Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Video Archives – Roger Berkowitz L&T Lecture (2010)


Monday, August 16, 2010: “Earth Alienation: From Galileo to Google”

Lecturer: Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.

In this lecture, Roger Berkowitz welcomes the incoming Class of 2014 at Bard College with an important question: “Is humanity important?” The human race has witnessed impressive scientific and technological achievements, some of the most remarkable of which have occurred in the past 50 years. While some of these have advanced the history of humanity, others threaten to dampen its spark. Nuclear and biological weapons are capable of killing untold millions of people, and the urge to embrace automation in our everyday lives cultivates the fear that society may one day embrace euthanization as a way to rid itself of “superfluous persons”. Acknowledging this increasingly dangerous world we live in, Berkowitz argues it is imperative that we at this moment in time take a closer look at ourselves and consider our significance. He proposes two sources that can help us in our task: Galileo and Google.

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.

Arendt & Gun Control

In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.

The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.

DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.

But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week?  The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:

In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.

What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.

But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.

The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.

What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).

As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.

Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.

What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.


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.

Rethinking the Unsustainable

There is probably no presidential speech more quoted in Academic circles than Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech, on the final day of his presidency. It was in that speech that Eisenhower warned of the danger of a military-industrial complex.

The need for a permanent army and a permanent arms industry creates, he writes, a gargantuan defense establishment that would wield an irresistible economic, political, and spiritual influence. In the face of this military-industrial complex, we as a nation must remain vigilant.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower's speech was prescient. Particularly academics love to point to his speech to criticize bloated defense spending and point to the need to critically resist the military demands for more weapons and more soldiers. They are undoubtedly right to do so.

This is true even as today the military may be the one significant institution in American life where top leaders are arguing that America's world preeminence is not sustainable. In Edward Luce's excellent new book Time to Start Thinking, he describes how military leaders are convinced that the U.S. "should sharply reduced its "global footprint" by winding up all wars, notably in Afghanistan, and by closing peacetime military bases in Germany, South Korea, the UK, and elsewhere." The military leaders Luce spoke to also said that the US must learn to live with a nuclear Iran and "stop spending so much time and resources on the war against Al-Qaeda." Military leaders, Luce reports, are upset that "In this country 'shared sacrifice' means putting a yellow ribbon around the oak tree and then going shopping." Many military people seem to share Admiral Michael Mullen's view that the US national debt is the "country's number one threat—greater than that posed by terrorism, by weapons of mass destruction, and by global warming." One must think hard about the fact that military leaders see the need for "shared sacrifice" that will shrink the military-industrial complex while Americans and their elected leaders still speak about tax cuts and stimulus.

Too frequently forgotten in Eisenhower's speech, or even simply overlooked, is the fact that Eisenhower follows his discussion of the military-industrial complex with a similar warning about the dangers of a "revolution in the conduct of research."  Parallel to the military-industrial complex is the danger of a university-government complex. (Hat Tip, Tom Billings (see comments)).  Eisenhower writes:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

Just as modern warfare demands a huge and constant arms industry, so too does the technological revolution demand a huge and constant army of researchers and scientists. This army can only be organized and funded by government largesse. There is a danger, Eisenhower warns, that the university-government complex will take on a life of its own, manufacturing unreal needs (e.g. a Bachelor of Arts degree in order to manage an assembly line) and liberally funding research with little regards to quality, meaning, or need. While the university-government complex is not nearly as expensive or dangerous as the military-industrial complex, there is little doubt that it exists.

Eisenhower warns of a double threat of this university-government complex. First, the nation's scholars could be dominated by Federal employment, and gear their research to fit with governmental mandates. And second, the opposite danger, that "public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

The existence and power of just such a scientific-technological elite is undeniable today. On the one side are the free-market idealogues, those acolytes of Friedman, Hayek, and Coase, who insist that policy be geared towards rational, self-regulating, economic actors. That real people do not conform to theories of rational behavior is a problem with the people, not the theories.

On the other side are the welfare-state adherents, who insist on governmental support for not only the poor, but also the working classes, the bankers, and corporations. The sad fact that 50 years of anti-poverty programs have not alleviated poverty or that record amounts of money spent on education has seen educational attainment decrease rather than increase is seen to be no argument for the failure of technocratic-governmental solutions. It just means more money and more technical know-how are needed.

It is simply amazing that people in academia can actually defend the current system that we are part of. Of course there are good schools and fine teachers and serious students. But we all know the system is a failure. Graduate students are without prospects; faculty spend so much time publishing articles and books that no one reads; administrators make ever more - sometimes twelve times as much as full professors-and come more and more to serve as the lifeblood of universities; and it is the rare student who amidst the large classes, absent faculty, and social and financial pressures, somehow makes college an intellectual experience.

The idea and practice of college needs to be re-imagined and re-thought. Entrenched interests will oppose this. But at this point the system is so broken that it simply cannot survive. On a financial level, large numbers of universities are being kept afloat on the largesse of federal student loans. If those loans were to disappear or dry up, many colleges would disappear or at the least shrink greatly. This should not happen. And yet, putting our young people $1 trillion in debt is not an answer. For too long we have been paying for our lifestyles with borrowed money. We are now used to our inflated lifestyles and unwilling to give them up. Something will have to give.

The current cost of a college education is unsustainable except for the very top schools that attract the very richest students who then fund endowments that allow those schools to subsidize economic, national, and racial diversity. For schools that cannot attract the wealthiest or do not have endowments that protect them from market forces, change will have to come. This will mean, in many instances, faculty salaries will decrease and costs will have to come down. In other colleges, costs will rise and university education will be ever less accessible. Either way, the conviction that everyone needs a liberal arts degree will probably be revised.

I have no crystal ball showing where this will all lead. But there are better and worse ways that the change will come, and I for one hope that if we turn to honestly thinking about it in the present, the future will be more palatable. This is the debate we need to have.


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.