Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
8Dec/140

Amor Mundi 12/7/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-up
Who The Police Kill

police blackDara Lind on Vox looks into the controversial number of police killings every year. A minimum of about 400 people are killed annually by what the FBI calls "justified police homicides"--but the actual number is likely much higher (see FiveThirtyEight). Within these statistics, those killed are predominantly male. About 50% are white, the rest largely black or Hispanic. But one important difference concerns the age of the victims: "The SHR lists 118 victims of 'justifiable homicide' who were killed while fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest--not because they were attacking anyone. And 102 of those weren't killed with a rifle or a shotgun but with a handgun. In these 102 cases, the necessity of the officers' use of force is the most ambiguous. And in these 102 cases, the victims are more likely than in any other justifiable homicide categories to be black.... John Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute says these numbers indicate that many white justifiable-homicide victims are killed by police who are intervening in a domestic-violence dispute. Broader research on all types of homicide, he says, shows that victim and offender ages fall into a few distinct groups: 'You see one peak with little kids with infanticide, one peak with teenagers shooting each other, and then you see another big blip where the age of the victim and the offender are the same and they could be in their 30s, 40s or 50s. And that's mainly domestic violence. So when you see whites being shot by police officers, who are older than their early 20s, that's almost certainly domestic violence.' The concentration of death among young black and Hispanic men, meanwhile, is in part a demonstration that those are the people most likely to encounter police officers. They're the ones most likely to be arrested, and most likely to be living in the neighborhoods where police most frequently patrol."

The Daughter Against The Archivist

saskia sassenMarc Parry profiles Saskia Sassen, author of Global Cities, and daughter of Willem Sassen, the Nazi who is now famous for his interviews with Adolf Eichmann. Amidst an account of Sassen's innovative work on globalization, Parry gives Sassen's reaction to the stories being told about her father, most recently in Bettina Stangneth's book Eichmann Before Jerusalem. "But, to my surprise, Sassen hasn't seen that movie. Nor has she read Stangneth's book. And the longer I speak with Sassen about her father, the clearer it becomes that her account clashes with Stangneth's. Willem Sassen, in his daughter's description, is a more palatable figure. A bit of a fanatic, yes. A journalist aligned with the Nazis, yes. But a man whose great passions were theater and journalism. In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, Stangneth describes how Willem Sassen grew infatuated with Hitler in his youth. She tells me how, after Eichmann's capture, Sassen protected the murderer by manipulating the transcripts of their discussions and never going public with the original recordings. (Stangneth found no evidence that Sassen had betrayed Eichmann to the Israelis.) Stangneth's book also describes how, in a 1991 interview on Argentine TV, Sassen continued to justify Josef Mengele's 'experiments' on Auschwitz victims. By contrast, Saskia Sassen tells me that her father 'did not like the Nazis.' She emphasizes how he clashed with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. 'My father detested Hitler,' she says. 'He detested him.' And the Argentina circle? The dreaming of Nazi restoration? Willem Sassen's attempt to discredit 'propaganda' about the Holocaust? 'That's not what I remember,' she says. In her telling, Willem Sassen comes across as a mouthpiece for local Nazis. He wrote for them but ranted about them at home. The 'ridiculous texts' he produced were 'to have an income,' she says. At another point in our conversation, Sassen says, 'My father was more a journalist--a journalist wants to discover stuff--than he was pro-Nazi, actually.' It's not that Stangneth is lying in her portrayal, she tells me. 'But she was dealing with archives.... She doesn't understand, in my home, what I experienced.'"

Seeing The World Through Others' Eyes

white resentmentTo think, Hannah Arendt writes, is to think from the perspective of others, what she calls enlarged thinking. But thinking from the perspective of others means many others, and not just from the perspective of one group. That is Jim Sleeper's point. He tells of Claudia Horwitz, "a spiritual/social activist and interim director of Houston's Rothko Chapel," who writes that the answer to the question, "What Are White People to Do?" is for whites to "put ourselves through some honest reflection and let that process lead us on to thoughtful action ... to dismantle a system of white supremacy that permeates every corner of our legal, economic, political, relational and cultural lives." Sleeper, author of the classic "The Closest of Strangers, Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York," has a different take: "But Horowitz doesn't address those millions of white guys (and gals) who run the gamut from a Zimmerman to a Signorelli. To do that, whites who think and write about race would have to 'peer into' the lives of whites who are perhaps even more deeply angry than we are--so angry they haven't enough words or even scapegoats to lift the sadness that accompanies their rage. We'd also have to discover that some of them are as angry at moralizing, liberal whites as they are at blacks--just as angry as they'd be if America were white from coast to coast, like the England of Charles Dickens, where grinding, gnawing differences in class weren't racial at all, as they also aren't in most majority-black societies. We'd have to understand why the white anger I've just mentioned is taking increasingly murderous and perverse turns that won't be deflected by our moralizing. Start with two contrasting images of generic American 'white guys,' taken from two historic moments less than a decade apart. When death-embracing fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11, perhaps the most telling response came from New York City firefighters and police officers who ran toward death in order to rescue others, not slaughter them." For Sleeper, white elites must indeed learn to think and feel from the perspective of blacks, but they must also attend to the ressentiment of the white working class.

To Be Black

black americaSpeaking at a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, Chris Lebron says that America, "while no longer white supremacist in the way it was before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, daily exhibits the visages of a country where public lynching was practiced and Jim Crow segregation was the norm." What is needed, Lebron argues, is a new idea of racial education: "When I speak of racial democratic education I mean something deeply humanistic. When we are presented with facts, numbers, and dates, we tend to think we have acquired knowledge. But more essentially we consider ourselves to be educated when knowledge opens a window letting in a new way of seeing the world--this is the moment when knowledge becomes erudition. I think a significant problem with regard to race in America today is that we have focused a great deal on, admittedly, a narrow range of knowledge regarding American history. These arebasic pedagogical tropes: Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a momentous speech on the steps of the Washington Monument, the Civil Rights Act made racial equality law of the land. But these tropes do not allow us to see the world anew--they are the tropes that now allow us to be comfortable with the status quo, for surely if Martin had a dream and racial equality is law of the land, we can wake up today and go about our business. But it goes without saying that no conversation about the Civil Rights Movement can be complete without paying serious attention to Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. It goes without saying that no one can responsibly remark on the triumph of formal racial equality as law without also noting the concurrent and aggressive build-up of the carceral state and the penal system which disproportionately incarcerates young black men, resulting in what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the New Jim Crow. It would certainly help the cause of racial equality if more knowledge were brought before the minds of students and Americans more generally. But I want to explore another avenue. This avenue is not mutually exclusive to the knowledge-based approach I just mentioned. The kind of thing I've been thinking about lately has to do with something very essential: more than know what has happened in American history to blacks as a category of people (and here I note and bracket the obvious problems with a notion like racial categories). I think we need a better understanding of what it is like to be, to exist as a black person in America. In what follows I can only offer a philosophical account of the conceptual framework I have in mind--my expertise is far from advising educational policy in its particulars. It is my hope that some of what I say resonates here today with those of you who are surely better positioned than I am to think in terms of policy."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Goodbye To Virtuosos

Leon WieseltierThis week saw a mass resignation of editors and writers at The New Republic, one of the oldest and most venerable magazines in US history. No other resignation will be felt as strongly as that of Leon Wieseltier who ran the Books & The Arts section of the magazine for decades. R.R. Reno writes that Wieseltier's departure speaks volumes about both American liberalism and America's colleges: Wieseltier could leave, Reno writes, first because "American liberalism is shifting in the direction of a long tradition in American conservatism, one that is supremely confident in the wisdom of markets. For liberal idealists, the new technological utopianism married to the dynamism of capitalism has replaced the old utopian socialism of the bygone era." The second reason Wieseltier is going "reflects changes in the university. A liberal arts education educates young people into a particular way of life, a particular culture. Some of them become virtuosos in this way of life, which means they absorb its animating ideas and sentiments, but can improvise. All cultures need these virtuosos, because all cultures face external and internal challenges that require adaptation, revision, and renewal. The prophets of Israel were virtuosos. Socrates, Luther, Burke, and Emerson were virtuosos.... As an editor, Wieseltier sought liberal virtuosos. (Conservatives were not part of his mix. He was interested only in a conversation about a progressive future.) And when he found them he gave them an extraordinary amount of space to speak to us about things that matter. But today's universities don't train virtuosos. A shallow scientism and materialism has found its way to the classroom. Political correctness shuts down conversation, insisting on sterile platitudes. Conservative ideas are largely excluded, and many of the most important questions facing us today simply aren't posed in ways relevant to our public life (which unlike the university culture isn't monochromatic). And anyway, if starting a company and cashing out as a billionaire is the way to change the world, who needs Shakespeare?"

Comics And Other Arts

zap comixIn an interview, publisher Gary Groth situates underground comix in terms of other art movements from the 60s and 70s: "Zap was obviously part of the '60s-counter-cultural zeitgeist--it couldn't have happened without the larger cultural shift that it epitomized--but I tend to think the whole underground comix revolution was too singular to compare tidily with the stylistic and attitudinal shifts in the other arts in the '60s (and '70s). You can observe parallels in other media: artists like Stan Brackage, Jonas Mekas, Frank Jacobs, and Kenneth Anger were pushing the formal elements of film; Vonnegut, Pynchon, Brautigan, Kesey, and others were emerging in prose fiction. But they didn't represent a decisive split from the past. By contrast, in terms of visual art, I don't see much connection to other artists emerging in the '60s. Surely the Zap artists had little in common with (and I bet most were even fundamentally opposed to) Warhol (who showed his first comic strip painting in 1960) or Litchenstein (who did his first comic strip painting in 1961) or Claus Oldenberg or Gerhard Richter or Ed Ruscha, whose ascendancy parallels the underground artists. Their respective values seem quite different to me. The only art movement that I can see that Zap or the underground artists generally shares any affinity with is the Chicago Imagists (or the Hairy Who) (who had their first show in '66)--artists like Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum. They had a cartoony, occasionally psychedelic cast to their work, but used to different ends, the results of which were pretty remote from those of underground comix. You could make a case that Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had the same aesthetically anarchic spirit as much of the undergrounds, but that too seems a bit of a stretch. And maybe rock was as huge a break from previous pop music as Zap was from previous industrial comics production, but the explosion of rock seems more like a continuation or culmination of musical trends, whereas underground comix was a decisive break from the past--a deliberate, incendiary reaction to the censored blandness of comics over the previous 15 years. So it seems to me that the Zap crew was somehow part of but apart from their countercultural brethren in the other arts."

Wisdom And The Crowd

crowdfundingFreddie de Boer admits to being suspicious of crowdfunding: "After all, crowdfunding is a type of crowdsourcing; what's being crowdsourced is the gatekeeping functions that investors and organizations used to perform. The essential work isn't just sorting through various projects and determining which are cool or desirable but determining if they're responsible and plausible--capable of being successfully pulled off by the people proposing them within the time frames and budgets stipulated. It turns out that most people are not good at that. But then, why would they be? Why would the average person be good at fulfilling that function? Where does that faith come from? There are so many places where we've turned over functions once performed by experts to amateurs, and we're consistently surprised that it doesn't work out. 401(k)s aren't crowdsourced, exactly, but they exist thanks to a choice to turn over control of retirement funds to individuals away from managers, in the pursuit of fees, of course. The results have been brutal. But why wouldn't they be brutal? Why would you expect every random person on the street to have a head for investment in that sense? It's worth pointing out that crowdsourcing was first introduced for simplistic tasks that a human can do better than a machine, often through rote repetition--bilingual speakers checking machine translation, for example, a task still far better performed by humans than machines. (Yes, folks.) But now, we seem to expect to hand tons of essential tasks off to computers and crowds, and in many cases, we don't bother to check and see how well they're actually doing because the hype about both is so loud."

amor_mundi_sign-up
Featured Events

Roundtable on Academic Freedom

A panel discussion with guests Andrew Ross, Steven Salaita, and Katherine M. Franke.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen discusses how the absence of experience leads philosophy and ideology into useless abstractions that ignore the reality of human interactions in the Quote of the Week. Russian mathematician and esotericist P. D. Ouspensky provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In this week's Video Archives, we look back on a lecture Roger Berkowitz gave on the relationship between revenge and justice. And we appreciate two passages on Nietzsche that Arendt found worthy of annotation in our Library feature.

As the holiday season is now upon us, please consider donating to the Hannah Arendt Center. A tax-deductible gift says that you agree that an institutional space for thinking about the world from an Arendtian perspective is vital at a moment of thoughtless and predictable debates.

Please donate by clicking the button below.

donate

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.
28Jul/146

Amor Mundi 7/27/14

Amor Mundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

subscribe_button
Campbell's Law

1Rachel Aviv tells the heartrending and maddening story of the rise and fall of Damany Lewis, a dedicated and innovative teacher who helped teachers correct wrong answers on standardized test scores. One of the arguments for the Common Core and other data-driven educational reforms is that it has the dignity to hold students in poor districts to the same standards as students in wealthier districts. Lewis sees this demand as simply unrealistic: "He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide 'biological experiment' in which the variables-the fact that so many children were hungry and transient, and witnessing violence-hadn't been controlled. David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, told me that, with the passage of the law, teachers were asked to compensate for factors outside their control. He said, 'The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.' Confronted with the need to reach impossible goals, Lewis and his fellow teachers took the easy way out: they cheated. The choice was made easy for them because 'they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students' lives.'" In telling a compelling and devastating story, Aviv raises fundamental questions about the over-reliance on data in education: "John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators' 'infatuation with data,' their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell's law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. 'The end goal of education isn't to get students to answer the right number of questions,' he said. 'The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.' In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics 'to intimidate-to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.'"

Incarceration on a Scale Unexampled in Human History

jailIn the Atlantic, Matt Ford looks at the United States' obsession with incarceration. "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today-perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system-in prison, on probation, or on parole-than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America-more than six million-than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.... The common retort is that people of color statistically commit more crimes, although criminologists and scholars like Michelle Alexander have consistently found no correlation between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. Claims about a 'black pathology' also fall short. But police scrutiny often falls most heavily on people of color nonetheless. In New York City alone, officers carried out nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stops targeted black and Hispanic individuals, although they constitute only half the city's population. Overall, NYPD officers stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Similar patterns of discrimination can be found nationwide, especially on drug-related charges. Black and white Americans use marijuana at an almost-equal rate, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession nationally. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, that arrest disparity jumps to a factor of five."

The Transcendent and Sequential Art

transcendant_artBrian Cremins takes on the relationship between the mundane and the transcendental both in comics and in art more broadly: "the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn't work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn't differentiate between the 'major and minor,' but sees all of history's actors-from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens-as playing roles of equal weight and significance."

The Secularization of the Sacred, the Sacralizing of the Secular

turk_politicsKaya Genç notes the way that Turkey's secular nationalists have taken on characteristics of the religious, while its competing group of Muslim nationalists have taken to certain secular aspects. The result makes the country's politics unusual: "Religion in Turkey has become secularized and the secular sphere sacralized, resulting in a struggle over the definition of what is sacred, accompanied by accusations of blasphemy (phrased as disloyalty to the nation and even treason). Individual choice - the choice to be suurlu, a 'consciously' believing Muslim, as opposed to blindly following tradition - has become highly valued as a sign of Muslim modernity. Islamic practice increasingly has come to be expressed as participation in economic networks and through a commodified lifestyle of self-consciously Muslim fashion and leisure. Meanwhile, Kemalist secularism has taken on aspects of the sacred. To discuss this reversal of cultural values and show how religion could have a Weberian association with a certain entrepreneurial mood, [writer Jenny] White paints a picture of the complexities behind Turkey's competing political discourses. The camps described above may have different approaches to nationalism, but they also have many things in common. The motif of the flag, for example, symbolizes both 'secular nationalism' and what White refers to as 'Muslim nationalism.' But beyond the flag, particularly when it comes to race and religion, Turkey's competing nationalisms have a number of not very easily reconcilable differences."

subscribe_button
Burning Down the Ivory Tower

ivy_league_schoolsWilliam Deresiewicz' new book Excellent Sheep takes on the academic-industrial complex. In an essay in the New Republic he argues that the Ivy League is ruining the best and the brightest: "These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it. When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them-the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.... So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk."

How to Rebirth the Virtuous (Puritanical) University

excellent_sheepJim Sleeper responds to Deresiewicz' in an essay in Bookforum and argues that there is a lost tradition in the liberal arts university itself that Deresiewicz ignores but that needs to be reawakened. "[W]hat's most consequentially wrong with Deresiewicz's jeremiad is his selective history of the old colleges: 'We need to go back before the start, to the Gilded Age, the last decades of the nineteenth century,' a period he knows well as a scholar of its fiction. He dismisses the colleges' founding missions as too little, too early; like the sociologist Jerome Karabel in The Chosen, he doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that, as late as the 1960s, the Ivy WASPs mobilized their oldest, toughest Protestant and civic-republican virtues to prepare 'the ground for their own supersession' by retiring age-old quotas based on ethnicity and race (though, significantly, not the ones based on economic clout) and to 'put the interests of the nation as a whole above their own.' I witnessed that firsthand as an undergraduate at Yale, whose president Kingman Brewster Jr., a descendant of the minister on the Mayflower, gave an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, when some alumni still considered King a rabble-rouser. Brewster understood that the civil rights movement was renewing the Exodus myth that had moved his Puritan ancestors (and my own Jewish ones) to make history. Yale's radically Calvinist chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., leading resistance to the Vietnam War, defied the state in the name of a higher power that, for some of us, was the living American republic itself. So have Howard Dean, Jonathan Schell, Ned Lamont, and other Ivy graduates in our time.That mystic chord of memory seems broken now, as do the colleges that honored it. Deresiewicz tells them to stop cooperating with commercial college-ranking systems; to base affirmative action on class, not race; to discard preferences for legacies and athletes; to weight SAT scores for socioeconomic factors; to discourage résumé stuffing by curbing extracurriculars and by counting financial-aid service jobs as service. And he makes his grand, sweeping calls for change. But how to summon the will to fight for these worthy goals? Beyond his exhortations and potted invocations of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, the preacher hasn't a clue."

From the Archives: Eichmann in Jerusalem

new_yorkerThis past week, The New Yorker put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we'll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. In the meantime, it seems like there are two good places to start. The first, of course, is Hannah Arendt's dispatch from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, published in the magazine in five parts and then published separately as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a piece of journalism and philosophy that remains important and controversial. There are a lot of rumors about what Arendt said and about what she didn't say-- this is an opportunity to read the work and then judge for yourself as it first appeared.

subscribe_button
Featured Events

100/10100/10 MEMBERSHIP CHALLENGE! 

Help the Arendt Center meet its goal of 100 members before August 1!

Become a member here!

Learn more about the membership challenge here.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 

 

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Arie Amaya-Akkermans explores the sources of Arendt's indebtedness to storytelling in the Quote of the Week. French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a racism lecture Robert Bernasconi delivered in 2011 in our Video Archives. As a special treat, we learn about a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar that was taught on Arendt at Bard this summer. And Roger Berkowitz celebrates the memory of author Nadine Gordimer and recognizes mankind's ability to change the world in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jan/133

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.
20Jun/120

American Criminal Justice – Made in Texas (Part 1)

African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?

These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.

Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.

I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.

In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”

With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.

This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).

Imperial Farm, 1908

Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.

Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.