Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
7Feb/160

“Why Are Americans So Angry?”: Remembering Imagining Crisis

Josh Kent celebrates at Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, caucus night rally, Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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By Ian Storey

“The logic is clear--propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state… The public relations industry not only took this ideology on very explicitly but also acted on it, that’s a huge industry, spending hundreds of… by now probably on the order of a billion dollars a year on it or something and its commitment all along was to controlling the public mind.”

-- Noam Chomsky

It has been a strange week for the opening of the American primaries with the Iowa Caucuses. But perhaps strangeness is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it is exactly what a truly vibrant democracy thrives on, as both Chomsky and Arendt in Origins of Totalitarianism suggest. The unexpected is the stuff on which true participation, and not the mere playing out of propaganda, is made.

Ian Storey
Ian Storey (B.A., Dartmouth College; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political theorist who teaches at Harvard University and is an associate fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Some of his research interests include the political and artistic history of interwar Europe, democratic theory, and concepts of social embeddedness.
17Jan/160

Amor Mundi 1/17/16

Arendtamormundi
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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-upGlimpsing the Fascist Tendency

donald trumpElizabeth Drew argues in the NYRB that the successes thus far of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a revolutionary moment in American politics. "A revolution is taking place in our presidential campaign. Though no one has voted yet and the polls--especially nationwide ones--shouldn't be taken too literally, there's every indication in both parties that what's termed the political establishment is being rejected. We're some distance from the end of the nomination contests, though perhaps not in the Republican race: if Donald Trump were to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire it's hard to see how he can be stopped. So far, the talk of a savior entering the race is only that, and to make such a challenge would be daunting. Those who've ventured to predict the outcome and gone by past patterns haven't had it right. Politically, this country is in a new place. It's best to ignore suggestions of historic parallels. As of now, the anti-establishment candidates in both parties--Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans, and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats--are either well ahead of or giving close chase to the rest of their respective fields. That shouldn't be a surprise. The public mood has been building toward this situation. Leaders in both parties are seen as having failed various tests and are being rejected. The complaints against the status quo are similar among Democratic and Republican voters. In fact, so alike is the dissatisfaction that there are indications of a possible large crossover vote; in a recent survey, nearly 20 percent of Democratic voters say they would vote for Trump in a general election. Some of the complaints are familiar, but a striking one is new. The most familiar--and bipartisan--grievances are that the middle class has been squeezed; that wages haven't kept up; that the divide between the very rich and poor continues to grow. These are deeply felt issues, despite the fact that, in recent months jobs have been coming back and unemployment, at just 5 percent (among those who've remained in the job market), is half of what it was when Obama took office, an achievement that virtually no one expected. A sleeper issue, however, has also finally come to the fore: the corruption that infects our political system. It had long been said that the public doesn't care about this matter, but upset over the gradual loss of control of our political system to those who can buy it is now palpable. For very different reasons, both Trump and Bernie Sanders are seen as incorruptible."

Drew is right. Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are succeeding not only because of their policies but at least in part because they are perceived by their followers as authentic and incorruptible. Trump is famously vague about policy, simply asserting he and American will win. Sanders, while more politically practiced and less reality-challenged than Trump, too has lean policy prescriptions. Sanders promises that he is mobilizing a movement that will break through decades of gridlock and remake the nation. As do Trump and Cruz, Sanders places great importance on his ability to inspire and lead a mass mobilization. The seduction of Sanders, Trump, and Cruz is that they actually believe what they say, that they do want to mobilize a wave of supporters who will weed out the crooks and revitalize the American dream. There is a real possibility that for the first time in my political life, we might have a presidential election between major-party candidates who actually speak from conviction. That is something new, possibly revolutionary.

On another level, however, Drew is too quick to baptize our present moment with revolutionary credentials. Our representative institutions have been corrupted. There is anger and frustration on the left and the right. But what is the answer? Trump channels anger against immigrants, minorities, and even Wall Street. Sanders channels anger against Wall Street but also against the political and business establishments, not to mention what he calls the "billionaire class." What Trump, Cruz, and Sanders offer is an ideological politics perfectly calibrated to our angry era.  There is some chance Trump, Cruz, or Sanders will be our next president. If one of them wins, there will be joyful redemption on one side and resentful anger on the other. Trump and Sanders know that the legitimacy of our American institutions is compromised. They have mobilized masses with populist messages. They are not wrong. This is a first step toward real change.

What is missing, however, is what Hannah Arendt once referred to as a "real analysis of the existing situation," a recognition of the uniqueness of our current situation and a new way forward. The candidates can't be faulted for the fact that they don't have solutions. Nobody seems to. But a politics of anger rarely blooms into a rose. A revolutionary situation, Arendt writes, "need not lead to revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, it can end in total anticlimax; it need not lead to anything." With the candidacies of Trump, Cruz, and Sanders, justifiable anger is raising the stakes in a dangerous game. Which is why Drew rightly concludes her essay with a warning: "The anger, fear, resentment, racism, and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a turbulent situation. This is a situation prone to undermining our democratic system. It's not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We're not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed."--RB

Campus Consent

campus sexual assaultJessica Bennett reports about how students and college campuses are trying to fix the problem of sexual assaults on campus by changing how they educate about what consent is--a task which is harder even than it sounds: "Campuses like Trinity's have thick handbooks full of sexual assault resources, filled with pages upon pages of legal definitions and situational scenarios. But that doesn't mean that students necessarily understand the new policies. Yes, 'consent' is now emblazoned on T-shirts and posters--it was the subject of a recent public service initiative at Columbia, 'Consent is BAE,' that was criticized by students--but even that does not ensure that students can define it. 'I think it's when two people agree to have sex, yeah?' a young woman, a junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said when approached on a recent day in Manhattan and asked if she could define 'affirmative consent.' 'Isn't that when only yes means yes? But not really?' said another woman, a dance and fashion major at N.Y.U. 'I know what consent is; is this different?' said a young man, a sports management major, also at N.Y.U. And there is a whole new vocabulary to memorize, with terms like 'enthusiastic consent,' 'implied consent,' 'spectrum of consent,' 'reluctant permission,' 'coercion' and 'unintentional rape.' Even 'yes means yes,' the slogan of the anti-rape movement is sort of confusing. 'It should be "Only yes means yes,"' said Dr. Brod, the sociologist. (And if you still can't tell, then ask.)" As any first year law student knows, consent is one of the trickiest concepts in our moral universe. Can silence signal consent? Can actions or behavior mean consent? When is consent rescinded? What is knowing versus impaired consent? Can one consent to be enslaved? Is it permissible to consent to be violated? The effort to make sex consensual is laudable. But the demand for consent is hardly a silver bullet that will prevent unwanted and non-consensual sex. This is above all the case because so often we, and especially young people, don't know for sure what we want.--RB

Knowing the One Percent

paul singerMichael Massing has published a two-part story in the NYRB calling for a new form of journalism dedicated to covering the business, philanthropic, and political activities of the 1%. "Even amid the outpouring of coverage of rising income inequality, however, the richest Americans have remained largely hidden from view. On all sides, billionaires are shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes, polishing their images--and carefully shielding themselves from scrutiny. Journalists have largely let them get away with it. News organizations need to find new ways to lift the veil off the superrich and lay bare their power and influence. Digital technology, with its flexibility, speed, boundless capacity, and ease of interactivity, seems ideally suited to this task, but only if it's used more creatively than it has been to date." Massing offers a number of preliminary examples of what he has in mind. One concerns Paul Singer, CEO of the hedge fund Elliott Management. "Looking more closely at these individuals, I became fascinated with Singer. He seems to typify the ability of today's ultrarich to amass tremendous power while remaining out of the limelight. Singer did receive a flurry of attention in late October when news broke of his decision to back Marco Rubio's presidential bid, but it quickly faded, and he moved back into the shadows. Going online, I found out (from Forbes) that Singer is worth about $2 billion. He is the single largest donor to the Republican Party, with his money going overwhelmingly to candidates who support free enterprise and oppose regulation. (A major exception is his support for groups promoting gay rights and same-sex marriage; his son is gay.) From the Times I learned that the fund-raisers Singer hosts in his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side can net more than $1 million a session, and I read in The Wall Street Journal that he was instrumental in the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012. In a detailed profile of Singer in Mother Jones, Peter Stone noted that Elliott Management has frequently been called a '"vulture fund" because a chunk of its profits comes from buying distressed companies' or countries' debt at a steep discount.' In 2012 a subsidiary of the firm, seeking to extract full payment from Argentina for some bonds on which it had defaulted, had an Argentine naval vessel impounded in a Ghanaian port. In 2004, Singer contributed $5,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked John Kerry's war record, badly damaging his presidential bid. Since then, he has given generously to American Crossroads and the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has backed many Tea Party candidates. Singer's influence, though, extends far beyond that. He is chairman of the board of the Manhattan Institute, a member of the board of Commentary magazine, and a major donor to the American Enterprise Institute. He has given to and/or sat on the boards of several organizations dedicated to a strong Israel, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; the Republican Jewish Coalition; the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that sponsors trips to Israel by members of Congress; and the Israel Project, a group dedicated to boosting Israel's image. From 2008 to 2011, Singer gave $3.6 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has worked tirelessly to isolate and sanction Iran. All of these groups were active in the campaign to kill the nuclear deal with Iran. As I examined their interlocking boards and overlapping missions, I became aware of the enormous political, financial, and lobbying infrastructure behind that campaign. From Paul Blumenthal at The Huffington Post I learned that four hawkish-on-Israel billionaires--Singer, Sheldon Adelson, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, and Seth Klarman, the head of the private investment house Baupost--gave a combined $11.5 million to anti-Iran groups from 2011 through 2013 (while also giving $115 million to Republican Party Super PACs in the 2012 and 2014 elections). A parallel array of groups (led by J Street and the Ploughshares Fund) worked to support the deal, but as Eli Clifton pointed out at LobeLog, the anti-Iran groups opposing it had operating budgets nearly five times as large as those in support. Despite the nonstop coverage of the debate over the nuclear agreement, this network remained largely hidden."

Click Away

readingPaul La Farge believes that we shouldn't be so worried about what the Internet is doing to reading: "A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet's flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called 'the shallows,' a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr's view, the 'endless, mesmerizing buzz' of the Internet imperils our very being: 'One of the greatest dangers we face,' he writes, 'as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is ... a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.' There's no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips... The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades--little jumps--and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse's cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote."

amor_mundi_sign-upStruggle

hitler mein kampfAfter being illegal for over 60 years, Mein Kampf may once again be published in Germany. Adam Gopnik wonders whether Mein Kampf remains a dangerous book: "the striking thing about the text as a text is that it is not so much diabolical or sinister as creepy. It is the last book in the world that you would expect a nascent Fascist dictator to write. Most of us--and most politicians in particular, even those who belong to extremist movements--try to draw a reasonably charismatic picture of our histories and ourselves. We want to look appealing. An evil force may emerge and temporarily defeat the narrator, but that force is usually placed against a childhood of a purer folk existence, now defiled. That's the way most politicians' campaign memoirs still work, for instance. Hitler, whom we suspect of being an embittered, envious, traumatized loser, presents himself as . . . an embittered, envious, traumatized loser. The weirdness of this is especially evident in the earlier autobiographical chapters. His resentments are ever-present. His father was dense, mean, unforgiving, and opaque. ('My father forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art. I went one step further and declared that if that was the case I would stop studying altogether. As a result of such "pronouncements," of course, I drew the short end; the old man began the relentless enforcement of his authority.') His schoolmates were combative, his schoolmasters unappreciative. The petty rancor and unassuaged disappointments of a resentment-filled life burn on every page, in ways one would think might be more demoralizing than inspiring to potential followers.... 'Mein Kampf' is a miserable book, but should it be banned? I could certainly sympathize with any German who would like to see it kept illegitimate; some speech should, in fact, be off-limits. But is it a dangerous book? Does it circulate sinister ideas best kept silent? Putting aside the book's singularly creepy tone, it contains little argumentation that wasn't already commonplace in other, still-circulating anti-Semitic and extreme-right literature. Hitler's character remains bewildering, in the obvious mismatch between the extent of his miserableness and the capacity of his will to power, although perhaps it should not be--many other personal stories suggest that miserable people have the will to power in the greatest intensity. But his themes are part of the inheritance of modernity, ones that he merely adapted with a peculiar, self-pitying edge and then took to their nightmarish conclusion: the glory of war over peace; disgust with the messy bargaining and limited successes of reformist, parliamentary democracy and, with that disgust, contempt for the political class as permanently compromised; the certainty that all military setbacks are the results of civilian sabotage and a lack of will; the faith in a strong man; the love of the exceptional character of one nation above all others; the selection of a helpless group to be hated, who can be blamed for feelings of national humiliation. He didn't invent these arguments. He adapted them, and then later showed where in the real world they led, if taken to their logical outcome by someone possessed, for a time, of absolute power. Resisting those arguments is still our struggle, and so they are, however unsettling, still worth reading, even in their creepiest form."

Leave No Test Behind

testingIn a previously unpublished essay, Aaron Swartz considers the history of complaints about American education and the way that the testing regime we've recently emerged from affected students: "The single-minded goal of maximizing test scores has been a blessing for the textbook market, which forces schools to buy expensive 'evidence-based curricula' which has been 'proven' to maximize test scores. The packages include not only textbooks and workbooks but also scripts for the teachers to read verbatim--deviating from them hasn't been proven to raise test scores, and is thus prohibited. The package also comes with trained supervisors who drop in on teachers to make sure they're actually sticking to the script. The effect on the students is almost heartbreaking. Taught that reading is simply about searching contrived stories for particular 'text features,' they learn to hate reading. Taught that answering questions is simply about cycling through the multiple choice answers to find the most plausible ones, they begin to stop thinking altogether and just spout random combinations of test buzzwords whenever they're asked a question. 'The joy of finding things out' is banished from the classroom. Testing is in session." Swartz stops at high school, but the way that standardized testing teaches students to learn has stunning effects after they've graduated and gone away to college. As a graduate student teaching assistant at a major public research institution, I'm always amazed at the kind of questions students ask about their tests: they're much more concerned with the way the test will be structured and the point breakdown of each section than with the material they need to know to do well on the test, almost as if they believe that all they need to be prepared for the test is to be good at taking tests. If testing were the answer to a problem with education in America, it would almost certainly be the wrong one; in her essay "The Crisis in Education," Hannah Arendt writes that such a crisis "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides." From a naive point of view, these tests are designed to address gaps in knowledge (the crisis). But if testing suggests anything, it's that the answer to the question, in Arendt's phrasing, "of why Johnny can't read" isn't to teach more things and then test them on it. Instead of bemoaning what students don't know, we should be enticing students to figure out what they don't know and then give them the writing, research, and critical thinking skills that enable them to go explore on their own, that is, the facility to make their own judgments. Among the myriad ways that American public education fails its students, this one is among the most serious. No test is going to give them the curiosity they need to face the world they were born into.--JK

#YouAintNoMuslimBruv

leytonstone stationIan Storey writes about the twitter hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, a recorded response from an unidentified bystander to the terrorist attack in London at Leytonstone Station in which two were severely injured in a knife attack by an individual claiming his acts were in the name of "Syria". The bystander is heard saying, "You ain't no muslim, bruv. You're an embarrassment". Storey writes: "The temptation would be to think that the unidentified bystander is simply denying the attacker his religiousness. Certainly, the figure seems to self-identify as Muslim himself. But there is something much deeper in his statement, which was hurled in anger for a minority population already under social siege. Indeed, there is a denial that violence terrorismus--in Kant's terms, violence that justifies itself only in terms of the descent and not the positive possibility of humanity--is itself justifiable under the terms of a religion. Yes, in this case, the speaker speaks of Islam. But again, an underlying claim made the quote resonant on social media. That claim is one that resonates with Arendt's account of action and her critique of Pericles: that justification and action can be claimed but not claimed authoritatively or in permanency and never at the expense of another, for action is only ever action in the world of others. For the speaker, if one believed in Adonai, or G-d, or Allah, the very definition of the name denies terrorismus, the belief that human life can only decline into violence, and that one can be an agent of it. Whoever said 'You ain't no Muslim Bruv' was not suggesting that the attacker did not believe in Allah; he was suggesting 'you're an embarrassment', that if it were truly religiosity motivating the attack at Leytonstone, it would never have happened in the first place."

Kooks

david bowieGlenn Hendler in the LARB appreciates David Bowie's song "Kooks." "'Kooks' is written entirely in the form of a direct address. However, the addressee is a newborn infant--indeed, a very specific, personal one, the child he'd just had with his wife Angela. Then known as Zowie Bowie, and referred to next to the song's title on the handwritten back cover of Hunky Dory as 'Little Z,' he has grown up to be the film director Duncan Jones. The song's conceit is that the singer is asking whether the child is willing to 'stay in our lovers' story' even though its parents are 'a couple of kooks/hung up on romancing.' He confesses that the child will need 'a book of rules/on what to say to people when they pick on you/because if you stay with us you're gonna be pretty kooky too.' The only part I recall liking, each time it came around (skipping a song being played on vinyl did take some effort, after all) was the 'school's out' bit at the end: 'And if the homework brings you down/then we'll throw it on the fire/and take the car downtown.' As a child in public school in the Common Core era, who has lots of homework even in first grade, my son thinks that's a hilarious idea.... But my point is that I heard--everyone heard--'Kooks' in a context that had very little to do with reproductive heteronormativity. What David and Angie Bowie projected at that moment was a radically alternative model for living. And the fact that they included in that model a song about having a baby accentuated the fact that this was a model for adult life. Plenty of rock stars produced images of perpetual youth, and especially of perpetual adolescence (including, by the 1970s already, rock stars who were no longer adolescent youths). But Bowie--in his public persona--taught that adulthood could be complicated, thrilling, unfixed. That he was sixteen years older than I was helped, of course. But so did the fact that he was self-consciously part of a younger generation than the already 'classic rock' stars of the 1960s. He knew exactly the demographic he was addressing when he wrote in 'All the Young Dudes' from the perspective of someone whose brother was 'back at home/ with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/What a drag/Too many snags.'"

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #17

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, February 5, 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, 5:00 pm - 7:00 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.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

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

The Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA - THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

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 week on the Blog, Ellen Rigby discusses how the authority of teachers lies, at least in part, in their ability to set aside judging and to present the world as it is to their students in the Quote of the Week. David Bowie reflects on how judgment and negative thinking can stifle creativity in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. A supporter of the HAC discusses understanding and humanity as an initium in this week's Library feature. Finally, Ian Storey reflects on the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv as a symbol of humankind's ability to resist a kind of violence that is bound to doctrine.

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.
7Dec/120

What is a Fact?

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What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.

Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]

For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.

Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.

The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'

Immanuel Velikovsky

It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.

No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.

Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”

Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.

Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.

The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.

What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.

When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.

-RB

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".