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.
Justin P. McBrayer has an insightful column about the confounding and dangerous way schools are required by the common core to teach in ways that undermine moral facts. "When I went to visit my son's second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read: Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven. Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes." McBrayer rips these clichés to shreds, showing how the definition of fact encompasses both accepted truths and proofs, which are hardly the same thing. What is more, in opposing facts and opinions, the common core curriculum forgets that some facts are also opinions and vice versa, thus undermining any possibility of moral facts. "How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son's homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here's a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?
- Copying homework assignments is wrong.
- Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
- All men are created equal.
- It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
- It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
- Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
- Drug dealers belong in prison.
The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact. In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths." Moral facts and moral truths are those that are at once subjective and also universal, truths that are neither subject to proof nor questionable by thinking persons. Moral truths are shown, not proven, which is why both Kant and Arendt insist that examples are the core of moral education. We all know that copying homework and dealing drugs are wrong, just as we know that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. acted courageously and ethically in breaking laws; we don't need logical proofs or empirical studies to make moral judgments with conviction. And yet, increasingly our scientific age insists that truths are only those statements subject to logical or empirical proof, thus denying the very existence of moral facts and undermining the ethical foundation of the common world in which we live. The attack on ethical reality goes beyond our schools. It is not only the common core that denies the existence of moral truths; it is a Schande when the Federal Government imposes a curriculum that teaches our children that all opinion is false and only what is provable is true.
Peter Maass has two related essays in The Intercept about the two-tiered system of justice for leakers. In a long and revealing essay about Stephen Kim--a mid-level government analyst who leaked classified information to the journalist James Rosen--Maass focuses on the selective nature of the prosecution: "Kim had the particular misfortune of being a mid-level official. Senior officials tend to have powerful allies who can push back against the Department of Justice. This doesn't always protect them--Scooter Libby, who was Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was convicted in 2007 of obstructing an investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's name (though his sentence was later commuted by President Bush). But usually it helps. Top officials who have not been prosecuted for leaking include Leon Panetta, the former CIA director who, according to a report by the Defense Department's inspector general, leaked the name of the SEAL commando who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Another example is Gen. James Cartwright, who reportedly has been investigated as the source for a Times story on Stuxnet, but has not been charged. And of course there is David Petraeus, the former CIA director and four-star general who is being investigated for leaking classified information to Paula Broadwell, his former lover and authorized biographer. According to recent press reports, lawyers in the Department of Justice have recommended that Petraeus be indicted, but there's significant resistance because he is a popular figure with influential friends who have taken his side, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John McCain. While Kim sits in prison for talking to a reporter about a single classified document, Petraeus has not been charged for allegedly handing over multiple classified documents." In a second article written after David Petraeus was granted a plea that not only allowed him to avoid jail but permitted him to keep his lucrative job on Wall Street, Maass highlights the difference in the way Petraeus and Kim were treated: "Petraeus pleaded guilty to just one count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information, a misdemeanor that can be punishable by a year in jail, though the deal calls only for probation and a $40,000 fine. As The New York Times noted today, the deal 'allows Mr. Petraeus to focus on his lucrative post-government career as a partner in a private equity firm and a worldwide speaker on national security issues.'" The point is not that Petraeus should be fully prosecuted but that Kim's prosecution is strikingly a case of overkill, all of which calls to mind Arendt's somewhat mangled line about the public perceptions of the 1963 Frankfurter tribunals of mid-level Nazi bureaucrats: "The small fish are caught, while the big fish continue their careers."
Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a succinct and powerful summary of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into Darren Wilson's shooting of Michael Brown. "Yesterday the Justice Department released the results of a long and thorough investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. The investigation concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of federal law by Officer Wilson. The investigation concluded much more. The investigation concluded that physical evidence and witness statements corroborated Wilson's claim that Michael Brown reached into the car and struck the officer. It concluded that claims that Wilson reached out and grabbed Brown first 'were inconsistent with physical and forensic evidence.' The investigation concluded that there was no evidence to contradict Wilson's claim that Brown reached for his gun. The investigation concluded that Wilson did not shoot Brown in the back. That he did not shoot Brown as he was running away. That Brown did stop and turn toward Wilson. That in those next moments 'several witnesses stated that Brown appeared to pose a physical threat to Wilson.' That claims that Brown had his hands up 'in an unambiguous sign of surrender' are not supported by the 'physical and forensic evidence,' and are sometimes, 'materially inconsistent with that witness's own prior statements with no explanation, credible for otherwise, as to why those accounts changed over time.' Unlike the local investigators, the Justice Department did not merely toss all evidence before a grand jury and say, 'you figure it out.' The federal investigators did the work themselves and came to the conclusion that Officer Wilson had not committed 'prosecutable violations under the applicable federal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 242.' Our system, ideally, neither catches every single offender, nor lightly imposes the prosecution, jailing, and fining of its citizens. A high burden of proof should attend any attempt to strip away one's liberties. The Justice Department investigation reflects a department attempting to live up to those ideals and giving Officer Wilson the due process that he, and anyone else falling under our legal system, deserves." We should all take a deep breath and respect Coates' clarity. As for whether the local prosecutor did the necessary work or not, I don't know. But clearly the prosecutor came to the same conclusion to which the Justice Department and Coates now come, and they took action to encourage the grand jury to do the same.
In the same essay as he accepts the innocence of Darren Wilson, Ta-Nehisi Coates digs into the Justice Department's second report, the one that found systematic violations of civil rights throughout not only the Ferguson police department but also the entire legal system. Above all, the City of Ferguson saw its citizens, and predominantly its black citizens, as sources of revenue to be fined and cited rather than as citizens to be respected or even to be punished: "' Ferguson's law enforcement practices are shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson's own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities...' Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson's predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue... The 'focus on revenue' was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained 'even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables.' One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but 'discriminatory intent'--that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of 'racism without racists,' but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it."
In an interview, Zephyr Teachout outlines what she thinks is the problem with American political culture: "There's a big dream out there about wind and solar power. I think a lot of the reason people are attracted to the Keystone pipeline is because at least we're doing something. There's a fear that society will collapse if it's not acting. To contrast those actions with other actions is important in making it feel plausible. Maybe we must have the size of the dream meet the size of the threat. This is what's so hard about our current politics: things poll well, but people don't believe that politicians are telling the truth. Politicians might mention renewable energy, and the public will think, 'That sounds good, but I don't believe they're going to do everything they can to build those towers.' Or with campaign finance reform--they don't think that we actually intend to change the way money works in politics. Then citizens don't get very engaged. They think, 'Maybe that politician is just naïve.' Or, more often, people think that the politician is just part of a system, and whether they're lying or not doesn't matter. One of the most dangerous things about Fox News isn't that it's right wing but that it's nihilistic. It takes away the capacity to believe in politics. What were they thinking in 1900? Were they thinking the American system's broken and we should just give up? Why do we feel powerless but Pussy Riot doesn't? Why do we feel powerless but the protesters in Hong Kong don't? Why do we feel powerless? There is a strange feeling of powerlessness among us, even though we do have power."
Timothy Kudo, a Marine Captain, reflects on how killing for him has become banal. He tells of a time when he was asked to give an order to kill suspected insurgents: "The voice on the other end of the radio said: 'There are two people digging by the side of the road. Can we shoot them?'" Kudo responds according to both cliché and his training: "'Take the shot,' I responded. It was dialogue from the movies that I'd grown up with, but I spoke the words without irony. I summarily ordered the killing of two men. I wanted the Marine on the other end to give me a reason to change my decision, but the only sound I heard was the radio affirmative for an understood order: 'Roger, out.' Shots rang out across the narrow river. A part of me wanted the rounds to miss their target, but they struck flesh and the men fell dead." Kudo trained to kill and trained to learn how to justify killing, how to kill in ways that made the killing morally and physically acceptable. "For a while after I ordered the Marine to take that first shot, everything we did seemed acceptable. It revealed that killing could be banal. Each day would bring a new threat that needed to be eliminated. Bombs would drop, Marines would fire and artillery would blanket hills with explosions. I had a rough estimate of how many people we killed, but I stopped counting after a while." Kudo recognizes a problem here and writes: "If this era of war ever ends, and we emerge from the slumber of automated killing to the daylight of moral questioning, we will face a reckoning. If we are honest with ourselves, the answers won't be simple." But then he ends his essay with this: "I don't blame Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama for these wars. Our elected leaders, after all, are just following orders, no different from the Marine who asks if he can kill a man digging by the side of the road." The retreat to the "just following orders" justification is clearly here out of place. The point about Kudo and his marines is not that they were following orders but that they came to see the orders as right, even if the rightness of orders is complicated. This is clearly also the case for the two presidents. We see how precarious and difficult it is to make moral judgments when someone like Kudo instinctively flees the groundlessness of judgment for the safety of bureaucratic irresponsibility. What he forgets, however, is that in politics obedience and support are the same. The fact is, as Arendt writes, that those who kill are not simply obeying orders; they are supporting the political legitimacy of those orders, which is why we can never escape our personal responsibility to judge.
Parent and public school teacher Michael Godsey praises the private school because it requires students and parents to "buy in" to their education. Students that have a stake in their education, he thinks, are better students: "If the parents are paying tuition at an independent school--one that advertises an alternative approach to education and promotes a 'love of learning' as its cornerstone--they are publicly claiming a stake in a specific curriculum and pedagogy. They're not simply accepting the title of 'stakeholder' at the school that's chosen for their kids because of, say, geography.... I noticed the same effect of 'buying in' when I used to teach Advanced Placement English at another public school. By law, anyone was allowed to take the class, but the school encouraged every interested student to get a signature from a former teacher to vouch for his or her qualifications. The simple act of taking the initiative to procure a signature was enough to show 'buy-in': On the first day of school, every student had made a tiny but significant act that showed that they had chosen to be in this class. This served as implicit evidence that they cared about their education, at least a little bit." One of the most passionate and insightful defenses of private over public education comes from James Tooley, author of The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World's Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. Tooley spoke at the Arendt Center's Conference Failing Fast in 2013. You can watch a video of his talk here. (Click on Failing Fast and then scroll down.)
Jessica Gregg, on the other hand, has elected to take her kids out of private school in order to save money but also because she believes that public school students, who are handed much, much less, learn how to make more for themselves: "It turns out that our children didn't need to be one of a handful of precious kids in a classroom. They can handle the bigger classes, the dozens of children from different backgrounds. They can be OK and even, sometimes, great. We've learned that our kids aren't so extraordinarily fragile that they need to be bubble wrapped by us before they venture into the world. We've also learned that they aren't necessarily extraordinary at all. Or, to be more precise, that if they want to be perceived as extraordinary in the public school system, they had better be extraordinary. The school will not create extraordinary for them. We are lucky: The kids will receive a solid educational foundation in our local schools. And they can remain at that foundational level, or they can improve upon it. But it is up to them to take advantage of extra resources or to create those resources themselves. They have to be part of their own educational equation. Seth will be entering a public high school with an international baccalaureate program, classes in Chinese, and the option to take courses at the local university if he is not sufficiently challenged. But he has to seek these experiences and he has to be qualified. His ability to take advantage of these opportunities is contingent on him, not on our ability to pay for a school that will automatically provide them. Of course, down the road, we may regret this decision. We have to contend with the possibility that without the extra advantage that private school gives them, our children may no longer be considered super-special, super-educated, super-kids, zooming toward our version of their success. ('Yes, she'll be at Yale next year. It just seemed a better fit than Harvard.')"
Eli Saslow profiles Daniel Norris, also known as "Van Man," a top baseball prospect who lives off the grid. "HE HAS ALWAYS lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone; a hippie who has never tried drugs; a major league pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet. He is 21 and says he has never tasted alcohol. He has had one serious relationship, with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform. His newest surfboard is made from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never a Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.... For almost 80 years, his father and grandfather owned and operated a small bicycle shop in car-dependent Johnson City, and their store was not only a place to sell bikes but a way to spread their family values and popularize a belief system. Play outdoors. Love the earth. Live simply. Use only what you need. Norris spent his childhood outside with his parents and his two older sisters, going for weekend bike rides and hiking trips, playing football, basketball and baseball. In school, he was a varsity star in all three, but it was baseball--and particularly pitching--that most aligned with his personality. Being alone on the mound reminded him of being out in the wild, where he was forced to solve his own problems and wrestle with self-doubt. 'I was a good pitcher because I was already good at taking care of myself,' he says. 'I love having teammates behind me, but I'm not going to rely on them. It can get quiet and lonely out there when you're pitching, which drives some people crazy. But that's my favorite part.'"
"Figuring Rights: Wollstonecraft and the Right to Political Community
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 pm
Synopsis: A diverse group of South African actors tours the war-torn regions of Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to share their country's experiment with reconciliation. As they ignite a dialogue among people with raw memories of atrocity, the actors find they must once again confront their homeland's violent past, and question their own capacity for healing and forgiveness.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Weis Cinema, Campus Center, 6:30 pm
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
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 email@example.com.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Invite Only. RSVP Required.
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!
This week on the Blog, Thomas Wild discusses how the transformation of thinking and acting into works of art permeates Arendt's understanding of the world conceived by humankind in the Quote of the Week. American author and social activist Howard Zinn provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate Hannah Arendt's collection of the works of German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling in our Library feature.
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.