair in love or war. This is a culture war about love: the right to love one's partner, and one's God. The stakes are high. But even this war has rules."

A Still Divided House

rfraEven though the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox was this week, David W. Blight thinks that the Civil War never ended: "Yet Appomattox was not the end of the war. Three more military surrenders occurred over the next month and a half. On April 26, at a farmhouse called Bennett Place between Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Further west in Alabama, on May 4, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops east of the Mississippi River. And finally, on May 26, in Arkansas, General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the remainder of a Confederate trans-Mississippi army. Formally, the hostilities were over; the affair of arms and exhausted soldiers, indeed the dying, seemed at an end. But these apparently conclusive and clean surrenders masked the difficult and conflicted post-war era that would follow. The war ended with revolutionary and lasting results that echo down to the present day--especially in the two broad questions of racial equality and federalism. A great deal of American political, constitutional, and social history can be read through these two broad, likely eternal challenges."

Finding Time

time booksOliver Burkeman thinks he knows why it's so hard to find time to read well: "In fact, 'becoming more efficient' is part of the problem. Thinking of time as a resource to be maximised means you approach it instrumentally, judging any given moment as well spent only in so far as it advances progress toward some goal. Immersive reading, by contrast, depends on being willing to risk inefficiency, goallessness, even time-wasting. Try to slot it in as a to-do list item and you'll manage only goal-focused reading--useful, sometimes, but not the most fulfilling kind. 'The future comes at us like empty bottles along an unstoppable and nearly infinite conveyor belt,' writes Gary Eberle in his book Sacred Time, and 'we feel a pressure to fill these different-sized bottles (days, hours, minutes) as they pass, for if they get by without being filled, we will have wasted them.' No mind-set could be worse for losing yourself in a book."

The World Beyond Your Head

matthew crawfordMichael S. Roth, in a thoughtful review of Matthew Crawford's The World Beyond Your Head, asks what the world of distraction means for us as people and as educators. "The concern isn't just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we've come to depend on; it's that we can't control our own responses to them. 'Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to--that is, what to value,' Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that 'silence is now offered as a luxury good.' That isn't just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: 'Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.' And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it's really bad for us. 'Distractibility,' Crawford tells us, 'might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.' We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people. We may not be in a bike-repair shop, but we are always somewhere."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

joy connollyThe Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly

Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.

Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bard College, Aspinwall 302, 6:00 pm


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #7

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Location TBA, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anabella di Pego encourages us to see Arendt's support of institutionalizing civil disobedience as a chance to evaluate our democratic institutions in the Quote of the Week. American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we reflect on how Hannah Arendt was a "who's who" in 1974-5--just one year prior to her death at the age of 69--in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Hannah Arendt Library: The Age of the Democratic Revolution


On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Library at Bard College, we came across this copy of R. R. Palmer's The Age of the Democratic Revolution, Volume 1: The Challenge.

democratic revolution(1)
In his book, Palmer theorizes that the years between 1760 and 1800 marked a significant advance for democracy, with the American, French, and Polish revolutions, as well as several other political movements, all manifesting the same democratic ideals.
democratic transformation(2)

Hannah Arendt inserted several annotations into her copy. On one particular page, (See below.) she used two vertical lines to mark two passages of text.

The first reads: "With the Declaration of Independence, and the new constitution which most of the states gave themselves in 1776 and 1777, the revolutionary colonials began to emerge from the anarchy that followed the collapse or withdrawal of British power."

The second proceeds as follows: "The new lawfulness in America was embodied in the new constitutions, which will be considered shortly. Meanwhile, what happened in America was against the law."

democratic transformation(3)

On the opposite page, (See below.) Hannah Arendt wrote the comment "no transition time!" in response to an account of the shortcomings of the French revolutioanry government.

She also used a vertical line to mark a footnote that reads "What the United States has missed by having no returned émigrés, or real counterrevolution within its own borders, may be seen in the work of the Canadian Arthur Johnston, dedicated to the loyalists, the 'true heroes of the Revolution.'"

democratic transformation(4)

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library? Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu, and we might feature them on our blog!

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Video Archives – Peter Beinart Presents ‘The Crisis of Zionism’ (2012)

israel flag

Thursday, April 26th, 2012: A book presentation on The Crisis of Zionism

Participants: Peter Beinart, an American journalist who writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as on issues of Jewish identity more generally. He is the author of The Crisis of Zionism.

Peter Beinart spoke at Bard in April 2012. His talk, “The Crisis of Zionism,” was a kind of brief manifesto of his take on what liberal Zionism, his politics of choice, should mean. As a liberal Zionist, Beinart believes in the fundamental compatibility of Jewishness and democracy—the two founding principles of the State of Israel. Regarding the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he personally believes that the creation of a separate Palestinian state and Israel’s embrace of Zionist discourse that facilitates greater dialogue and cooperation can help create a way forward. Not surprisingly, this position has invited criticism from multiple directions.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?


Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Amor Mundi 7/6/14

Amor Mundi

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.

A New Puritanism?

PuritanIn a Fourth of July column on openDemocracy, Jim Sleeper invokes the Puritan tradition in America as a symbol of what we have lost: "Puritan beliefs had nourished in the embattled farmers (and, even long before 1775, in some of the Puritans themselves) a conviction that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God" and "The Puritan founders of America's oldest colleges ... expected that those colleges' graduates would serve a theocratic state that would control markets and everything else." Sleeper doesn't wish for a new Puritanism, but he does believe we need to imagine new ideals for America: "I'm not suggesting we can or should return to Puritanism! Anyone expecting to recover that faith and way of life is stumbling up dry streambeds toward wellsprings that have themselves run dry. But we do need wellsprings that could fortify us to take risks even more daunting than those taken by the embattled farmers. We'd somehow have to reconfigure or abandon empty comforts, escapes and protections that both free-market conservatives and readers of Salon are accustomed to buying and selling, sometimes against our own best hopes and convictions."

Reading and Misreading the Declaration

declaration_of_independenceIn her new book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, Danielle Allen argues that we have been reading a mistaken transcription of the Declaration of Independence. Allen argues that the grammatical period typically inserted between the sentence on inalienable individual liberties and the sentence on the right to good government is not there in the original Declaration of Independence. In short, when Jefferson invoked those "self-evident" and "inalienable" rights of "all" men, he did not intend only the rights of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but also the right to good government. Quoted in the New York Times, Allen says, "The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.'" And Jennifer Schuessler adds: "But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments - 'instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed' - in securing those rights. 'The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,' Ms. Allen said. 'You lose that connection when the period gets added.' Correcting the punctuation, if indeed it is wrong, is unlikely to quell the never-ending debates about the deeper meaning of the Declaration of Independence. But scholars who have reviewed Ms. Allen's research say she has raised a serious question." Read more at the Arendt Center Blog.

Oversharing and Self-Promotion as Fine Art

InstagramRiffing on the way fine artists, photographer Richard Prince in particular, are using the photo-sharing app Instagram, Ben Davis uses John Berger's 1972 book Ways of Seeing. Berger draws connections between fine art and more popular fare as a model for understanding today's propensity for oversharing images of one's life: "Isn't it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.) Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art. Last year, Slate speculated about how Instagram's photo-boasting tends to amplify feelings of isolation, perhaps even more so than the more textual braggadocio of Facebook and Twitter. ('Seeing, Berger writes, 'comes before words.') One expert described how Instagram in particular might accelerate the 'envy spiral' of social media: 'If you see beautiful photos of your friend on Instagram,' she postulated, 'one way to compensate is to self-present with even better photos, and then your friend sees your photos and posts even better photos, and so on. Self-promotion triggers more self-promotion, and the world on social media gets further and further from reality.'"

In Search of Missed Meaning

Daniel_MendelsohnIn an interview that maps his love of Proust to his work translating the Greco-Egyptian poet C.P. Cavafy, Daniel Mendelsohn describes the joy and importance of rereading In Search of Lost Time: "I don't think it's a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician-depending on which pair of lenses you're given to try, you're either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses-with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage-the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I'm not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I'm also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust's novel I couldn't before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It's an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life."

Give Up the Right to Return

Noam ChomskyIn a piece that is sure to be a controversial, Noam Chomsky argues in The Nation that in order for the peace movement to be effective, it must re-evaluate its goals and tactics in accordance with the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Chomsky, supportive of a two-state solution, argues that to give peace a chance the left needs to abandon the goal of the Palestinian right of return: "The opening call of the BDS movement, by a group of Palestinian intellectuals in 2005, demanded that Israel fully comply with international law by '(1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; (2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and (3) Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.' This call received considerable attention, and deservedly so. But if we're concerned about the fate of the victims, BD and other tactics have to be carefully thought through and evaluated in terms of their likely consequences. The pursuit of (1) in the above list makes good sense: it has a clear objective and is readily understood by its target audience in the West, which is why the many initiatives guided by (1) have been quite successful-not only in 'punishing' Israel, but also in stimulating other forms of opposition to the occupation and US support for it. However, this is not the case for (3). While there is near-universal international support for (1), there is virtually no meaningful support for (3) beyond the BDS movement itself. Nor is (3) dictated by international law. The text of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 is conditional, and in any event it is a recommendation, without the legal force of the Security Council resolutions that Israel regularly violates. Insistence on (3) is a virtual guarantee of failure."

Enlightened Self-Interest

1Nick Hanauer has a message for his fellow .01% of the wealthiest Americans. "But let's speak frankly to each other. I'm not the smartest guy you've ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I'm not technical at all-I can't write a word of code. What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?I see pitchforks. At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country-the 99.99 percent-is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent. But the problem isn't that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution. And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won't last."

This Week on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han explores two modern examples of exceptionalism as claims to power in the Quote of the Week. American artist Florence Scovel Shinn provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We take a look back at our 2009 fall conference in the new Video Archives segment. And Roger Berkowitz reexamines the Declaration of Independence and the role of good government in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Independence Day: Reexamining America’s Core Ideals


Independence Day began for me at the Nantucket Unitarian Universalist Meeting House where a packed crowd braved an impending hurricane to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights alongside some vigorous patriotic singing. I had never heard the Declaration read aloud before, but one recalls that it is a declaration and meant to be read. Also striking is that the bulk of the Declaration is concerned with listing the ills and wrongs suffered at the hands of King George.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".

Arendt on the Declaration of Independence



"Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic"
Bonnie Honig
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 97-113

Arendt often emphasizes the ramifications of the modern loss of authority for politics. Without faith in traditions or gods, humanity now continually faces the problem of legitimacy in government. To put it more concretely, in the modern age: “[t]hose who get together to constitute a new government are themselves unconstitutional, that is, they have no authority to do what they set out to achieve” (Arendt, On Revolution, quoted in Honig 98). In this article Bonnie Honig, professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, argues that in her work on the American Revolution Arendt goes beyond pessimism to recast the question of founding the state by distancing it from higher powers.


Arendt points out that the Enlightenment thinkers of the American Revolution were surprised by the novelty of their actions, which quickly outstripped their conception of political reform as restoration (the classical definition of revolution). As they sought to theoretically ground their deeds, they faltered at the ramifications of their radically secular act and inserted references to essentialist elements such as “self evidence” and a higher power. Arendt regrets this because she sees the true advance of the American Revolution as the insight into the role of argument and persuasion between people in the absence of a higher standard of truth.

Using the terminology of speech act theorist J.L. Austin, Honig argues that for Arendt the Declaration of Independence succeeds as a “performative” act that creates a new institution that does not rely on the “constative” truths of gods or tradition. In the text of the Declaration, Honig places particular emphasis on Arendt analysis of the phrase “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Using the term “we hold” indicates a creative moment very different from a simple statement of fact along the lines of “these truths are self-evident.” Through this creative priority, the American Revolution changes the very conception of revolution. It does not simply seek to refound authority in the classical sense, which would be impossible in this age. Indeed, trying to go back to tradition at gods is in Arendt’s view the cause of the failure of so many 19th and 20th century revolutions. Honig writes that:

Only the modern conception of authority is viable for modernity because it requires for its sustenance not a shared belief in particular deities or myths but a common subscription to the authoritative linguistic practice of promising (102).

People choose to accept the promise of the new social contract when writing the constitution and this shared orientation alone grounds the government. Honig notes though that Arendt does not sufficiently discuss the hidden commonalities that allow people to make such promises. In other words: the promise is a structure, even a ritual, that one must be trained to rely on. She turns to Derrida’s article "Declarations of Independence" to look at this precondition of the promise. While Arendt focuses on the “we hold,” Derrida focuses on the “we” of “we the people. Rather than accepting the promise as an answer to the problem of founding, he sees it as a moment of a leap in which the community of the “we” itself first comes into being. In its rhetorical form though, this “we” also seems like it must have already been there and therefore creates an undecidable moment between the constative and performative.

From the point of view of Derrida’s analysis, Honig sees Arendt as unjustifiably longing for a “pure performative” that would start the new state. Her point is complex and surprising, since Honig in effect accuses Arendt of going too far away from reality and reference. Derrida, who is more often associated with the supposedly relativistic meme “there is nothing outside the text” actually insists in this essay that there has to be an obscure moment in which the “we” both preexisists the Declaration and comes into being with it.


As strict as Honig’s opposition between Derrida and Arendt is at this point, at the end of the article she notes that Arendt’s “we hold” also has a constative moment that should be acknowledged. In this context, and in the broader scope of Arendt’s challenge to metaphysical ideas such as God, natural law, etc., she proposes the concept of “resistibility” as an Arendtian way of approaching Derrida’s concept of “intervention.” For Honig, both thinkers work within a challenge to authority rather than simply seeking to escape it.

While Honig stays with the difficult structure of the founding moment of modern politics, from a narrative perspective her article also suggests that the confusing undecidability of the “we” might also offer a way to perceive a change in the status of “the people” over the course of the founding of the state. To this extent, the “we hold” that Arendt discusses could actually work just as well, since it indicates a new subjective orientation of the framers: with this formulation they virtualize, in other words put some distance, between themselves and truth. This distance, perhaps no less mysterious than God or truth, but more open to debate, ‘grounds’ the modern state.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Secondhand Gun Smoke


"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."

Hannah Arendt, On Violence

The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons.  Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012:  the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.

Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.

LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One.  But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.

That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals  how to use firearms.

Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.

Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power.  Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.

American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All.  And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.

In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.

In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.

In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence.  And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.

The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.

Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.

Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally.  Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.

Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.

While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.

In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.

-Lance Strate


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Reflections on an Inaugural Address


I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.

The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.

In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:

 Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution.  We affirm the promise of our democracy.  We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names.  What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.

Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.

When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal.  This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.  We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.  We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.

How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?

And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements.  Well here is what he said:

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time.  So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher.  But while the means will change, our purpose endures:  a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American.  That is what this moment requires.  That is what will give real meaning to our creed.   We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.  We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.  But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.  (Applause.)  For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.

If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?

More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.

Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.  The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.  They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.

That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.

The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.

The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.