Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
17Jan/160

Amor Mundi 1/17/16

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upGlimpsing the Fascist Tendency

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

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

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

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

Campus Consent

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

Knowing the One Percent

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

Click Away

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

amor_mundi_sign-upStruggle

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

Leave No Test Behind

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

#YouAintNoMuslimBruv

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

Kooks

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #17

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, February 5, 2016

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


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

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

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó '60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm


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

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

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

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

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

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

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

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


vita activaVita Activa - The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

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


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
4Aug/140

Amor Mundi 8/3/14

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

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

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The Conservative Spirit

conservatismAndrew Sullivan, pivoting off of a reader's response to an appreciation of Montaigne, offers thoughtful comments on conservatism in the contemporary political environment: "What motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for 'present laughter' over 'utopian bliss.' Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are times for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I. As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is 'Toujours l'audace!' And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time."

Is Liberal Zionism at an End?

zionismOne week after he published a masterful review on the promise of liberal Zionism that was written before the latest war in Gaza, Jonathan Freedland returns to his theme and wonders whether the facts on the ground have exhausted the possibilities of liberal Zionism: "For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket. The two-state solution expressed the liberal Zionist position perfectly: Jews could have a state of their own, without depriving Palestinians of their legitimate national aspirations. Even if it was not about to be realized any time soon, it was a goal that allowed one to be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time. But the two-state solution does not offer much comfort if it becomes a chimera, a mythical notion as out of reach as the holy grail or Atlantis. The failure of Oslo, the failure at Camp David, the failure of Annapolis, the failure most recently of John Kerry's indefatigable nine-month effort has prompted the unwelcome thought: what if it keeps failing not because the leaders did not try hard enough, but because the plan cannot work? What if the two-state solution is impossible? That prospect frightens liberal Zionists to their core. For the alternatives to two states are unpalatable, either for liberal reasons or for Zionist reasons. A single state in all of historic Palestine, dominated by Jews but in which Palestinians are deprived of the vote, might be Zionist but it certainly would not be liberal. A binational state offering full equality between Jew and Arab would be admirably liberal, but it would seem to thwart Jewish self-determination, at least as it has traditionally been conceived, and therefore could not easily be described as Zionist."

The Ivory Tower

ivory towerDavid Bromwich reviews the documentary film Ivory Tower and questions the anxieties plaguing academia as well as the technological fixes that so many believe can save it. "A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a 'pause' from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics. An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of 'tracking' students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt."

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The Crisis in Culture

workingDan Piepinberg points to digital artist Cory Arcangel's new book Working on My Novel, an aggregation of tweets from people claiming to do just that, as a symptom of a peculiar cultural moment: "it's the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there's something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion-every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. ('I love my mind,' writes one aspirant novelist, as if he's just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)"

"I'd Prefer To..."

workplaceIn a review of Cubed, Nikil Saval's history of the office, Jenny Diski considers the way that the pleasures of the office, and those of the idea of business, mask the reality of what is produced by office work: "But the actual work, what needs to be done with all the desirable sundries, the reason for them, wasn't clear. Obviously mostly it had to do with paper. Books were kept and letters written, loose-leaf papers filed. But what the letters were about, what was written in the books that were kept, wasn't even vaguely known. Some instinct kept me from demanding detail, perhaps because of a correct suspicion that the actual business of business was the very least of the pleasures of the office. What is done in offices, to generalise, is pretty boring and derivative, being at the hands-off service-end of those other places of work where things got made, mined, taught or sold. Work that is always about something other than itself. Paperwork. Allowed to play, I typed 'Dear Sir' at the desk on the huge typewriter, sitting high on the chair, legs dangling. And ended 'Yours Faithfully' ('Sincerely' only after a named 'Dear' - I learned that very young), after which I squiggled an elaborate signature that bore no relation to the alphabet. In the space between I let my fingers run riot over the keys, to produce a gobbledygook body of the letter that probably made as much sense to me as most of the real correspondence would have. The accoutrements and contraptions of the office were the delight, the actual commerce remained not so much a secret as an unwanted answer to an uncompelling mystery. Like the most extraordinary couture, Alexander McQueen's designs, say. You delight in and admire them, gorgeously and dramatically displayed in the videos of professional mannequins on runways, but you don't want to see them in everyday action, being worn disappointingly as clothes, in real life, to dull receptions or dinners without the special lighting and the right pose (how many frocks are designed to be sat down in?), by people who have them only because they are rich."

America Drops a Nuclear Bomb

atomic_bombThe New Yorker has 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. This week we point to John Hershey's poignant account of what happened when American war planes dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, an article that took up an entire issue of the magazine and has also since been published as a book.

 

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Lance Strate discusses Arendt's thoughts on the loss of the public realm in the Quote of the Week. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a lecture Douglas Irvin delivered in 2012 on the origins of genocide in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz observes how radical viewpoints perpetuate the conflict in the Middle East 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.
26Apr/140

Race, Democracy, and the Constitution

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ArendtWeekendReading

 

Looking for scandal, the press is focusing on the apparent conflict between Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The controversy began seven years ago before Sotomayor was on the Court, when Roberts wrote, in a decision invalidating a race-based busing program in Seattle, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This week, in a dissent Sotomayor chose to read aloud from the Supreme Court bench, she scolded Roberts:

"In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter."

Sotomayor’s point is that race matters in ways that her colleagues, including Roberts, apparently do not understand. She is right; race does matter, and it matters in ways that are difficult to perceive and comprehend. Among the pages of historical, legal, and everyday examples she offers, there are these reflections on the small but persistent present reality of race in America:

“And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away. Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes, no matter the neighborhood where he grew up. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed, 'No, where are you really from?', regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country. Race matters to a young person addressed by a stranger in a foreign language, which he does not understand because only English was spoken at home. Race matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: 'I do not belong here.'”

Roberts responded in a separate concurring opinion, defending himself against the charge of racial insensitivity. It is not and he is not out of touch with reality, he argues, to disagree about the use of racial preferences in responding to the reality of race in 21st century America. He too is right.

"The dissent states that '[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.' And it urges that '[r]ace matters because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: "I do not belong here.'" But it is not 'out of touch with reality' to conclude that racial preferences may themselves have the debilitating effect of reinforcing precisely that doubt, and—if so—that the preferences do more harm than good. To disagree with the dissent’s views on the costs and benefits of racial preferences is not to 'wish away, rather than confront' racial inequality. People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but it similarly does more harm than good to question the openness and candor of those on either side of the debate."

The background of these supremely intemperate contretemps is a decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in which the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, upheld a Michigan Constitutional provision (recently amended through a ballot initiative) prohibiting race-based affirmative action in public universities.

As both Justice Kennedy’s controlling opinion and Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion make clear, the decision does not at all address the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action programs themselves. While in recent years the Supreme Court has shown skepticism about race-based affirmative action, it has consistently allowed such programs as long as they are tailored to achieve a legitimate state purpose understood as diversity in educational institutions. Nothing in Schuette changes that.

At the same time, Schuette does give constitutional blessing to states that democratically choose not to use race-based affirmative action. Already a number of states (including Blue states like California and swing states like Florida) have passed voter initiatives banning such race-based preferences. Racial preferences are not popular. In Michigan, a state that has voted democratic in the last five presidential elections, the anti-affirmative action ballot proposal passed by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. For this reason, Schuette is rightly seen as another nail in the coffin of race-based affirmative action programs.

Support for race-based affirmative action is dwindling, hence the impassioned and at times angry dissent by Justice Sotomayor. Even if the Court does not further limit the ability of states to practice race-based affirmative action, more and more states—which means the people of the United States—are choosing not to.

This, by the way, does not mean a return to segregated education although it will likely mean, at least in the short term, fewer African Americans at public universities in Michigan. To choose not to allow race-based preferences opens the door to other experiments with promoting diversity in education. For example, universities in Michigan and California can seek to give preference to students from poor and socio-economically disadvantaged zip codes. Depending on the connection between race and poverty in a given state, such an approach to diversity may or may not lead to racial diversity on campus, but it will very likely lead to increased and meaningful diversity insofar as students from meaningfully different pasts and with uniquely divergent life experiences would be in school together. It is at least arguable that such an approach would lead to greater diversity than many race-based preference programs that end up recruiting a small group of upper class minorities.

As a legal matter, Schuette concerned two different understandings of freedom. On the one hand, as Justice Kennedy writes, “The freedom secured by the Constitution consists, in one of its essential dimensions, of the right of the individual not to be injured by the unlawful exercise of governmental power.” Understood as individual rights, freedom means the right to attend desegregated schools, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to meaningful dissent.

But freedom, Kennedy continues, “does not stop with individual rights.” There is another understanding of freedom, which may be called the freedom to participate in self-government:

"Our constitutional system embraces, too, the right of citizens to debate so they can learn and decide and then, through the political process, act in concert to try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure. Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. Were the Court to rule that the question addressed by Michigan voters is too sensitive or complex to be within the grasp of the electorate; or that the policies at issue remain too delicate to be resolved save by university officials or faculties, acting at some remove from immediate public scrutiny and control; or that these matters are so arcane that the electorate’s power must be limited because the people cannot prudently exercise that power even after a full debate, that holding would be an unprecedented restriction on the exercise of a fundamental right held not just by one person but by all in common. It is the right to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will, to act through a lawful electoral process."

Both individual freedom and political freedom are important. Both are at the core of American understandings of free, democratic, constitutional government. The point is that these freedoms must be balanced. In this case, the balance swung in favor of political freedom. Here is Justice Breyer’s argument from his concurring opinion:

“The Constitution allows local, state, and national communities to adopt narrowly tailored race-conscious programs designed to bring about greater inclusion and diversity. But the Constitution foresees the ballot box, not the courts, as the normal instrument for resolving differences and debates about the merits of these programs. In short, the 'Constitution creates a democratic political system through which the people themselves must together find answers' to disagreements of this kind.”

For Sotomayor and those who agree with her, the claim is that the reality of racism historically and presently threatens the integrity of the political process. The problem with Sotomayor’s argument is that it is not at all clear that racial inequality today is the primary factor threatening the integrity of our political system. On the contrary, while it is incontrovertible that race matters, other facts, like class or income, may matter more.

To think seriously about race in American is hard. Very hard. As Walter Russell Mead writes, in discussing these questions,

“There’s a basic point that should not be forgotten in dealing with anything touching on race: The place of African Americans in the United States is a uniquely difficult and charged question. The history of slavery, segregation and entrenched racism in the United States cannot be denied and should not be minimized. The effects of this history are still very much with us today, and while the overwhelming majority of Americans repudiate racist ideologies and beliefs, the continuing presence of racist ideas, prejudices and emotions in this country is a reality that policy makers and people of good will cannot and should not ignore. It is naive to think otherwise, and any look at how our system works and any thoughts about whether it works fairly have to include a serious and honest reflection on the fading but real potency of race.”

Mead raises a difficult question, which is whether race is really the best way to think about inequality in 21st century America. He argues for status based public policy programs to replace race-based programs:

“Ultimately, this is why status-based forms of affirmative action seem better than race based ones. President Obama’s kids don’t need any special help in getting into college, but there are many kids of all races and ethnic groups who have demonstrated unusual talent and grit by achieving in difficult circumstances. Kids who go to terrible schools, who overcome economic disadvantages, who are the first in their family to complete high school, or who grow up in neighborhoods that are socially distressed can and should be treated with the respect their achievements warrant.”

Should President Obama’s children benefit from race-based preference programs? Clearly the answer is no. But note, this does not mean that his children will not suffer from racism. Mead knows this and says so. Indeed, it is likely they will, over the course of their lives, find themselves in situations where they are looked at askance, avoided, singled out, discriminated against, and also privileged on account of their races. Race matters, undoubtedly, in complicated but overwhelmingly in damaging and at times degrading ways. Responding to the reality of race in our society is absolutely necessary.

It is not at all clear that race-based preferences in college admission are the best way to respond to the reality of race in the 21st century. Some states believe such race-based preferences are necessary. Other states, including Michigan, California, and Florida, have concluded they are not. Deciding that preferential admissions to universities on the basis of race is impermissible is not unconstitutional. That is the correct decision the Court made this week.

That does not mean, of course, that we shouldn’t try to address both racial and class discrimination in higher education. There are many ways to address the damaging impact of racial as well as economic inequality in our society—some maybe better than race-based preferences. For one, schools could institute truly need-blind admissions and decide to give preference to applicants who come from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. While many of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our society are white and from rural backgrounds, many others are racial minorities. Both would benefit from such an approach, which would be infinitely more just than a simple preference based on skin color.

Even better would be a serious commitment to affirmatively act to improve our shamefully underfunded and under-achieving high schools. Especially in poorer areas where rural and urban poverty crush the hopes and dreams of young people, our public schools are too-often disastrous. These schools, however, are free and the four years students spend in them are frequently wasted. If we could somehow figure out how to make high school a meaningful experience for millions of low-income children, that would be the single best way to help disadvantaged children around the country, both minority and white. That would be a truly meaningful form of affirmative action.

Over the last 50 years race has replaced class as the primary way that people on the left have perceived the injustices of the world. During that time poverty did not disappear as a problem, but it was hidden behind concerns of race and at times of gender. A whole generation of activists and politicians have grown up and worked in an era in which the problems of the nation were seen through a racial lens. There were good reasons for this shift and the results have been important and phenomenal. Yes, race still matters today, but nowhere to the extent it did 50 years ago.

Poverty, on the other end, matters ever more. With rising inequality and with the welldocumented problems of the middle classes (let alone the overlooked lower classes), we are slowly seeing a shift away from race and towards class as the dominant lens for thinking about equality and inequality in the country. This is as it should be. It is time to begin thinking more about advocating for real class diversity in colleges and public institutions; that doesn’t mean race as a problem has gone away, but it does mean that in the early 21st century, poverty trumps race as the true scourge of our public life.

The opinions in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action are well worth reading in full, especially those by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor. They are your weekend read. You can download a PDF of the opinion here.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
22Feb/130

Federalism and the Crisis of Politics

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Federalism should not be a partisan issue. This has been forgotten as the Federalist Society has turned federalism into a rhetorical sledgehammer to bludgeon liberal policies. But rightly understood, federalism is about freedom. 

Federalism promotes freedom for at least two reasons. First, because citizens will only act and speak in public when they believe their actions will be seen and heard.

The smaller the stage, the more likely is action to be meaningful. If freedom and action are the same, as Arendt writes, then we should be wary of the erosion of federalism. Only when local political institutions have meaningful power will they attract citizens to become politically involved. The danger in the loss of federalism today is the increasing sense that individual citizens have little if any power, which leads to cynicism and apathy.

We can see this cynicism and apathy, surprisingly, in Occupy Wall Street. The fact that Occupy Wall Street became a protest movement, and not an alternative locus of power, is at least partly the result of the fact that local power structures have been rendered increasingly impotent by the vampire squid of national power. As people rightly feel ever-more alienated from political institutions that can make a difference, they retreat from politics. Why did Occupy eschew local politics? Why did it seek a megaphone on the national stage instead of working in the pits of village, town, and state politics? Because everyone knows that the power of local institutions has been decimated. The result is a feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness; the present response is to embrace an ethic of permanent protest as the only meaningful way to personal empowerment. But the elevation of protest to the apogee of political action in Occupy Wall Street is, unfortunately, just another example of the vanishing of politics in our time.

The second way federalism promotes freedom is through constitutional structure. The best way to prevent government from attaining totalitarian or tyrannical power is, as Arendt argues, to multiply the sources of political power. Arendt credits the United States Constitution because it created not only the division of powers on the federal level, but also the constitutional federalism of the early Republic. By empowering states, counties, towns, and villages, the United States Constitution ensured that nearly every citizen would have both opportunity and reason to act in public and to engage in politics.

Arendt’s thoughts on the freedom found in federalism come to mind as I’ve been reading—at the urging of my colleague David Kettler—the classic Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. Originally published in 1958, Small Town in Mass Society is still an important and now sadly forgotten book. The argument, in short, is that local towns and villages are losing their distinctiveness. Studying class, religion, power, and politics in small town America, Vidich and Bensman argue that local governments are voluntarily abandoning the political powers they constitutionally possess and thus emptying their lives of meaningful political engagement.

What Vidich and Bensman find is a fundamental contradiction between the way that small town culture sees itself and the way it actually exists in mass society. In their self-image, the residents of “Springdale”—the name for the town they study— think of themselves as a community. They distinguish themselves from “urban dwellers” who are anonymous. They imagine that “Here no man counts more than any other.” “It is unthinkable for anyone to pass a person on the street without exchanging greetings;”

 “Almost all of rural life receives its justification on the basis of the direct and personal and human feelings that guide people’s relations with each other.” And, above all, the Springdale residents of rural New York see themselves as independent from urban-mass society:

While he realizes that machinery and factory products are essential to his standard of life and that taxation and agricultural policy are important, he feels that he is independent of other features of industrial and urban life, or, better, that he can choose and select only the best parts. The simple physical separation from the city and the open rural atmosphere make it possible to avoid the problems inherent in city life.

Against this feeling of independence, Vidich and Bensman argue that small towns are actually part of and integrated into mass society to an extent that their self-image cannot and will not admit. Against the view that Springdalers can choose those parts of mass society they want and reject the rest, Vidich and Bensman argue that they are more influenced and subjected to mass society.

In almost all aspects of culture, even to speech forms, and including technology, literature, fashions and fads, as well as patterns of consumption, to mention a few, the small town tends to reflect the contemporary mass society.  Basically, a historically indigenous local culture does not seem to exist.

For our purposes, one telling section of Small Town in Mass Society is called “The Political Surrender to Mass Society.” While Springdale has a local government and possesses the power of taxation and governance, the authors argue that the town seeks at nearly every turn to abdicate self-governance. Examples include:

 •“Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.”
•The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies “without cost to the taxpayer[s]” in Springdale.
•Springdale accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.
• State construction programs “present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.”
•The town at every point adjusts its actions to the regulations and laws defined by state and federal agencies; or they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.

What Springdale actually does in its own politics is forego self-governance and submit itself to outside control. It repeatedly accepts grants of aid offered by the state and subsidies by the state, even when such aid comes with strings and demands for control. The result is that the “village board in Springdale accepts few of the powers given to it. Instead, it orients its action to the facilities and subsidies controlled and dispensed by other agencies and, by virtue of this, forfeits its own political power.”  What is more, this economic and political dependence leads to a “habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.”

For Vidich and Bensman, the loss of local power leads to a psychologically damaging sense of dependence on outside agencies, bureaucracies, and governments.

“State police, regionally organized fire districts, state welfare agencies, the state highway department, the state youth commission, the state conservation department—these agencies and others are central to the daily functioning of the village.” There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” On the one hand, Springdalers resent these services provided by outsiders because they negate the local villagers’ self image as independent. But the villagers accept these services “because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community.”

The conclusion Vidich and Bensman reach is that the Springdale town government does increasingly little. It seeks whenever possible to avoid providing services itself—e.g. snow or garbage removal. Instead, it seeks to have these services provided by the state in order to avoid having to raise taxes. The ultimate result is the “avoidance of innovation and the minimization of decision.” The village “tends to limit its function to the conduct of routine “housekeeping” business.” “It is a common complaint among all groups in the community that the village board does nothing.”

This political irrelevance at the local level is radical change from the American tradition of citizen democracy. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he was impressed by the active participation of citizens in local government. 100 years later, when Hannah Arendt arrived in the United States, she too was amazed by the sense of common citizens that their voice mattered in politics.

Shortly after Arendt’s arrival, she traveled to a provincial town in Massachusetts to live with a family as a way of learning everyday English and experiencing something of American mores. While she had little in common with this family whose puritanical ways clashed with her own, she was captivated by them and by what Antonia Grunenberg has called their republican self-consciousness.

Arendt described her host family to Karl Jaspers as "thoroughly average people—what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany." And yet, these average Americans embodied the American love of freedom that so impressed Arendt. As she wrote to Jaspers shortly after they resumed contact in 1946:

There is much I could say about America. There really is such a thing as freedom here and a strong feeling among many people that one cannot live without freedom. The republic is not a vapid illusion, and the fact that there is no national state and no truly national tradition creates an atmosphere of freedom or at least one not pervaded by fanaticism. (Because of the strong need the various immigrant groups feel to maintain their identity, the melting pot is in large part not even an ideal, much less a reality.) Then, too, people here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country. I was visiting with an American family in New England at the time. They were thoroughly average people--what would have been called 'petty bourgeoisie' in Germany—and they had, I'm' sure, never laid eyes on a Japanese in their lives. As I later learned, they and many of their friends wrote immediately and spontaneously to their congressmen, insisted on the constitutional rights of all Americans regardless of national background, and declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves (these people were of Anglo-Saxon background, and their families had been in this country for generations), etc.

The extraordinary embrace of political freedom in America had a flip side, namely social oppression: To allow people local rule and governance means that parochial and racist communities can oppress minorities and impose socially conservative mores. There is a fundamental tradeoff between political freedom and social oppression. But Arendt thought the choice was easy: social oppression is simply a cost of what she came to see as the miracle of America.

For Arendt, America embodied, in Leon Botstein’s words, "a federal system of government not based on race or designed to rectify social inequalities, but established to ensure political equality among all citizens, to maintain the freedom of the public realm, social differences notwithstanding."

America, in Arendt's writing and especially in her book On Revolution, is an enduring image of public freedom that so animates her life-long thinking.

Occupy Wall Street failed for many reasons. Above all, however, it failed because even at a time when our democratic and representative institutions are seen as corrupt and broken, OWS offered no meaningful alternative. It failed, therefore, in the basic requirement of any truly revolutionary political movement: to pick up power when it is lying the streets, as Arendt writes in On Violence. And one reason it did so is that we have all lost the basic experience of citizenship and freedom that Arendt so valued when she arrived in America. If we are to resurrect such a practice and habit of citizen-politics, we need to reinvigorate local politics. But we can only do that if we reclaim federalism as a matter of freedom outside of partisan debates.

One first step is to confront honestly and clearly the depth of the loss of political power in America. This has become difficult because federalism and local power have been politicized and polarized. We need to move beyond that. To do so, there are few better books that Small Town in Mass Society. It is your weekend read. And if you cannot get the book, take a look at their article The New Middle Classes: Their Cultures and Life Styles.

For other posts on the connection between Federalism, Power, and Freedom, see “Power, Persuasion, and Organization” and “The Supreme Court as Truthteller.”

 -RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
5Feb/131

Geography is not Destiny

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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.

-Jeffrey 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.