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.
Judith Shulevitz skewers the increasing prevalence of safe spaces on college campuses. She talks of a Brown student who, "alarmed" that a speaker was coming to campus to debate and criticize the term "rape culture," went to the administration and had them organize a competing lecture affirming rape culture and safe spaces "available for anyone who found the debate too upsetting." "The safe space, Ms. Byron explained, was intended to give people who might find comments 'troubling' or 'triggering,' a place to recuperate. The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma. Emma Hall, a junior, rape survivor and 'sexual assault peer educator' who helped set up the room and worked in it during the debate, estimates that a couple of dozen people used it. At one point, she went to the lecture hall--it was packed--but after a while, she had to return to the safe space. 'I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,' Ms. Hall said. Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being 'bombarded' by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints. Think of the safe space as the live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material." Shulevitz investigates how "the quasi-medicalized terminology of trauma" is mobilized by student activists to force university administrators to censor speech and shut down debate. Colleges are not intended to be safe spaces but spaces of tumult and inspiration. It is distressing how universities have rolled over and adopted safe spaces, trigger warnings, and speech codes in an effort to palliate young people who have been misled regarding the strictures of the life of the mind. When Hannah Arendt wrote "there are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous," she expressed a simple point: Thinking risks destroying and upending your common sense and your most cherished beliefs. All thinking risks negating one's identity and values. Which is why thinking harbors within itself the danger of nihilism. But the only thing more dangerous than thinking, Arendt insisted, was thoughtlessness. While thoughtlessness may appear safe, its long-term consequences are the uncritical acceptance of ideologies. Only the dangerous and difficult work of thinking, Arendt believed, might be able to prevent the rise of thoughtless horrors like totalitarianism. It is time we made our colleges and universities once again safe for dangerous thoughts.
Amichai Magen has a long and intense account of the dangers posed by the rise of Salafist Jihad to Europe. He insists that we stare the threat in the eye, which means first understanding it. "This violent utopianism inspires Salafist jihadism's vision of conflict, society, and politics. To their mind, the Ummah (or 'community of believers') is in a state of total war with the West, 'the Jews', and other non-believers, including apostate Arab regimes and Shia Muslims. This war not only justifies acts of extreme violence against those who have conspired to 'suppress the true faith'--beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions and rape--but involves the rejection of all forms of man-made law, democracy, and the Westphalian international system. Indeed, Salafist jihadism is contesting the essential values and institutions of modern liberal societies in a manner not experienced by the West since the defeat of Nazism." Salafism, writes Magen, is an ideology as was Nazism, one that has both the strengths and weaknesses of all ideologies. One weakness of ideological movements is that their members are not psychopaths: "Reducing terrorist motivation involves both short-term deployment of sticks and carrots and deeper, societal counter-radicalisation efforts. Although their values and conduct are abhorrent, terrorists are rarely psychopaths. Most terrorists calculate their action based on the dual logics of consequentialism and appropriateness. Accordingly, the motivation of would-be perpetrators can be greatly reduced where intelligence makes the likelihood of early detection high, the chances of escaping an attack low, legal sanctions against involvement in terrorist activity of any kind tough and, at the same time, the benefits of lawful citizenship and integration into society are visible and attractive. The best way to deal with a terrorist threat is to prevent its emergence or spread. Understanding processes of radicalisation and developing effective de-radicalisation policies ought therefore to be at the heart of European-Israeli dialogue about prevention of Islamist political violence. Studies of Islamic groups in Europe are somewhat encouraging in this area, finding that although young Muslim men in many European communities often feel frustration and humiliation they have to be actively radicalised by others to cross the line into terrorist activity. Contrary to popular myths about spontaneous internet-based radicalisation of lonely and unhinged individuals, the process of radicalisation is almost always a social one. Peer-pressure, systematic indoctrination, separation from general society and repetitive training--which can more readily occur in prisons, secluded religious centres, remote training camps, or in fighting abroad--are typically preconditions for getting vulnerable recruits to cross the line into terrorist activity."
Sue Halpern wonders after our future in the age of technological unemployment: "There are physical robots like Jibo and the machines that assemble our cars, and there are virtual robots, which are the algorithms that undergird the computers that perform countless daily tasks, from driving those cars, to Google searches, to online banking. Both are avatars of automation, and both are altering the nature of work, taking on not only repetitive physical jobs, but intellectual and heretofore exclusively human ones as well. And while both are defining features of what has been called 'the second machine age,' what really distinguishes this moment is the speed at which technology is changing and changing society with it. If the 'calamity prophets' are finally right, and this time the machines really will win out, this is why. It's not just that computers seem to be infiltrating every aspect of our lives, it's that they have infiltrated them and are infiltrating them with breathless rapidity. It's not just that life seems to have sped up, it's that it has. And that speed, and that infiltration, appear to have a life of their own." Nearly 70 years ago, Hannah Arendt wrote that the second most threatening event of the modern age was the "advent of automation." Automation, she predicted "will empty the factories and liberate man-kind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity." The danger of automation, she argued, was that it threatens to realize a long-held dream of humanity: to free ourselves from labor itself. The problem, in Arendt's telling, is that we are at the precipice of freeing ourselves from labor at the very moment when we value labor above all else; the old "higher and more meaningful activities"--religion, family, nobility, tradition, public service, and war--for which freedom from labor might be won have been lost. The absence of meaningful life without a job is why the prospect that automation might actually deliver us from labor is so terrifying.
Greg Beato explores the exploding market for edutainment and the "academization of leisure." "What does it mean when people who can afford to spend their time however they please hunker down in front of their flat screens to watch theoretical physicists or experts on other subjects lecture for hours? Entertainment values have come to dominate many aspects of life, but another trend has been playing out, too. Call it the academization of leisure. It can be found in the live-streaming TED Talks lectures, the Great Courses, learning vacations, podcasts, science centers, brain-training games and retirement communities like Lasell Village in Newton, Mass., whose residents must complete 'a minimum of 450 hours of learning and fitness activity each calendar year,' its website says." Edutainment has long had negative connotations, Beato writes, some of which were described by Neil Postman in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. "In it, [Postman] argued that culture's primary mode of discourse was shifting from print to TV, and that as a result, 'politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce' had all been 'transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business.'" For Beato, the new paradigm moves beyond mere amusement: "In 'Amusing Ourselves to Death,' Mr. Postman lamented that a former Hollywood actor could be president. Now, former presidents are replacing professional entertainers as the top-billed stars on cruise ship vacations. Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, will visit with Smithsonian Journeys participants in Gdansk this summer. César Gaviria, former president of Colombia, will be on hand on a National Geographic Expeditions cruise off South America this fall. While lunching with celebrity politicians on luxury cruises may seem frivolous, what has actually happened is that a purely recreational activity has acquired new intellectual ambition. 'There's an increasing demand for meaningful experiences,' says Lynn Cutter, National Geographic's executive vice president for travel and licensing. 'When people have choices on how to spend their money, they're valuing experiences more than material things.'"
Walter Russell Mead offers some plain analysis of the impact of Benjamin Netanyahu's win for the future of U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu's campaign comment that he rejects the two-state solution threatens to "have a chilling effect on U.S.-Israel relations that will outlast President Obama's time in the White House. It will also deepen Israel's international isolation and put useful weapons into the eager hands of Israel's enemies in Europe and elsewhere.... The belief that every people on Planet Earth has the right of self-determination is deeply engrained in American political and moral culture. Historically, supporters of Israel benefitted from this widespread American belief. That conviction cannot be turned on and off; support for the goal of a Palestinian state is a permanent feature of American politics. Americans are, I think, prepared to show some understanding both for the difficulties of Israel's position and the problems caused by the deep structural issues within the Palestinian movement, but it would be extremely difficult to build a long term U.S.-Israeli relationship on the basis of the rejection of Palestinian national rights. There is a minority of Americans, perhaps on the order of a quarter, whose support for Israel is strong enough (or theologically grounded in certain evangelical readings of Scripture) to embrace an Israel that sets itself openly against the goal of a Palestinian state. Other Americans are so worried about terrorism and radical Islam that they are willing to support Israel no matter what stand the Jewish state takes or doesn't take on the Palestinian question. But there are enough Americans (and, additionally, enough American Jews) whose support for Jewish self-determination in Israel is linked to support for Palestinian self-determination in a Palestinian state that U.S.-Israeli relations will be significantly and progressively harmed if Israel's leaders choose to close the door on Palestinian statehood."
Frank Cottrell Boyce remembers fantasy satirist Terry Pratchett, who died last week after an illness: "We live in a society whose culture is driven by fear of death. We adore youth. We pay for science that extends life rather than enriches it. In his life and in his work, Death--'not cruel, just terribly terribly good at his job'--was the final and finest target of Pratchett's satire. In Mort--Pratchett's most popular novel--Death takes on an apprentice so he can have some time to himself. As he learns to appreciate life, so the apprentice comes to appreciate Death.... This twist is at the heart of Pratchett. In an age of fundamentalisms, he embraced doubt, the possibility that a stupid belief might have something going for it, whereas an obvious and rational truth might get you nowhere. I hope that that is the twist he is enjoying today--that having dismissed all hope of an afterlife, he is sitting on a cloud with Jonathan Swift and Swift is saying: 'By Jesus, Terry, I wish I'd written Truckers.'"
Rod Dreher worries that we've abandoned the humanities because we've lost the light: "But I think it's also true that we as a society have lost the sense that within the study of art, literature, and the humanities, there are things vital to shaping our souls, and to discovering and taking into ourselves what it means to be fully human. That Homer, Dante, Milton, Cervantes, Michelangelo, and all these great men saw more deeply into the human experience than almost any other, and came back to tell us what they learned, and to help us see what they saw. In the end, I think it comes down to a deadening of the soul among our people--that is, a sense that there is no need to learn or to experience anything beyond what we desire to learn and experience, because our desires are self-justifying, and do not need cultivation."
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
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: Is Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty and Promoting Freedom 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 Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
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, Lance Strate discusses how Arendt teaches us about the mutability of privacy in the Quote of the Week. American botanist Luther Burbank provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of "The Age of the Democratic Revolution" in our Library feature.
I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.
The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.
In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.
Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.
When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal. This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?
And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements. Well here is what he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?
More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.
Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.
That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.
The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.
The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.