Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
10Feb/140

Amor Mundi 2/9/14

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

It Matters Who Wins

ascentSimon Critchley at "The Stone" reminisces about Dr. Jacob Bronowski's "Ascent of Man" series and specifically the episode on Knowledge and Creativity. At one point in his essay Critchley inserts a video clip of the end of the episode, a clip that suddenly shifts the scene "to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski's family were murdered." We see Dr. Bronowski walking in Auschwitz. He says: "There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit. The assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts. Obedient ghosts. Or Tortured ghosts.  It's said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That's false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how men behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of Gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell, 'I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.'" It is a must read essay and must see clip. And you can read more about in Roger Berkowitz's Weekend Read.

Inside Camp X-Ray

xrayIn the wake of President Obama's yearly promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, South African writer Gillian Slovo suggests that, just as important as closing the base is acknowledging what happened inside: "There are two qualifications for being in Guantanamo: you have to be male, and you have to be Muslim. And once you've had the bad luck to be shipped there, you're stuck. Ordinary prisons in democratic societies work because of the cooperation of prisoners, most of whom, if they behave well, know they will eventually be freed. Not so in Guantanamo: there are the voiceless who, the American government has decided, do not deserve a trial. That's why, as Lord Steyn said, the American government made every effort to stop us from knowing what was happening there and that is why it is the responsibility of those who do have a voice in our world to let it be heard."

Woody Allen, Nihilist

wppdyIn the midst of the debate concerning whether the allegations against Woody Allen should affect how his work is received and celebrated, Damon Linker discusses the philosophical nihilism underlying Allen's work and its moral implications. He points to the 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, in which a married man who murders his lover in order to prevent her from disclosing their affair not only gets away with the crime but manages to entirely overcome his guilt and find happiness. In a 2010 interview with Commonweal magazine that Linker quotes, Allen explained the existential meaninglessness that he wanted the film to depict: "[E]veryone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.... [O]ne can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren't. There is no justice..." Nihilism threatens to bring about a world in which anything becomes possible and permissible because we no longer see human life as having meaning. And yet, nihilism, as Hannah Arendt saw, can also be central to the practice of thinking and acting that creates meaning. For more on Woody's nihilism, see Roger Berkowitz's Weekend Read.

Ambivalent About Love

loveIn an interview, comics artist  expresses her ambivalence about love: "Well, love isn't an end in itself, no emotion is. Emotions are signposts directing you to actions, and the actions have varied consequences beyond the scope of the events that instigated them. I'm more interested in examining the state of being in love, of accommodating that feeling and attempting to legibly express it, than I am with mapping the initial process of a romantic attraction. If the lovers in my stories seem to struggle to connect with one another, it's because that's what being in love mainly entails, this ongoing mutual desperate groping for communion. I don't mean to argue that I think love isn't worthwhile! I think it absolutely is, but whether I think that or not, love and every other strong emotion will still be rampaging through the animal kingdom, kneecapping all attempts at independent decision-making, compelling us to conform our behavior to its purpose, which is mainly procreative. In fact the inevitability of it is reassuring. Pulling these things apart a little is beneficial, and I'd like to see it done more, but questioning a concept doesn't equate to rejecting it outright. I question it precisely because I believe in it so strongly."

Of Fear, Cowardice, and Courage

womanLinda Besner, striking an Arendtian note, wonders what it means that we have abandoned the idea of cowardice. One worry is that if we no longer speak of cowardice we may no longer be able to praise bravery. Besner suggests that contemporary definitions of bravery-facing down your own fears-are useful for self development, but not so much for living with others: "without a moral category of cowardice, are we really entitled to a category of bravery? The argument that Fear is Courage sounds unsettlingly Orwellian, and paves the way for the simple admission of fear to replace overcoming it. The emotional risks of facing one's feelings matter; but an inward-looking process focused on self-actualization is different from a sense of duty to the wider world. If cowardice consists in failing the collective, bravery may be said to inhere in taking personal risks for the greater good."

On Miracles, Agony, and Optimism

manIn the same special issues on "Generation" that elicited Carol Becker's reflections discussed last week, Jan Verwoert asks "why would Capital exploit the miraculous, if it was not for the fact that it is a source of infinite generative energy?" He writes, "Miracles happen always and everywhere. Art presents us with evidence of their occurrence daily, in the most mundane fashion: every little instant in which the mind clears, an intuition takes shape, you see what you couldn't see before, and what couldn't be resolved suddenly can be; in the spot where the writing got stuck the night before, words fall into place; the morning after, you meet someone by chance who opens a door and a project that seemed unrealizable yesterday goes through no problem; the fingers find their way across the key--or fretboard and a song is born; the painting that has been staring back at you for weeks or months now, half complete yet incompletable because it's evident that it lacks something but is impossible to see what-well, that canvas suddenly opens up, and within the shortest amount of time things shift into perspective and the work is done. This is a miracle. It cannot be achieved, or caused by any known means (drugs don't work). It occurs."

Featured Events

book2Matthew Shepard: The Murder and the Myth - A Discussion with Stephen Jiminez

Tuesday, February 11, 2014, 7:00 pm

Olin 102, Bard College

Learn more here.

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Blogging and the New Public Intellectual - A Discussion with Tom Goldstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 , 5:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Bard Graduate Center, NYC

Learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Bill Dixon reflects on the "sandstorm of totalitarianism" that is based upon "loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz explore truth, creativity, nihilism, and the affaire Allen.

5Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/4/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

What They Know

NSAJames Bamford has an excellent survey of the continuing revelations about the NSA's surveillance activities, bringing us up to date on what the government does and does not know about us. He steers clear of exaggerated accusations, writing: "Of course the US is not a totalitarian society, and no equivalent of Big Brother runs it, as the widespread reporting of Snowden's information shows." But Bamford also details the direction of the current policies, finding their danger in the rise of a security state mentality: "Still, the US intelligence agencies also seem to have adopted Orwell's idea of doublethink-"to be conscious of complete truthfulness," he wrote, "while telling carefully constructed lies." For example, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was asked at a Senate hearing in March whether "the NSA collect[s] any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." Clapper's answer: "No, sir.... Not wittingly.""

XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects 'Nearly Everything'

keyscoreSpeaking of what the government knows, Glenn Greenwald, writing again in the Guardian, has unveiled the most important part of the NSA surveillance state since his original article over one month ago. XKeyscore is "A top secret National Security Agency program that allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals, according to documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden."

Trayvon Martin: What the Law Can't Do

trayvonIn the New York Review of Books, Steven H. Wright explains the George Zimmerman acquittal to his mother, who, "like many mothers of black sons, couldn't understand how state prosecutors had failed to secure a conviction for the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin." In doing so, Wright offers one of the most thoughtful accounts of the legal process against Zimmerman - and potential further federal cases. He also explains why it is so difficult to prove at law that a crime was committed because of race: "In either case, the government would have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that race played a role in the death of Martin. In response, Zimmerman has at least two practical defenses. In the first defense, Zimmerman's legal team might strive to introduce evidence demonstrating that he is not prejudiced against African-Americans. As is now well known, some African-Americans have already come to Zimmerman's defense. A black neighbor has said that Zimmerman was the first and only person to welcome her to the neighborhood. Black children have also claimed Zimmerman mentored them. And according to his family Zimmerman has many black friends. The defense undoubtedly would try to ensure that the jurors learned these stories. Imagine if these black friends showed their support by sitting behind Zimmerman at trial. This image alone might persuade some jurors that race was not a motivating factor in Martin's death."

Private Universities and Public Developments

detroitJustin Pope wonders if a large private research institution might have helped Detroit to avoid its recent bankruptcy: "Where is Detroit's Johns Hopkins? Or, to limit the comparison to neighboring Rust Belt states, where is its Carnegie-Mellon, or Case Western Reserve? Why is there no, say, Henry Ford University in Detroit? And if there had been one, would it have made a difference?"

On the Power of Cinema

scorcese"First of all," Martin Scorcese says, discussing and defending the power of the cinema, "there's light. Light is at the beginning of cinema, of course. It's fundamental - because cinema is created with light, and it's still best seen projected in dark rooms, where it's the only source of light. But light is also at the beginning of everything. Most creation myths start with darkness, and then the real beginning comes with light - which means the creation of forms. Which leads to distinguishing one thing from another, and ourselves from the rest of the world. Recognizing patterns, similarities, differences, naming things - interpreting the world. Metaphors - seeing one thing "in light of" something else. Becoming "enlightened." Light is at the core of who we are and how we understand ourselves."

Whither the Jury?

juryAlbert Dzur makes his case, not to the jury, but rather in favor of it: "Lay participation in criminal justice is needed because it brings otherwise attenuated people into contact with human suffering, draws attention to the ways laws and policies and institutional structures prolong that suffering, and makes possible - though does not guarantee - greater awareness among participants of their own responsibility for laws and policies and structures that treat people humanely. Participatory institutions are our best chance at breaking through what philosopher Margaret Urban Walker aptly calls 'morally significant nonperception.' Evasion of concern for others, the dismissal of some as less than fully human, is the first barrier to be surmounted on the way to justice." For more on the importance of the jury to the American tradition of doing justice, see Roger Berkowitz's essay Why We Must Judge.

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast" The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College

Learn more here.

 

 

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Jeffrey Champlin digs into Arendt's Denktagebuch. For the weekend read, Roger Berkowitz looks at the decline in jury trials and the potential impact that might have. "What acts of judgment exemplified by juries offer are an ideal of justice beyond the law." Lastly, Wednesday brought to a close our 10 day/100 member campaign. We are thrilled to report that we exceeded our goal, and we thank you for all of your support and generosity.

 

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

__________________________________________

[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.

26Oct/120

Corruption Takes Root

What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one's elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.

In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such "soft" corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. "Our enemy," Lessig writes, "is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women." Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but "not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler's Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal."

Lessig is right to worry that Arendt's phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.

It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.

Lance Armstrong's web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time.  Rumors of Armstrong's drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:

The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air - a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.

We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, "holes of oblivion do not exist." Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.

What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center's Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust's Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt's insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.

A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic.  Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.

By his own account, Milton Hershey's life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be  an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.

So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children's home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a "better" class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.

Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust's incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad's Harvard Law School lecture "Hershey's Broken Trust" here.

In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:

The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.

As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.

You can read an excerpt of Lessig's Republic, Lost...  here, at Amazon.com, where you can also buy his book.

-RB

17Sep/122

History and Freedom

The history of humanity is not a hotel where someone can rent a room whenever it suits him; nor is it a vehicle which we board or get out of at random.  Our past will be for us a burden beneath which we can only collapse for as long as we refuse to understand the present and fight for a better future.  Only then—but from that moment on—will the burden become a blessing, that is, a weapon in the battle for freedom.

-Hannah Arendt, "Moses or Washington" (March 27, 1942)

This eloquent quote from Hannah Arendt moves through a series of metaphors for historical consciousness.  The first two, history is a hotel, and history is a vehicle, are rejected as misleading.  Hotels and vehicles are both transitional spaces, areas inhabited on a temporary basis, not permanent dwellings.  History is not a place we visit for a short period of time, or a place we merely use to get from point A to point B.  Arendt further implies that history is not a commodity to be bought and sold, used and disposed of according to our mood.  But this is less a statement of fact than an admonition, in response to the fact that it is indeed possible for individuals to reject and deny their past, to ignore and abandon their history.  It is a commonplace to say that we cannot choose our parents, and the history of humanity that Arendt is concerned with is, after all, an extension of our personal and family histories.

As an admonition, Arendt's remarks may seem to be a simple restatement of George Santayana's famous 1905 quote, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  And clearly, she shares in this sentiment about the importance of collective memory and the need to learn from the errors of previous eras.  But she goes beyond this simple formulation by invoking the metaphor of history as a burden.  History has gravity, history has weight, and the longer the historical memory, the heavier the baggage that accompanies it.  Historical mass accumulates over time, and also through innovations in communications.  In oral cultures, where writing is absent, history as we understand it does not exist; instead there is myth and legend, preserved through oral tradition by way of continued repetition via oral performance.  Given the limitations of human memory, details about the past are forgotten within a generation or two, and the main function of myth and legend is to reflect and explain present circumstances.  This collective amnesia allows for a great deal of cultural flexibility and social homeostasis, a freedom from the burden of history that literate cultures take up.  The written word first makes possible chronological recordkeeping, and later historical narrative framed as an ongoing progression of events; this linear conception of time replaces the cyclical past of oral tradition, and what Mircea Eliade referred to as the myth of eternal return.  And so we hear the complaint of school children in generation after generation, that history is so much harder now than it was for their parents, because now there is so much more of it than ever before.

History is a burden, one that becomes too much to bear if all we are doing is living in the past, in rigid adherence to a fixed and unchanging tradition.  But Arendt adds the complementary metaphor of history as a blessing.  The burden can become a blessing if we use the past to understand the present, to serve the present, not to overwhelm or command the present.  The past can inform the present, history helps us to see why things are the way they are, why we do the things we do; being mindful of the past is a means to help fulfill Arendt’s goal of thinking what we are doing.  But it is not enough simply to live in the present, and for the present.  We also have to look towards the future, to work for progress in the moral, ethical, and social sense, to enlarge the scope of human freedom.  And in light of this goal, Arendt invokes her fifth and final metaphor for history:  history is a weapon.  It is a weapon not to destroy or dominate others, or at least that is not what Arendt intends it to be, but rather a sword of liberty, an instrument to be used in the fight against oppression.

This quote reflects Arendt's overriding concern with human freedom.  The battle for freedom that she refers to is a collective struggle, not an individual quest.  It can only be achieved by political cooperation and unity, not by solitary escape from tyranny.  The commonly used phrase in western cultures, individual freedom, while not without value, all too easily eclipses the necessity of freedom as a shared responsibility, and in excess becomes oxymoronic.  As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" and "no one is free while others are oppressed."  Freedom for all, shared freedom, requires a sense of affiliation, kinship, connection, which in turn requires a sense of continuity over time. Just as individual memory is intimately related to individual identity, our collective memory is the key to group identity.  History is the foundation of community.

Historical consciousness, which is derived from literacy, did not become widespread until after the diffusion of typography.  In addition to making written history widely available, print media such as calendars and periodicals made individuals aware of their place in history as never before, down to the basic knowledge of the year, month, and date that we all take for granted, not to mention awareness of our date of birth and age.  And as the great historian of printing, Elizabeth Eisenstein explains, more than any other factor, it was the printing revolution that gave rise to modernity.  The irony is that as printing made the past more accessible, it also made it seem less valuable, resulting in modernity's ahistorical tendencies.  Focus shifted from venerating tradition to revering progress, from looking back to origins to looking forward for originality.  This is exemplified by the fact that printing gave us two new literary forms, the news, and the novel.

And so we get Henry Ford saying, "history is bunk," and dystopian novels like Brave New World and 1984 portraying future societies where history is either deleted or subject to constant revision.  Without a sense of the past, sensitivity to the future is undermined, and with the advent of instantaneous electronic communications beginning with telegraphy in the 19th century, more and more emphasis has been placed on the now, the present tense, leading us to lose touch with both the past and the future.  Conceptions of the past have also been affected by the rise of image culture, beginning with photography in the 19th century, so that a coherent sense of linear history came to be replaced by a discontinuous, and therefore incoherent collection of snapshots evoking nostalgia, as Susan Sontag observed in On Photography.  What Arendt makes clear is that contemporary present-minded ahistoricism risks more than Santayana's Sisyphean purgatory, but a true hell of oppression and slavery.

So far, I have stressed a universal interpretation of this quote, and ignored its particular context.  Arendt's admonition originates in a column she wrote for a Jewish newspaper, Aufbau, published in New York for German-speaking Jews, as part of a critique of the Reform movement in Judaism.  The movement originated in 19th century Germany, as a response to the Enlightenment, and the Emancipation initiated by Napoleon, wherein Jews were released from ghetto confinement and given a measure of equal rights and citizenship.

To accommodate their newly established status, the Reform movement sought to recast Judaism in the image of Protestantism, as just another religious sect.  Apart from a liberalizing and modernizing of worship and religious requirements, this meant abandoning Jewish identity as a people, as a nation in exile, so as to give full political allegiance to the new nation-states of the west, and embrace a new national identity as citizens of Germany, or France, or England, or the United States.  Consequently, the Reform movement rejected Zionism and made loyalty to the nation of one's birth a religious duty.  Jewish identity and tradition were thereby reduced, compartmentalized as only a form of religious belief and practice, their political significance abandoned.

Arendt's criticism is consonant with Jewish tradition, as the Torah repeatedly asks the Jewish people to remember, to remember the Exodus, to remember the revelation at Mount Sinai, to remember God's laws and commandments, to remember God's commitment to social justice.  Rather than make an argument for a return to Orthodoxy, however, Arendt's concern is characteristically philosophical.  Immediately before concluding her column with the passage quoted above, Arendt makes a more specific appeal regarding models of political leadership and moral guidance:

As long as the Passover story does not teach the difference between freedom and slavery, as long as the Moses legend does not call to mind the eternal rebellion of the heart and mind against slavery, the "oldest document of human history" will remain dead and mute to no one more than the very people who once wrote it.  And while all of Christian humanity has appropriated our history for itself, reclaiming our heroes as humanity's heroes, there is paradoxically a growing number of those who believe they must replace Moses and David with Washington or Napoleon.  Ultimately, this attempt to forget our own past and to find youth again at the expense of strangers will fail—simply because Washington's and Napoleon's heroes were named Moses and David.

Written in the dark times that followed Hitler's rise to power, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the establishment of Eichmann's concentration camps, Arendt's words are all the more poignant and powerful in their call for taking pride in the Jewish tradition of fighting for freedom and justice, and for an awareness that the cause of liberty and human rights have their roots in that most ancient of documents.

Arendt's criticisms of the excesses of Reform Judaism were widely shared, and the movement itself changed dramatically in response to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  Reform Judaism reversed its stance on Zionism, and remains a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, albeit with a willingness to engage in criticism of Israeli government policies and decisions.  At the same time, Reform religious observance, while still distinct from that of the Orthodox and Conservative branches, has gradually restored many elements of traditional worship over the years.  And the celebration of Jewish culture and identity has become normalized during the past half century.

For example, witness Aly Raisman's gold medal-winning gymnastic routine at the recently completed London Olympics, performed to the tune of Hava Nagila; Keith Stern, the rabbi at the Reform synagogue that Aly attends, explained that " it indicates Aly’s Jewish life is so integrated into her entire soul, that I don’t think she was looking to make a statement as a Jew, I think it was so natural to her that it's more like, why wouldn’t she use the Hora? It shows again her confidence and tradition in a really fundamental way."

Raisman's musical selection made an important statement as well, in light of the International Olympics Committee's decision not to have a moment of silence during the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in a terrorist attack.  I think that Arendt would be nodding in approval at the way in which the teenage captain of the United States women's gymnastics team, in her own way, followed the example of Moses and David.

Arendt's passage about history and freedom is a fitting one, I believe, for a Quote of the Week post scheduled to appear on the same day as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also said to be the birthday of the world.  The calendar year now turns to 5773, and 5,773 years is roughly the age of history itself, of recorded history, of written records, which originate in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.  And while Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holy Days, and are popularly thought to be the most important in Jewish tradition, in truth it is the Passover that is the oldest, and most significant, of our holidays, lending further support to Arendt's argument.  But even more important than Passover is the weekly observance of the Sabbath day, which is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  And in the new Sabbath liturgy recently adopted by the American Reform movement, there is a prayer adapted from a passage in the book Exodus and Revolution by political philosopher Michael Walzer, that is worth sharing in this context:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promised land;
That the winding way to that promise
Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
Except by joining hands, marching together.

The message of this prayer is that only by working together can we transform the burden of history into a blessing, only by working together can we wield the shared history of humanity in the service of human freedom and social justice.  This is what Arendt wanted us to understand, to commit to memory, and to learn by heart.

-Lance Strate