Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
28Jul/143

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.

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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."

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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.

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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.
14Jul/140

Irony and Theodicy: Laughing out Loud about the Gravest of Moral Disorders

israel_post-wwii

“Israeli citizens, religious and nonreligious, seem agreed upon the desirability of having a law that prohibits intermarriage, and it is chiefly for this reason…that they are also agreed upon the undesirability of a written constitution in which such a law would embarrassingly have to be spelled out. … Whatever the reasons, there was certainly something breathtaking in the naiveté with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which had prohibited intermarriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans. The better informed among the correspondents were well aware of the irony, but they did not mention it in their reports.”

--Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 7

There are, I believe, three things about this surprising and discomforting passage from the very early moments of Arendt’s “report on the banality of evil” that are worth thinking about again. The first and most important of these is Arendt’s (very conscious) use of the term “irony” in the concluding sentence. Second is the explicit reference to the Nuremburg Laws and the very clear suggestion that Israel’s refusal to recognize civil marriages precisely because it opens the door to public acknowledgement of inter-confessional relationships echoes one of the most infamous legacies of National Socialism. Third is that Arendt here deigns to provide an account of why it is that Israel lacked—and lacks!—a written constitution, and to stress that the ground for this is and ought to be embarrassing to Zionists (like herself, it is crucial to stress). I’d like to discuss these with you in reverse order.

David Bisson
David is the Media Coordinator at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. He is also Editor for Information Security Buzz. David's research interests include cybersecurity, war, and the political impact of new technologies.
30Jun/141

Arendt and Exceptionalism

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“I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor, because I am quite used to being a woman.”

--Cited in Arendt obituary, New York Times, 5 December 1975

For most readers of Hannah Arendt, the intellectual and personal commitments that motivated Arendt’s pithy response to a reporter’s question about her reaction to being the first woman to be offered the rank of full professor at Princeton University are clear. Arendt saw in this and other attempts to be exceptional in one’s community a narrative in which the exceptional individual removes herself from the shared fate of the community. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt offers a powerful critique of those she called “exception Jews” whose wealth allowed them to be “exceptions from the common destiny of the Jewish people,” as well as “Jews of education,” who felt themselves exempted from “Jewishness” by virtue of having become “exceptional human beings” in their education.

In this post, I focus not on the issues that arise from the relationship between the exception individual and the community he attempts to leave, which was Arendt’s focus, but on those surrounding the relationship between the individual and the community he attempts to join. I do so by exploring two contemporary examples of exceptionalism—the exceptional immigrant or minority student and the extraordinary father figure. While the example of the exceptional student largely tracks Arendt’s case of the exception Jew whose exceptionalism gestures toward a relatively powerful community, the case of the exceptional father reveals the potential dangers of appropriation and invisibility that arise when the relatively powerful gesture toward the relatively powerless through claims to exceptionalism. Both allow me to expand on Arendt’s critique and explore the various ways in which power is exercised in an individual’s claim to exceptionalism and the community’s acceptance of such claims.

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.
14Jun/141

Who Does Tenure Help?

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A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

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".
10Apr/132

Islamic and Liberal Intersections

FromtheArendtCenter

Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.

Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.

window

This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”

When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.

Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.

In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.

At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.

mosque

Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.

This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”

-Jeffrey Jurgens

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[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.

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.
19Feb/130

The Great Divide

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that "being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever." Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.

Here is Kahlenberg:

Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.

This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation's economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.

Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.

In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women's studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.

Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one's chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.

 Read the whole article here.

Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:

Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.

It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.

This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:

While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.

Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.

-RB

 

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.
26Mar/121

Some Reflections on Anoka-Hennepin

“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”

—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”

Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.

The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.

That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.

Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)

I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.

Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.

They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.

Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of  (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.

The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.

What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.

This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.

In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?

To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.

One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.

Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.

-Stephen Haswell Todd

 

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