Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
3Jan/160

Amor Mundi 1/3/16

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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-upFresh

u.s. presidentJonathan Rauch notes that the rule of 14--"No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency"--may be coming to an end. Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate 16 years ago. Jeb Bush 18 years ago. Many of the leaders have zero political or military experience. Rauch writes: "Well, there is nothing magical about the number 14. What matters about the rule is not the exact number--14 versus (say) 12 or 16--but its reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job. That is a perfectly sensible preference--but one that appears to be declining, at least on the Republican side. A real break with the rule's inner logic would be the election not of someone with two or four too many years of political experience, but of someone with no political experience at all. That day seems to be drawing closer. The chart below shows the experience level of presidential winners and losers from 1960 to 2012. (For the purposes of this graph, experience equals years between first election to a governorship, a Senate seat, or the vice presidency and election to the presidency; the trend lines do not change much if House experience is included.) Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing. Moreover, as the trend lines show, the inexperience premium has increased over time. That makes some sense: As voters have grown angrier with government, they have become more receptive to outsiders. Republicans, in general, are especially angry with government, so no one will be surprised to learn that since 1980 their presidential candidates have had, on average, three to four years' less experience than the Democrats' candidates.... Two generations ago, in 1962, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a prescient book, The Amateur Democrat, in which he pointed out that political amateurs who were unyielding in their righteousness had begun supplanting the political professionals who were willing to make deals and compromise. The ascendency of amateurism, he predicted, would cause social friction and governmental gridlock: 'Political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party's ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.' That is a disagreeably accurate description of where we find ourselves today. It suggests why amateurism is a much better qualification for The Apprentice than for high political office. Being fresh is one thing. Half-baked is another." The lack of experience in political leaders is now a well-worn truism. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each had singularly thin resumes for the office of President. In New York, Michael Bloomberg was a neophyte, as is Bill de Blasio. At a time when we want the next new thing for the holidays and we are easily bored if we can't watch an entire TV show in two nights of binge watching, we want our political leaders new and fresh. Experience is out. The ingénue is in.

Cartesian Dualism

brain surgeryKarl Ove Knausgaard, who traveled to Albania to witness a kind of brain surgery that needs to be performed while the patient is awake, describes what it was like to look at a human brain. He sees a kind of visceral beauty--the article's title calls it "terrible beauty"-- in the brains he observes, extraordinarily delicate and yet responsible for all he knows. He looks into the joints and muscles of thought, all of which enable a body to move through the world: "I bent over the microscope again. The view this time was quite different. It was as if I were looking into an enormous grotto, at the bottom of which lay a pool filled with red liquid. Sometimes water came splashing in from the right, as if from a huge hose. I had never seen anything like it, for the walls of this grotto were so obviously alive, made of living tissue. Along the edges of the pool, above the red surface, the walls were ragged. Behind the innermost wall, seeming to swell out slightly, like a balloon about to burst, I glimpsed something purple. When I stepped aside to make room for Marsh again, I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy. I had looked into a room, unlike any other, and when I lifted my gaze, that room was inside Hasanaj's brain, who lay staring straight ahead under the drape in the larger room, filled with doctors and nurses and machines and equipment, and beyond that room there was an even larger room, warm and dusty and made of asphalt and concrete, beneath a chain of green mountains and a blue sky. All those rooms were gathered in my own brain, which looked exactly like Hasanaj's, a wet, gleaming, walnutlike lump, composed of 100 billion brain cells so tiny and so myriad they could only be compared to the stars of a galaxy. And yet what they formed was flesh, and the processes they harbored were simple and primitive, regulated by various chemical substances and powered by electricity. How could it contain these images of the world? How could thoughts arise within this hunk of flesh?"

amor_mundi_sign-upFearless

houellebecqMichel Houellebecq's latest novel was recently translated into English as Submission. One of the novels I read over the holidays, Submission offers a no-holds-barred attack on agnostic, academic, Enlightenment values. The reason seems to be that Houellebecq is convinced that the Enlightenment is dead and that life without religion may not really be possible. Hence the title and the main plot point that a moderate Islamic Party led by a charismatic and brilliant leader could become President of France in 2022. Houellebecq articulates some of his views in a revealing interview with Sylvain Bourmeau in the Paris Review.

"PR: I don't see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.
MH: Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot's ticket who wore the veil, there's a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.
PR: But I don't understand the connection with racism ...
MH: That's because there is none. Objectively speaking, there is none. When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of 'racism' by inventing the crime of islamophobia.
PR: The word may be badly chosen, but there do exist forms of stigma toward groups or categories of person, which are forms of racism ...
MH: No, islamophobia is not a kind of racism. If anything has become obvious, it's that.
PR: Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because it's against the law.
MH: I think that's just false. I don't agree.
PH: You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.
MH: I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I've spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One's first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can't say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can't be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it's a different skin color ...
PR: No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
MH: But now you're asking words to mean something they don't. Racism is simply when you don't like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn't got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can't stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
PR: But since, from a biological point of view, 'races' don't exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
MH: But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing ... Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn't like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That's what racism is.
PR: Or because his values or his culture are ...
MH: No, that's a different problem, I'm sorry.
PR: Because he is polygamous, for example.
MH: Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let's go back to anti-Semitism, because we've gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It's not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory--there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there's an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it's because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks ... It's a conspiracy theory.
PR: But in Soumission, isn't there a conspiracy theory--the idea that a 'great replacement,' to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?
MH: I don't know much about this 'grand replacement' theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That's not the subject.
PR: It's not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.
MH: No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We've seen it happen before, it could happen again.
PR: You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?
MH: Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear."  

For Houellebecq, there is a novelist's delight in watching the Enlightenment implode. But it is not the delight of the nihilist, the one who avows nothing and takes joy in destruction. Perhaps even scarier to many, especially those defenders of the Enlightenment, Houellebecq welcomes what he calls a necessary return of God to politics and to life--he even welcomes Islam as a regenerator of values in Western society. He accepts this fact and all its consequences. Above all, he argues, "feminism is demographically doomed." Submission is fearless, which makes it worth reading. 

Imagined Campuses

college studentsHua Hsu considers what he calls the "imaginary college student," the one at the heart of all the fretting about what is or is not possible to talk about at colleges and universities: "Consider the trajectory of the typical twenty-something, born in the early nineties, a product of the test-oriented No Child Left Behind educational model. This hypothetical student came of age during the Obama era, with a new understanding of America's future demographics, at a moment when the narrative of a red and blue America was firm orthodoxy. This student's first Presidential election may involve Donald Trump. Identity politics, in the world this student knows, are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party. Within this context, where large swaths of the so-called real world have already surrendered to cynicism, perhaps direct action and protests, even in the name of seemingly minor causes, are the only politics that still makes sense. It is tempting to conclude that what is happening is simply a rerun of what always happens, this time in the age of aggregation. But I'm not sure what we accomplish by insisting that nothing new is going on, or by suggesting that students simply try harder to belong. It seems similarly unhelpful to belittle an archetype, questioning the sources of their esteem or reading their motives in bad faith. The imaginary college student is a character born of someone else's pessimism. It is an easy target, a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what's often called the millennial generation. But perhaps it goes both ways, and the reason that college stories have garnered so much attention this year is our general suspicion, within the real world, that the system no longer works. Their cries for justice sound out of step to those who can no longer imagine it. Maybe we're troubled by these students' attempts to imagine change on so microscopic a level. Maybe they interest us as a litmus test for the political future--one with different frontiers and more vociferous demands. There is a naïve idealism at the heart of student protest, which might be desperate or loud but never as cynical as the world that necessitated it. Today's youth should be understood in terms of the choices available to them, not the world they've inherited. Let college kids be, many of us say, for they are no weirder than we were. It's a comparison meant to be generous, since past generations, we think, turned out more or less O.K. This flatters the old, not the young."

Grown Ups and Little Ones

raffiIn an article written by Sheila Heti, the children's musician Raffi wonders aloud whether making music for children is that different than make music for adults: "Raffi doesn't have any grand theories about why his music has been so successful, but he credits a group called the Babysitters as early inspiration. While researching children's albums in the mid-'70s, he noticed that 'what I liked best as an adult listener was music that was not cloying and overly syrupy. I knew that I wanted to sing with love and respect and also be playful. You're not going goo-goo ga-ga. Why would you? I just tuned in to my own compassion for the little boy I had been when I was very young. I think compassion guided me through the music and my career.' This also affected his choice of songs; on his Christmas album, he decided not to include 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' because of the lyric 'He knows if you've been bad or good.' 'I mean, it's a cute song lyric, but it's not okay in terms of how we ought to see children. Everybody's good and bad. It doesn't mean you don't get presents at Christmas.' Although he doesn't sing much for adults anymore, it wouldn't be hard to switch. He says the main difference between singing for adults and children is 'the material, obviously. If I'm singing a love song, I treat that the way the song needs to be treated. You go with the repertoire. But I am who I am when I'm singing, that doesn't change.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #16

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, January 8, 2016

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


A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that "Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on "A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó '60 Conservatory Building, 4:30 pm - 9:00 pm


Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm 


vita activaVita Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA - THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the "Banality of Evil" when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt's life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta's biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA


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 holiday week on the Blog, Samantha Hill discusses how Arendt's The Human Condition forces us to ask the question "What does it means to be at home in the world?" in the Quote of the Week. Also, Sherwood Anderson comments on the suppression of a human being's "deep well of thinking" in this week's Thoughts on Thinking.

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.
16Sep/130

Amor Mundi 9/15/13

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Arendtamormundi

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.

Juvenile U

moocsquareIn the Weekend Read on Friday, Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs. While MOOCs can be valuable, we need to distinguish the practice of education from the business of knowledge dissemination. “At the same time, however, there is a second aspect of education that seeks to afford the child “special protection and care so that nothing destructive may happen to him from the world.” The teacher must nurture the independence and newness of each child, what “we generally call the free development of characteristic qualities and talents… the uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other.” The teacher must not simply love the world, but as part of the world in which we live, the teacher must also love the fact—and it is a fact—that the world will change and be transformed by new ideas and new people. Education must love this transformative nature of children, and we must “love our children enough” so that we do not “strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” Alongside its conservationist role, education also must be revolutionary in the sense that it prepares students to strike out and create something altogether new.”

The Public Need Strong Private Lives

votingEmma Green considers a recent study that suggests that widows and widowers are less likely to vote than others in their respective demographics. In so doing, she provokes us to reflect on Hannah Arendt’s insistence that an engaged public sphere depends upon a vibrant private realm. Green concludes: If “public life seems less important when private life collapses, then it's also worth looking at the inverse: Do strong relationships and stable private lives make people better citizens? It's well established that people who are married vote more than those who are not, said the authors, and this study provides evidence that this isn't a coincidence of age or stage of life -- influence from a spouse is part of the reason people vote." Green shows that the crisis of the educated citizen—which is the topic of the Hannah Arendt Center’s Oct. 3-4 Conference at Bard College—flows at least in part from a related diminishment of private life.

Crimes and Translations

catcher“Over the Abyss in Rye.” That is the traditional title of The Catcher in the Rye in Russian. Reed Johnson writes that the Communist “Party authorized the novel’s translation believing that it exposed the rotting core of American capitalism.” In the New Yorker, Johnson explores the outrage caused by Max Nemtsov’s new translation of The Catcher in the Rye into Russian. Nemstov’s title, “Catcher on a Grain Field” begins with this first paragraph: “If you’re truly up for listening, for starters you’ll probably want me to dish up where I was born and what sort of crap went down in my childhood, what the ’rents did and some such stuff before they had me, and other David Copperfield bullshit, except blabbing about all that doesn’t get me stoked, to tell you the truth.” According to Johnson, “Nemtsov employs a mélange of English-language calques, Russian provincial speech, neologisms, slang originating in Soviet prison camps, and contemporary hipsterish lingo. The mixture of unconventional speech is deliberate: advocates of foreignizing like to claim that such “marginalized” language, through a bizarre sort of syllogism, best represents the absolute difference of the foreign original. In other words, the Soviet prison slang in Nemtsov’s translation is actually meant to stand in for the original’s foreignness—its Americanness—for the Russian reader."

Bring on the Adjuncts?

teacherThe rise of the MOOC has forced college Professors to defend themselves against the charge that computers can do their jobs better than they can. Now, on the other side, a study at Northwestern concludes that lowly-paid adjuncts are more effective teachers than their highly-paid senior colleagues with tenure. "There are many aspects relating to changes in the tenure status of faculty – from the impact on research productivity to the protection of academic freedom," the study says. "But certainly learning outcomes are an important consideration in evaluating whether the observed trend away from tenure track/tenured towards non-tenure line faculty is good or bad. Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem," says the paper.” The trend to “full-time designated teachers,” in the turgid prose of this study, furthers the overarching trend of turning college education into high school education, with standardized tests, learning goals, and unending assessments. Anyone who cares about the life of the mind should be worried; but the culprit is the professoriate themselves, who continues to defend the status quo of jargon-filled research and overly-specialized teaching. If we don’t return universities to sites of intellectual fervent, the bureaucratic reformers will turn them into glorified high schools.

Featured Events

annaliaSeptember 18-20, 2013

Annalia 1933

A Three Day Festival at FDR Library & Bard College

Learn more here.

 

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Educated Citizen in Crisis"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

 

 

minimovieOctober 13, 2013

Hannah Arendt: A Film Screening, Lecture, and Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

One Day University

Learn more here.

 

From the Arendt Center Blog

John LeJeune gives us the Arendt quote of the week and considers the place of language education in the education of the citizen. Roger Berkowitz shows how Arendt’s essay  "The Crisis in Education" can help make sense of the debate about MOOCs.

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.
1Jul/130

Un-shared Worlds

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Arendtquote

“Don’t hold your breath, ‘cause the pretty things are going to hell…”

-David Bowie

In the social spheres in which I circulate, both personal and electronic, reactions to the Supreme Court’s twin same-sex marriage rulings Wednesday have tended to fall fairly neatly into one of two categories, each sprinkled liberally with that unique brand of wry humor that long, bitter struggles breed.  On one side, the watch-phrase of the day is that it is “the end of an era,” a legal victory so pragmatically important and symbolically immense as to mark a break with a past of marginalization and oppression, a coda or at least a caesura in a national timeline of violence.  On the other side, there is a weary gladness that nevertheless casts a wary eye at the map of state-level battles won, and cautions that jubilance be tempered, slightly at least, with the reality that the race is still quite far from run.

flag

You hear relatively few of those somber cynics of the legal system who otherwise are generally keen to point out that historically, grand Supreme Court victories tend not to turn out very well for civil rights movements in the end.  Then, these tend to be a disagreeable sort to invite to a victory party, anyway.

In that description of my social world, though, lie the seeds both of a kind of beautiful promise and a form of quiet peril in this political moment that is easily lost behind the spectrum of satisfaction and still images of weeping couples.  And how and if and what we capture and carry from this moment hinges, a little at least, in whether or not we can find it in ourselves to tarry on these two things for a time, before resuming our march to where we will have been.  These musings should be taken for no more than that: no parades are meant to be rained on here, nor cynics bashed, nor innocence dispelled by piercing insight.  Simply a tarrying.  A more homemade kind of caesura.

Supreme Court decisions always reveal as much in what they do not settle as in what they do, and the palette of reactions I’ve described does too.  In both cases it is the unsettled, the absent which is both silent and intrusive.  It didn’t strike me until I began to work on this that I know literally not a single person who supported the Defense of Marriage Act (at least I don’t know that I do, which would simply signal another part of the same difficulty).  Not one, and my places of birth generally make the politics of my friends rather diverse (or perhaps more appropriately, in the older sense, queer).  And if that or something close to that experience is a fairly widespread one when we tarry long enough to notice – and I think it is, on both sides of the coin – that is deeply troubling, or ought to be deeply troubling as we paint each other pictures over tables and glasses of the road to come.

Some of the bitter fractiousness that marked Washington’s heights has died down a bit in recent months…this morning brought an until recently unthinkable immigration bill through the Senate, and while it faces a bloodier road in the House, that it may yet reach to foot of the road at all is an extraordinary thing, viewed through the eyes of ourselves a year younger.  But the at least temporary waning of the sheer, violent ugliness of that divisiveness should not obscure the deeper truth that was revealed in those days of “death panels” and other repeated invocations of cold, dead hands.  That the nation is deeply politically divided is facilely true, but also true of nearly all of its short history.  But it is possible that we face now something new, or at least a dangerous new incarnation of an old imp from our democracy’s outlands.

One of the reasons some activists will now focus on finding state-level legal cases in which to use the emphasis on dignity in United States v. Windsor’s majority  and Kennedy’s quite sweeping description of DOMA’s violation of equal protection is that there is a fear in parts of the movement that, without the power of the court, there remain what might be called “The Unreachables”: a handful of states (or more) in which opposition to non-hetero marriages is so entrenched that they cannot be won politically for the foreseeable future.

states

The idea of the Unreachable hints at something much deeper than a simple statistical diversion of views.  If this were the only problem, then demographic trends are, if too slow for some couples who still wait to marry, at least strongly on the movement’s side.  One of Hannah Arendt’s consistent concerns across her writings is the possibility of shared worlds.  Underlying the idea of the unreachable state, whether or not it is recognized, is the possibility that the divergences in politics between various parts of this country are only the symptoms of a deeper reality that individual experiences of the world around them are so different, share so little in common from which to draw a common weal, that in some politically and socially salient sense they are no longer sharing a world.  And in a nation with an ideologically divided media culture, extraordinary and accelerating wealth disparity, and any number of structural mechanisms that favor political extremism over moderation, there is more to this worry than we might be willing to admit.  If I try to cast my soul into the shoes of an evangelical preacher – whose experience of consumption may be far different from mine, whose experience of events of the outside world comes to her or him described in terms immensely unlike mine and contain figures barely recognizable to me, whose social frames and urban structure are radically disparate from my own – who is today mourning with all sincerity, and not cheering…in that moment it’s not moral difference that concerns me, as Scalia invoked in his dissent.  It is the vanishingly thin fabric of a jointly sensed world that seems at stake, a jointly sensed world from which a nation has to be imagined.

There’s a sense in which the one thing that Supreme Court decisions do not do, ironically, is decide.  At least, they do not decide much: they must be interpreted by lower courts and in the process extended or evacuated, they are subject to legislative challenge and circumvention, they have to be enforced and pursued by those outside the legal system.  In that sense, at least, a Supreme Court decision is not an end to anything, let alone an era, and this is why proponents of non-hetero marriage have cautioned each other against over-optimism, the piece of truth in the curmudgeonly dismissal of the power of the High Court.  But this essential malleability and chimeric strength becomes a particularly acute problem when filtered through the problem of un-shared worlds.  There will be some, in those 36 states that have banned non-hetero marriage (a fact which formally at least remains unchallenged by United States v. Windsor) who will be swayed by the rhetorical and symbolic power of Kennedy’s words, that handful that will actually be heard.  But those words, such few of them as trickle down the communicative chain, and the content of the decision, will by necessity be received filtered through social worlds both rich and rigidified.  And as sociopolitical soil for Kennedy’s words, some of those worlds are very hostile worlds, indeed.

But in another way, that is exactly the promise in moments like Kennedy’s decision.  What’s important about decisions, contra their image and verbiage, is precisely that they are never an end to anything.  Their more significant function is not their symbolism, but that they begin.

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The irony of a legal judgment is that, from the moment it is uttered, it becomes itself the subject of judgment.  It is judged by lawyers, it is judged by lawmakers, it is judged by commentators…and it is judged by janitors and welders and artists and firefighters, equally.  And as we circle our collective judgments around a mass of words uttered into our national vocabulary, a possibility is born.  Certainly, we may simply pat our social selves on each other’s backs, and revel in our joy (or anger) that we know already to be shared.  That’s not such a terrible thing itself.  But the greater promise of the day, and the institution, is that it begins something that is shared, however thinly, between Farragut, Tennessee and Coolidge, New Mexico.  It raises the possibility that our thoughts and judgments, a few at least, through those connections that remain in our worlds across lines built by mobile histories, might find their way into corners of other worlds.  It is in those moments, those moments when we are confronted by someone who is a part of our lives, national or personal, for whom the experience of the day is profoundly different, that a thin tissue of sharing an object of judgment is vital.  It may lead to the discovery of commonalities, it may lead to violent disagreement along all-to-familiar lines, but either way, a language is being born across worlds.  Here, in this issue, that language is a language around what is most intimate to us, the most precious and tumultuous and defining parts of our lives: our lives with intimate others.  And if we can share our lives with intimate others across the bounds of un-shared worlds, even in fraction and splice…then that world will not remain so un-shared, and another small bridge has been built between that which joins ourselves and our partners, our friends, our paramours, to each of our impish outlands.  And that, that is cause for hope.

-Ian Storey

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.
3Jan/130

Shadow Dance of the Fiscal Cliff

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The Hannah Arendt Center has followed the shadow dance of the fiscal cliff less for its fiscal than for its political lessons. While a deal was struck, it is hard not to be impressed by the breakdown of our political class. Like the Europeans, we are now officially kicking the can down the road, refusing to address our meaningful problems. There is, in short, no political will and no political leadership with the courage and willingness to act in ways that might help us imagine a new way out of our predicament.

One could say it is the fault of voters. But there is a funny thing happening in politics. The House of Representatives, which is supposed to be the most populist of the major branches of government, is the one branch of government that is calling loudly for painful spending cuts and resisting the rise of our out-of-control debt. True the House is calling for tax cuts, but so too did the Senate and the President. What distinguishes the House now is its insistence on cutting spending. The Senate and President—imagined to be more protected from popular will—are instead combining now to cut taxes, increase spending, and keep the gravy train of government-subsidized stimulus flowing. In a strange way, it is the political body most responsive to voters that is at least calling for change—even if the House Republicans refuse to be honest about what those changes would be or what they would mean. Why or how has this political inversion happened?

One of the few Senators who voted against the compromise is Michael Bennett, the Democratic Senator from Colorado who was supposed to be cliff jumping in Vail (it’s nice here!) but stayed in Washington to vote “No.” Interviewed by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Bennett says: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.” Bennett, a free thinking Democrat, knows that things have to change.

"The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.

But what is it about the system that needs to change? Some see this as simply a matter of policy. Nouriel Roubini, writing today in the Financial Times, thinks taxes need to go up for all Americans to help support a welfare state that is drastically underfunded and yet ever-so necessary:

Neither Democrats nor Republicans recognise that maintaining a basic welfare state, which is right and necessary in our age of globalisation, rapid technological change and demographic pressure, implies higher taxes for the middle class as well as for the rich. A deal that extends unsustainable tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans is therefore a pyrrhic victory for Mr. Obama.

Roubini may very well be right. But as he himself recognizes, the political will to exercise this transformation is simply not there. What that means policy wise, I do not know.

-RB

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.