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.
Hasan Elahi started a self-surveillance art series when he was mistakenly reported to the FBI's terrorist watch list in 2001, and he's been reporting his movements online through his website every day since. But what started as a series on the way people are being watched became a series about the way we're watching ourselves: "Making the mundane details of his life publicly available became 'a very pragmatic solution to keep from being shipped off to Guantanamo.' He still faithfully updates his location every time he makes a major move--from his house to the gas station, from the gas station to his job. And he takes pictures of literally everything he does, whether shopping at the grocery store, eating at his favorite Chinese restaurant, or peeing in the bathroom. Strangely enough, Elahi says doing so has allowed him to live a relatively anonymous, quiet existence. 'I like to think of it as aggressive compliance,' he said. 'I've always been fascinated with Magellan and the concept of circumnavigation: going far enough in one direction to end up in the other.' But while the project started out as a response to state surveillance, it's become a parody of the way people now put their entire lives online for anyone--friends, stalkers, government agents--to follow. And it's remarkable how quickly it's happened: when Elahi first started photographing his meals, his friends thought it was weird. Now everyone does it, and some restaurants even have no-photo policies. Elahi doesn't think what he's doing is any stranger than if he were constantly tweeting, checking in on location apps, or posting photos on Facebook. 'These days, we're so wired 24/7 that you have to go out of your way not to be connected,' he said." All of this recalls Richard Sennett's "paradox of visibility and isolation" in his classic The Fall of Public Man. As we are ever more visible in public through cameras, data collection, and the expressiveness of clothes, tweets, and public displays of affection, there is the consequent compensation that we insist on not revealing our true selves. As Sennett writes: "Isolation in the midst of visibility to others was a logical consequence of insisting on one's right to be mute when one ventured into this chaotic yet still magnetic realm." There is a way in which we expose ourselves, but in doing so neutralize and appease those who observe us without actually revealing our true passions, hopes, and desires. The problem, as Sennett argues, is that we then begin to lose the ability to "imagine social relations which would arouse much passion...." The result is that we come to imagine a passionless "public life in which people behave, and manage their behavior, only through withdrawal, 'accommodation,' and 'appeasement.'"
Rosemary Pooler and Richard Wesley penned Turkmen v. Ashcroft, an important decision from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals this month. (h/t Alan Sussman) The decision reinstated a lawsuit against John Ashcroft and other prison and government officials. The plaintiffs are a group of eight Muslims who were arrested on immigration charges after 9/11 and who were then held and interrogated for between three and eight months. The complaint concerned discriminatory treatment based upon a policy by Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller "whereby any Muslim or Arab man encountered during the investigation of a tip received in the 9/11 terrorism investigation . . . and discovered to be a non-citizen who had violated the terms of his visa, was arrested." The plaintiffs in this suit were arrested, sent to maximum security prisons, subjected to constant strip searches, sleep deprivation, and other harsh interrogation techniques on no evidence except their apparent Muslim faith. Pooler and Wesley, in deciding to reinstate the plaintiff's lawsuit, offer these stirring and more than appropriate final thoughts: "If there is one guiding principle to our nation it is the rule of law. It protects the unpopular view, it restrains fear-based responses in times of trouble, and it sanctifies individual liberty regardless of wealth, faith, or color. The Constitution defines the limits of the Defendants' authority; detaining individuals as if they were terrorists, in the most restrictive conditions of confinement available, simply because these individuals were, or appeared to be, Arab or Muslim exceeds those limits. It might well be that national security concerns motivated the Defendants to take action, but that is of little solace to those who felt the brunt of that decision. The suffering endured by those who were imprisoned merely because they were caught up in the hysteria of the days immediately following 9/11 is not without a remedy. Holding individuals in solitary confinement twenty-three hours a day with regular strip searches because their perceived faith or race placed them in the group targeted for recruitment by al Qaeda violated the detainees' constitutional rights. To use such a broad and general basis for such severe confinement without any further particularization of a reason to suspect an individual's connection to terrorist activities requires certain assumptions about the 'targeted group' not offered by Defendants nor supported in the record. It assumes that members of the group were already allied with or would be easily converted to the terrorist cause, until proven otherwise. Why else would no further particularization of a connection to terrorism be required? Perceived membership in the 'targeted group' was seemingly enough to justify extended confinement in the most restrictive conditions available." Plaintiff's brought this lawsuit in April, 2002, over 13 years ago. Justice can be slow. But one hopes that at least eventually it will be served.
Tom Engelhardt asks the important and difficult question--Is there a new political system emerging in the United States? His five-part account suggests that may well be. "Have you ever undertaken some task you felt less than qualified for, but knew that someone needed to do? Consider this piece my version of that and let me put what I do understand about it in a nutshell: based on developments in our post-9/11 world, we could be watching the birth of a new American political system and way of governing for which, as yet, we have no name. And here's what I find strange: the evidence of this, however inchoate, is all around us and yet it's as if we can't bear to take it in or make sense of it or even say that it might be so. Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of 'we the people.' Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray."
Thinking about global warming and environmental disasters can be numbing and depressing. But in the New Yorker this week, Bill McKibben offers a reason to hope. He tells of Mark and Sara Borkowski in Rutland, Vermont. With help from Vermont's Green Mountain Power, the Borkowski's "stuffed the house with new insulation, put in a heat pump for the hot water, and installed two air-source heat pumps to warm the home. They also switched all the light bulbs to L.E.D.s and put a small solar array on the slate roof of the garage. The Borkowskis paid for the improvements, but the utility financed the charges through their electric bill, which fell the very first month. Before the makeover, from October of 2013 to January of 2014, the Borkowskis used thirty-four hundred and eleven kilowatt-hours of electricity and three hundred and twenty-five gallons of fuel oil. From October of 2014 to January of 2015, they used twenty-eight hundred and fifty-six kilowatt-hours of electricity and no oil at all. President Obama has announced that by 2025 he wants the United States to reduce its total carbon footprint by up to twenty-eight per cent of 2005 levels. The Borkowskis reduced the footprint of their house by eighty-eight per cent in a matter of days, and at no net cost. I've travelled the world writing about and organizing against climate change, but, standing in the Borkowskis' kitchen and looking at their electric bill, I felt a fairly rare emotion: hope. The numbers reveal a sudden new truth--that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use. The Borkowskis' house is not an Aspen earth shelter made of adobe and old tires, built by a former software executive who converted to planetary consciousness at Burning Man. It's an utterly plain house, with Frozen bedspreads and One Direction posters, inhabited by a working-class family of four, two rabbits, and a parakeet named Oliver." McKibben also writes of Richard Kauffman, the NY State energy czar, who cites Hannah Arendt for inspiration. "Kauffman has all sorts of plans, from a 'green bank'--to attract private-sector capital to finance extensive energy-saving retrofits--to new rules that would pressure utilities to play nicely with outside partners like Solar City. 'It's kind of a Hannah Arendt thing,' he said. 'There's not a lot of intentional evil in utilities. But we've created a golden cage for them, protected them from enormous trends.' We were on the subway again, and as it clattered back toward Manhattan Kauffman had to shout to be heard: 'Our aim is to create a policy environment that is not standing against the forces of history but is in line with them.'"
In an interview, author and ghostwriter Hilary Liftin talks about the way she interacts with her subjects: "I have a particular role: to represent the person I'm writing for and to create a voice for that person. But the other thing that I bring to it is empathy. There are certain jobs I don't take because I feel no connection to the person. But if somebody is open with me, and honest about their motivations, and has some level of self-awareness, then I'm going to understand them. The same way you'd feel if you sat down with a criminal and they told you their life story. You would probably understand the crime and forgive it. None of my clients are criminals, but to a much lighter degree that's what goes on. I hear the story, and I hear it with the level of detail that breeds empathy.... I'm not creating a voice out of thin air. Everyone has a public voice, and a lot of actors have developed sound-bitey public voices. But that doesn't translate to paper. That's why they can't just dictate a book, even if they're good storytellers. So the question is: how can I manifest the quirks and thoughts and uniqueness of their own personalities? In part, I do that by typing when they talk. I don't record. That is a way for my brain to take in the voice. My goal is that when my client reads a book they feel like, 'Hilary did something but mostly she just made it happen quickly.' I think people dismiss celebrity memoirs as unreal, contrived and maybe partially made up. But that's definitely not true for anything that I write."
Tamar Adler waxes poetic about preserves: "I have felt lucky, as a grown person, to discover that this thing I loved in innocent abstraction had real importance. Salting and drying meat and fish helped human beings to last through long winters, sea voyages and treacherous overland trails. If cultivating soil was what let us settle, it was harnessing bacterial cultures and sugar, salt, acid, fat, sun and wind to paralyze microorganisms and save food from decay that let us unmoor, discovering all the world that was not visible from our cabbage patches. Basque cider allowed seamen to cross oceans. Dutch pickled herring fueled the exploration of the New World. Vikings spread cod in the riggings of their ships to dry and stiffen in the cold wind, then traded on it as they battled through Scandinavia, the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Cheese was first a way of preserving milk; wine, of grape juice; sauerkraut, of cabbage; prosciutto, of pork. In this sense, all preserved things are additionally miraculous, in that they all are also ways of storing other things: part vessel, part content."
Tiffany Jenkins responds to the query, "Why Value Privacy?" with this answer citing Hannah Arendt. "Where privacy is as important, but perhaps less obviously so, is in relation to the development of the human person. Privacy allows us to retreat from the world, for a while, to not be 'on show' all the time, to take our face off. It is space without scrutiny and immediate judgment in which we can take time out and reflect. Here, we can be vulnerable. Here, we can experiment and try things out. Here, we can make mistakes. We can be ourselves; learning and developing what that means. And that we have some say over what others know and what they do not know, is a way to develop autonomy and self-possession. All this helps us to sure up psychological and social depth. As the writer Hannah Arendt put it: 'A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow.'" We couldn't agree more, which is why the Hannah Arendt Center is hosting our 8th Annual Conference "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?" The Conference is Oct. 15-16. You can read about it and register here.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reflects on how dianoetic laughter frees us from the misery that arises from our constant failure to be able to converse with ourselves in the Quote of the Week. Australian philosopher Peter Singer discusses how thinking helps constitute the meaning of philosophy in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we share an image sent to us by the Goethe-Institut New York of some of Arendt's writings housed in its library in this week's Library feature.
Did the Arab Spring come from nowhere, or was it preceded by modes of social and political action that might have eluded our common conceptual frames? How do ordinary people in the Middle East manage and even alter the conditions of everyday life despite the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments? These questions formed the starting point for Asef Bayat’s lecture “Non-Movements and the Power of the Ordinary,” which he gave in Olin Hall on Thursday evening, February 7th. Bayat is the Catherine and Bruce Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches in the sociology and Middle East Studies departments. Throughout his illustrious career, his research has focused on social movements, religiosity, and urban space in Iran, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states.
Contrary to common public perception, Bayat insisted that these countries’ subaltern populations do not resign themselves to adverse economic and political circumstances. Indeed, the region has well established traditions of activism among leftists, unionists, women, Islamists, and post-Islamists, among many other constituencies. But it has often proven difficult to create and sustain organized social movements when Middle Eastern states have been so reluctant to tolerate opposition. How then might citizens foster meaningful political change?
Bayat argued that many Middle Easterners, rather than overtly confronting authoritarian governments, have resorted to what he calls “social non-movements.” Such non-movements are defined not by formal lobbying and protest, but rather by fleeting moments of mundane but nevertheless contentious action. Such action constitutes a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to the extent that it slowly alters everyday conditions in a manner that authoritarian state forces must respond to but cannot easily prevent. At the same time, social non-movements are propelled not by bureaucratic organizations that governments can readily identify and target, but rather by constituencies of dispersed individuals and groups who mobilize around common experiences and grievances.
In an effort to lend empirical weight to these general claims, Bayat offered a series of illustrative case studies. One concerned the actions of the poor. In Egypt and many other countries of the Middle East, large numbers of rural residents have sought to escape grinding material scarcity by moving to larger cities and building their own homes from scavenged materials. The formation of these squatter settlements is rarely if ever coordinated by any formal collective organization, but it nevertheless results in a dramatic reshaping of the urban landscape. Although government forces may initially destroy homes built in this fashion, the persistent construction and reconstruction eventually compels them to alter urban planning protocols, provide water, electricity and other utilities, and incorporate these makeshift districts into the “official city.”
Another case study turned on pious women’s myriad efforts to carve out more satisfying places for themselves in Iranian public life. The Islamic Republic has long sought to regulate female bodily coverage in the street as one means of assuring the nation’s moral and spiritual integrity, but hundreds of thousands of women have opted to defy government dictates by wearing “bad hijab” (i.e., headscarves and chadors that leave a few centimeters of hair visible). These women’s subtle but consistent sartorial challenges, which circumvent but do not entirely disregard the state’s norms of bodily coverage, have gradually shifted the requirements that government actors can effectively enforce on a day-to-day basis.
Moreover, large numbers of women wear hijab while hiking, jogging, driving cars, and engaging in other activities that are not conventionally regarded as gender-appropriate, or they choose to live alone and unmarried rather than in the homes of their parents and spouses. Once again, these varied practices have not been centrally orchestrated or institutionalized, but they have nevertheless altered the terms of women’s participation in everyday life.
Bayat acknowledged that social non-movements like these can and do coalesce into more organized and concerted activism, and he recognized that both movements and non-movements constitute important means for subaltern groups to claim de facto citizenship. But he also insisted that these two modes of action cannot be readily equated. Whereas social movements pursue a politics of overt protest, non-movements engage in a quieter, less obtrusive politics of everyday presence and practice. They are also driven less by specific and explicit ideological commitments than by inchoate desires for more expansive and appealing life chances. Nevertheless, they also provide a nutritive context within which more articulate claims for rights and resources might be formulated.
Bayat’s lecture offered a suggestive framework through which to conceive practices and processes that often do not meet our established expectations of politics. Much of the ensuing discussion then attempted to probe and delimit the contours of his argument. What, for example, are the conditions in which a social non-movement might pivot into more cohesive and institutionalized forms of collective protest? How can a social non-movement be distinguished from a dissenting subculture or counter-public, more conventional forms of deviant or illegal behavior, or the glacial drift of wider social change? And to what degree does the notion of a social non-movement presume the existence of an authoritarian state, whether in the Middle East or in other parts of the world? Could we also identify non-movements, for instance, in the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe?
Here Bayat contended that non-movements were closely tied to authoritarian states that retain a degree of “softness.” That is to say, these states aspire to exert thorough if not complete control over the social field, but they ultimately lack the capacity to make such control a living reality. As a result, they necessarily leave “opaque spaces” that subaltern groups can turn to their own advantage. Bayat’s remarks obviously referred to the many Middle Eastern governments that have recently teetered or toppled as a result of the Arab Spring. Yet he also suggested that the gradual undoing of Prohibition in the 1930s U.S. might also illustrate the concept of a social non-movement and its long-term incremental effects.
In his reading, the ban on alcohol was undermined less by concerted lobbying and protest than by millions of Americans’ spontaneous, mundane but eventually consequential disregard for existing legislation.
To my mind, this apparent discrepancy was not a flaw in Bayat’s analysis as much as an invitation for further inquiry. Like the lecture as a whole, it demonstrated the rewards but also the challenges of breaking out of our intellectual ruts to wrestle with complexity in new ways.
Readers who would like to delve further into Bayat’s argument should consult his book Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2010).