Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30Aug/140

The Humanities and Common Sense

humanities

**This post was originally published August 10th, 2012**

In this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.

That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our 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".
25Aug/140

Amor Mundi 8/24/14

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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The Unnecessary Irrelevance of Modern Philosophy

philosophyCharlie Huenemann takes on the ghettoization of philosophy: "Most academic philosophy departments see themselves primarily as housing a specialized academic discipline, and contributing only incidentally here or there to a university's general education curriculum. The priority needs to be reversed. Frankly, there is little or no need for specialized academic philosophy; if it disappeared overnight, the only ones who would notice would be the practitioners themselves. But on the other hand, despite the occasional iconoclastic polemic saying otherwise, there is a widespread recognition that philosophy provides a valuable contribution to the mind of an educated person, even if the person is not working toward a degree in the field. Philosophy professors need to see their primary job as enriching the mental lives, values, and discourses of non-philosophers. For almost everyone, we should be a side dish rather than the main course. That is where our societal value lies." I've ridden this hobby horse before: "As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay 'On Violence,' humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. While such finds can be interesting, they are exceedingly rare and largely insignificant....We should, of course, continue to support scholars, those whose work is to some extent scholarly innovative. But more needed are well-read and thoughtful teachers who can teach widely and write for a general audience.... To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us who we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities." Read more here.

The Origins of Totalitarianism, II

arab_love_hateKenan Malik, who will speak at the HAC on Sept. 17th, writes in the NY Times this week about the deeply worrying rise of both antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe, particularly in France. He refers soberly to the Pew Survey that shows "not just that anti-Semitism had increased throughout Europe, but also that the 'publics that view Jews unfavorably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light.' The fusion of xenophobia, conspiracy theory, identity politics and anti-politics that has nurtured the new anti-Semitism has also cultivated hostility to Muslims. The Pew report found that in every country surveyed, 'Opinions about Muslims in almost all of these countries are considerably more negative than are views of Jews.'" Above all, what Malik sees, is the fundamental Arendtian thesis that antisemitism and Islamophobia are not about hatred of Jews or Muslims but are ideologies born of loneliness and emptiness that project fears and frustrations onto minority groups. He writes: "At the same time, the emergence of 'anti-politics,' the growing contempt for mainstream politics and politicians noticeable throughout Europe, has laid the groundwork for a melding of radicalism and bigotry. Many perceive a world out of control and driven by malign forces; conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of politics, have become mainstream. Anti-Semitism has become a catchall sentiment for many different groups of angry people." There is, unfortunately, too much truth in Malik's essay, and what it points to in the rise of ideological antisemitism and islamophobia is the profound malaise in Europe that has people searching for movements and ideologies that can give sense to their world. That is the origin of totalitarianism.

Liberal Dogma

pluralityFreddie deBoer takes aim at some of the practices of contemporary online social liberalism: "On matters of substance, I agree with almost everything that the social liberals on Tumblr and Twitter and blogs and websites believe. I believe that racism is embedded in many of our institutions. I believe that sexual violence is common and that we have a culture of misogyny. I believe that privilege is real. I believe all of that. And I understand and respect the need to express rage, which is a legitimate political emotion. But I also believe that there's no possible way to fix these problems without bringing more people into the coalition. I would like for people who are committed to arguing about social justice online to work on building a culture that is unrelenting in its criticisms of injustice, but that leaves more room for education. People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive. If we turn away from everyone that says or believes something dumb, we will find ourselves lecturing to an empty room. Surely there are ways to preserve righteous anger while being more circumspect about who is targeted by that anger. And I strongly believe that we can, and must, remind the world that social justice is about being happy, being equal, and being free." Or, as Hannah Arendt might say, true plurality is the basic condition of action and of politics, which means engaging with people as equals and finding our commonalities and shared ideals even when we fundamentally disagree with them. This is part of what it means to love the world, to reconcile ourselves with a world that is frustrating and angering and beyond our control - although there are, of course, some actions that cannot be loved. But they are much fewer and more rare than the one-sided screeds on social media would have you believe.

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Moderate Reformism

bromwichIn a long essay in The Nation, Samuel Moyn engages with David Bromwich's new book on Edmund Burke and also on Bromwich's new-found political voice that emerged as a critique of George W. Bush and has grown with his critical analysis of President Obama. Bromwich, who will be speaking at the Arendt Center Conference The Unmaking of Americans in October, sees the President's failure rooted in his disingenuous posture of moderate reformism. Moyn writes that Bromwich mobilizes Burke as a critic of the 'peace-prize war president': "Most of all, Bromwich offered an abstract critique of abstraction and an attack on dreamers for not being moderate enough, a Burkean indictment to which he added his own charge that moderates never get anything done: 'The position of a moderate who aspires to shake the world into a new shape presents a continuous contradiction. For the moderate feels constrained not to say anything startling, and not to do anything very fast. But just as there is trouble with doing things on the old lines, there is trouble, too, with letting people understand things on the old lines. At least, there is if you have your sights set on changing the nature of the game. Obama is caught in this contradiction, and keeps getting deeper in it, like a man who sinks in quicksand both the more he struggles and the more he stays still.' Or more concisely: 'If it is bad, all things being equal, to appear grandiose and worse to appear timid, it is the worst of all to be grandiose and then timid.' Obama couldn't win: to the extent that he tried to hew to his revolutionary promises he betrayed Burke, but the converse was also true. It wasn't so much Obama's unexceptional compromises as it was the way he fooled Americans with his promise of saving us from politics that gave Bromwich's criticisms their power. He made himself a harsh deprogrammer who tapped into the quiet fury of many a betrayed cult member. How much anger at Obama's triangulations masked, or fed on, embarrassment about prior credulity? Bromwich caught the mood of this ire. Yet as Obama's ratings - real and moral - tank daily, more depends on why we conclude the president failed. The strengths and weaknesses of Bromwich's diagnosis stem from a Burkean configuration of interests: the personal and the anti-imperial. Burke was at his most convincing when defending freedom against empire, a fact that Bromwich has long emphasized. But the Irish protector of English liberty was at his most bombastic when his political rhetoric slipped into a merely personal hatred. Bromwich understood this point in his first book - 'What is weakest and most imitable in Burke's style,' he noted then, 'is a quickness of scorn that amounts at times to superciliousness' - but he sometimes forgets the lesson."

The Threat From Broken States

isisHisham Melhem issues an angry call to Arab states to confront their loss of legitimacy: "It is no longer very useful to talk about Syria and Iraq as unitary states because many people involved in the various struggles there don't seem to share a national narrative. It is instructive to observe that those who are ruling Damascus and Baghdad don't seem to be extremely moved to do something about a force that eliminated their national boundaries and in the process occupied one third of each country, and is bent on creating a puritanical Caliphate stretching from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean. ISIS is exploiting the rage and alienation of the minority Arab Sunni Iraqis by the increasing sectarian policies pursued by Nouri Maliki for 8 years, just as it is exploiting the anger of the Majority Sunni Arabs in Syria who have been marginalized by the Assad dynasty for more than 40 years.... ISIS may be the reject of al-Qaeda, but like al-Qaeda, it is the illegitimate child of modern political Islam that grew and expanded in what the Arabs refer to as البيئةالحاضنة, an 'embracing environment.' The ugly truth is that the ISIS cancer was produced by a very ill and weak Arab body politic." Melham is correct to see the danger; as we witness the growing legitimacy crisis in Western democracies, leaders in the West should take note as well.

Always Loyal, Never Straying

sports_teamIn an interview, author and filmmaker Etgar Keret talks about our weird and intense proclivity for loyalty to sports teams, organizations which we follow by choice and can stop following whenever we please: "When I was young - this is a true story - I always wanted my parents to take me to football games. I had no interest in the teams; I just liked the people. I did have a distant relative who worked in a football club. The club had a fixture against an opposing club in which the losing team would drop down a division. I didn't care about that; I just wanted to watch people and I felt the vibe and was into it. What happened was that my relative's team lost in the last minute of the game. And he had got me there sitting on the front bench - I was six or seven years old. My interest was so abstract that when the other team won, I ran into the pitch and started hugging the players - and my relative didn't speak to me for ten years after that, because for him I was a traitor. But for me, I was just going to games for the joy of the players. Whenever I went to games, I focused on people who were happy. I was trying - and able, in fact - to be part of it. For me, it was beyond this totally arbitrary team thing. But when I tried to explain this to my relative, he almost killed me. It was one of the most aggressive experiences of my life."

Nothing is Certain But...

taxesIn this week's foray into the deep and perilous waters of The New Yorker archive, we've returned with a big one: Jill Lepore's essay on the history of the American income tax.

 

 

 

 
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Featured Events

teachoutA Discussion with Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout, author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United and a Democratic Primary Candidate in the upcoming Gubernatorial Election, will be visiting Bard College to address students, staff and community members.

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 3:00-4:00 pm

For more information about this event, please click here.

 

 

 


Kenan MalikLunchtime Talk with Kenan Malik

Details soon to follow.

Wednesday, September 17h, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm

 

 

 


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch discusses the significance of "betweenness" for Arendt's work to understand the meaning of politics in the Quote of the Week. Mahatma Gandhi provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a Lunchtime Talk with Victor Granado Almena on cosmopolitan citizenship in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the nature of democracy in the modern 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.
23Aug/140

Jacques Ranciere and Hannah Arendt on Democratic Politics

democracy

**This post was originally published March 9, 2012**

Politics today is democratic politics. While history has not ended and democracy is not universal, there is no doubt that the spirit of our age is democratic. From France and the United States in the 18th century; to the European revolutions of 1848; to decolonialization in the 20th century, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and the Arab Spring of 2011 one cannot mistake the fact that politics in the modern world tends toward democracy.

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".
18Aug/140

Amor Mundi 8/17/14

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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The Owl of Minerva Spreads Its Wings

povertyRaymond Geuss looks back at the 1970s, when he was writing The Idea of a Critical Theory, and sees now what he could not see then: the world he was writing about was ending. As far as what was 'really' happening is concerned, we can now see that the period of unprecedented economic growth and political and social progress which took place in the West after the end of World War II began to plateau in the 1970s when productivity began to stagnate. By the early 1970s, though, the assumption that economic growth would continue, levels of prosperity continue to rise, and the social and political structures continue to evolve in the direction of greater flexibility, realism and humanity had become very firmly entrenched in Western populations.The period during which anything like that assumption was at all reasonable was ending just as I was beginning work on my book, although I, of course, did not know that at the time, any more than anyone else did. It would have been political suicide for any major figure in the West to face up to this situation courageously and to try to make clear to the population that the possibilities of relatively easy real growth were exhausted, that the era of ever-increasing prosperity was gone for good; this would have raised intolerable questions about the very foundations of the existing socioeconomic and political order." Geuss raises serious questions about the poverty of our political and philosophical thinking and its inability to address the reality of our situation. He worries that by seeking to justify and legitimate power, political thinking has turned away from the more important question of justice. You can read more about Geuss' essay in the Weekend Read on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog.

The Militarized State

militarized_stateIn the wake of the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, protests and riots have been met by a heavily militarized police presence. The over-militarization of local police departments has been a theme for 30 years, but people are starting to pay attention. In the New York Times, Julie Bosman and Matt Apuzzo have a long article explaining how, for example, a suburban St. Louis district won a $360,000 U.S. government grant to purchase a heavily armored vehicle that was part of the militarized response to the protests: "For four nights in a row, they streamed onto West Florissant Avenue wearing camouflage, black helmets and vests with 'POLICE' stamped on the back. They carried objects that doubled as warnings: assault rifles and ammunition, slender black nightsticks and gas masks. They were not just one police force but many, hailing from communities throughout north St. Louis County and loosely coordinated by the county police. Their adversaries were a ragtag group of mostly unarmed neighborhood residents, hundreds of African-Americans whose pent-up fury at the police had sent them pouring onto streets and sidewalks in Ferguson, demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a police officer on Saturday. When the protesters refused to retreat from the streets, threw firebombs or walked too close to a police officer, the response was swift and unrelenting: tear gas and rubber bullets."

The Warrior Cop

warrior_copRadley Balko's book, "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces," offers a detailed account of the way government programs have encouraged the development of heavily armed police forces and also the way SWAT teams are deployed for even routine police actions. In an excerpt on Copblock, Balko writes, "Police militarization would accelerate in the 2000s. The first half of the decade brought a new and lucrative source of funding and equipment: homeland security. In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, the federal government opened a new spigot of funding in the name of fighting terror. Terrorism would also provide new excuses for police agencies across the country to build up their arsenals and for yet smaller towns to start up yet more SWAT teams. The second half of the decade also saw more mission creep for SWAT teams and more pronounced militarization even outside of drug policing. The 1990s trend of government officials using paramilitary tactics and heavy-handed force to make political statements or to make an example of certain classes of nonviolent offenders would continue, especially in response to political protests. The battle gear and aggressive policing would also start to move into more mundane crimes-SWAT teams have recently been used even for regulatory inspections."

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The Critic as Oracle

Ellen WillisIn a review of a new collection essays, The Essential Ellen Willis, Hermione Hoby considers how Willis writes with a raw honesty that is bracing as it is compelling: "Throughout the fifty-one essays collected here, Willis writes as an interrogator, both of her world and of herself. As a self-identified optimist ('an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect'), she is more interested in examining the way things might be than pronouncing on the way things are: an inquiry which, in accordance with her own convictions, nearly always entails a personal dimension. One of this book's rawest pieces is 'Next Year in Jerusalem' (1977), in which she follows her brother, Mike, to Israel where he is undergoing a conversion to Orthodox Judaism. This prompts a spiritual crisis of her own, not of loss of faith, but of a loss of faith in her faithlessness. She spirals into a slough of confusion and depression regarding her spiritual and political convictions. The rabbi's wife seems to deliver Willis the 'cosmic mockery' of her predicament: 'The big lie of male supremacy is that women are less than fully human; the basic task of feminism is to expose that lie and fight it on every level. Yet for all my feminist militance I was, it seemed, secretly afraid that the lie was true - that my humanity was hopelessly at odds with my ineluctable female sexuality - while the rebbetzin, staunch apostle of traditional femininity, did not appear to doubt for a moment that she could be both a woman and a serious person.'"

The Past and the Present

Mary BeardIn a short but sweet profile of the prominent classicist Mary Beard, Annalisa Quinn considers why Beard thinks that studying the classics remains important, even after two plus millennia of such scholarship: "'You do the ancient world much greater service if you keep arguing with them,' she says, gesticulating without bothering to put down her latte, which dipped dangerously...In the book, she writes that the way we read the subject 'says as much about us as it does about them.' I asked her what she meant. 'We raid them,' she says, simply. 'We have to ventriloquize the ancient world.' For example, scholarship on women in the ancient world has grown in the last few decades, Beard says, as a 'result of the feminist movements of the '70s and '80s. When I was an undergraduate, people didn't really talk about women in antiquity,' she says. But 'now, when we talk about Euripides, we talk about his female characters.' If the study of classics, then, can be a mirror of contemporary concerns, it also means scholars are never done."

The Mo Show

mo_showNothing can liven up the dog days of August like a feel-good story from the Little League World Series. Mo'ne Davis, a 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania, is only the 18th girl to play in the Little League championship. She is now the first to throw a complete game shutout, completely dominating her male peers. She entered her latest game with huge expectations. "Could she live up to the hype? Yes. Davis pitched six innings, gave up a pair infield hits and struck out eight in a 4-0 victory over Nashville. By the end of fifth inning, with her Tennessee counterpart at the 85-pitch limit, Davis had thrown just 44. With each out in the final inning, the cheers became louder, and when Davis struck out the final batter, becoming the first girl in Little League World Series history to earn a win, the crowd exploded. Her parents hugged and then accepted the congratulations of strangers. Their modest 13-year-old girl had become an inspiration virtually overnight.... After Friday's game, Pennsylvania Manager Alex Rice put Davis's performance in perfect perspective, saying, 'It was the Mo show out there.'"

The Rarest of Beasts

snow_leopardFrom this week's dive into the New Yorker archives, we bring you the first part of Peter Matthiessen's essay "The Snow Leopard," the naturalist's trek into the Himalayas to try to catch a peak of the rare big cat.

 

 

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Featured Events

Kenan MalikLunchtime Talk with Kenan Malik

Details soon to follow.

Wednesday, September 17h, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm

 

 

 


congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved:  "The fate of the world depends upon the success or failure of America's model of democratic self-government."

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm


conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 


From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses Isaiah Berlin and the need to understand others in politics in the Quote of the Week. Marcus Aurelius provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a public conversation on the nature of thinking between Roger Berkowitz and Bill T. Jones in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz explores an essay by Raymond Guess on the weakness of contemporary thinking 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.
18Aug/140

Freedom, “Betweenness”, and the Meaning of Politics

betweenness

“Politics arises between men, and so quite outside of man. There is therefore no real political substance. Politics arises in what lies between men and is established as relationships.”

-- The Promise of Politics 95, emphasis in original

What is politics? Ask around, and you may get answers such as government, the state, political parties, corruption, “something I don’t care about” and “something that is a threat to my privacy and my freedom.” Hannah Arendt probably wouldn’t be surprised. Arendt notes: “Both the mistrust of politics and the question as to the meaning of politics are very old, as old as the tradition of political philosophy.” Moreover, she continues,

Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal, and, linked with this fear, the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics.

In The Promise of Politics, we see Arendt wrestling with questions on the meaning of politics, particularly as it has been inherited in our modern world.

Laurie Naranch
Laurie Naranch is Associate Professor of Political Science and director of the Women’s Studies Minor at Siena College, NY. She has published in the areas of democratic theory, gender theory, and popular culture. Her current research is on debt and citizenship along with the work of the Greek-French thinker Cornelius Castoriadis and democracy.
16Aug/141

The Poverty of Ideas

john_rawls

In an essay on the past and future of critical theory, Raymond Geuss offers an observation that has increasing resonance across all fields of inquiry, from politics and economics to philosophy and literature: sometime around 1970, the basic 20th century consensus that democracy and capitalism would provide an eternal increase in both justice and wealth began to unravel. Thomas Piketty makes a similar point in his book Capital in the 21st Century. It is increasingly likely that the post-World War II marriage of rising equality and rising incomes was a bubble of sorts. Whether one mourns the loss of a golden age or celebrates the liberation from childish illusions, the loss of the hopeful liberal idealism of the mid-20th century is a fact still to be reckoned with.

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".
11Aug/140

Isaiah Berlin and the Collision of Values

pluralism

“Collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are…the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; …it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.”

-- Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Ian Storey
Ian Storey (B.A., Dartmouth College; Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a political theorist who teaches at Harvard University, and an associate fellow of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. His forthcoming book, Hungers on Sugar Hill: Hannah Arendt and the Birth of American Political Aesthetics explores the literary world of postwar New York through the eyes of newly emigrated Hannah Arendt, and argues that it was a defining moment in which the American sense of what constitutes the political in art was formulated. His other research interests include the political and artistic history of interwar Europe, democratic theory, concepts of social embeddedness, and theories of domination and resistance.
21Jul/141

The Story of Reconciliation

Greek_storytelling

**This article was originally published on April 9, 2012. You can access the original article here.**

"It is true that storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it, that it brings about consent and reconciliation with things as they really are, and that we may even trust it to contain eventually by implication that last word which we expect from the Day of Judgment”.

--Hannah Arendt, “Isak Dinesen: 1885 – 1963” in Men in Dark Times

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/143

Amor Mundi 6/29/14

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.

1

Lila

1"It seemed to me to be half-sadness and half-fury, and I wondered what in her life could have put that expression in her eyes." This is how Reverend John Ames, the voice of Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, describes his younger wife Lila, whose former life is largely a mystery even to Ames himself. Now, Robinson's much-anticipated fourth novel will tell Lila's story and how, after being rescued as a child by a drifter named Doll, the two craft a life together on the run and on the fringes of society. Though the novel does not come out until October, its description recalls another remarkable female pair in Robinson's work--the young Ruth and her aunt Sylvie from Robinson's first novel Housekeeping, which came out thirty-five years ago--and Housekeeping's theme of Christian homelessness. For now, FSG offers a sneak peek of Lila: "The child was four or five, long-legged, and Doll couldn't keep her covered up, but she chafed at her calves with her big, rough hand and brushed the damp from her cheek and her hair. She whispered, 'Don't know what I think I'm doing. Never figured on it. Well, maybe I did. I don't know. I guess I probly did. This sure ain't the night for it.' She hitched up her apron to cover the child's legs and carried her out past the clearing. The door might have opened, and a woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. 'Well,' Doll whispered, 'we'll just have to see.'"

Tactics Beat Genius

1Simon Critchley seeks the bleeding obvious philosophical lessons from soccer-the priority of the coach over individual players: "Allow me to state the bleeding obvious: this is a tactical game. It is not about passion and individual genius, notwithstanding the relentless commodification of stars like Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar. No, soccer is about the use of reason and intelligence in order to construct a collective team formation that will contain and defeat the opposition. It requires discipline and relentless training, particularly in order to maintain the shape of the team and the way it occupies and controls space. This is the job of the coach, who tends to get reduced to some kind of either bizarrely animated comic character or casually disaffected bystander when games are televised. But he is the one who sets the team up to play a certain, clearly determined way, the prime mover although sometimes moved rather than unmoved. Otherwise said, soccer is not about individual players." Soccer may then be the perfect game in our world of quantitative analysis and big data, one in which what matters less are exceptionally talented individuals and what wins in the end is well-managed, data-driven, carefully-crafted strategic analysis. Which would maybe explain why the Oakland A's are presently the best team in baseball.

When the People are the Fourth Estate

A protester uses a mobile phone as he passes next to a burning vehicle during a protest at Taksim Square in IstanbulIn an article for the most recent Nieman Report, Engin Ondin, the founder of the Turkish citizen journalism aggregator 140journos, describes the founding of the project, and its growth following last year's protests in Istanbul. Although he and his partners have increasingly relied on citizen-editors as informants, he finds that oversight remains important, and that he can use Twitter apps to help: "Turkey has about 12 million active Twitter users, roughly a third of the online population. We have more than 300 volunteer content producers all across the country, including a survivor of the Uludere attack. As the number of Turkish citizens feeding information to 140journos grew, we shifted gears. Instead of doing all the reporting ourselves, we focused on collecting, categorizing, validating and Storifying the news content sent to us. To verify news reports, we use free tools like Yandex Panorama (Russia's version of Google StreetView) and TinEye, a search service to help determine if images are new or pulled from websites. To monitor the flow of news tips, 140journos uses TweetDeck. We keep lists of 140journos contributors who tweet news from more than 50 cities, universities and other political hotspots in Turkey. We also keep lists organized by individual events, such as protests against executions in Egypt, and lists organized by factions, such as ultra-nationalists and conservatives." Although he doesn't quite come out and say it, this kind of work is important in any place where freedom of the press is limited, or perhaps merely focused on other things.

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The Literature of the New Wealth

1Pivoting off of Thomas Picketty's attention to classic literary fiction in Capital in the Twenty First Century, Stephen Marche points out that we have already seen the literary proof of the second gilded age, and that it is by and large Franzenite: "Future economic historians won't have to look very far to find fictional descriptions of our current financial realities. The social realist novel of the moment can be identified by the preeminent, almost exclusive, emphasis it places on social expressions of the changing economic reality. Currently, the large-scale realism of Jonathan Franzen, articulated in his famous article for Harper's in 1996 and achieved most fully in The Corrections and Freedom, stands utterly triumphant. The narrative forms that thrived in the mid-nineties - minimalism, with its descriptions of poor and rural men; magical realism which incorporated non-Western elements into the traditional English novel; the exotic lyricism of John Berger or Michael Ondaatje - have been pushed to the side."

Digital Likenesses

1Reporting from the trial set to determine whether or not the NCAA can continue to exclusively profit from the likenesses of its players, Charlie Pierce frames the debate in the language of personhood, and whether or not a digital representation of a person is the same thing as the person himself: "As near as I can tell, the video games in question were created by taking game films from various NCAA football and basketball games and then transferring them technologically until actual players found themselves with NCAA-licensed avatars that live forever. It was seeing his avatar that prompted Ed O'Bannon to launch his lawsuit in the first place and, having done so, he opened up a number of interesting questions about who he is, both in real life and in virtual reality. Is Ed O'Bannon's avatar really Ed O'Bannon, or is it an Ed O'Bannon made by someone else so that a lot of someone elses could make a whole lot of money? Isn't that a fundamental looting of one's fundamental identity? Doesn't the real Ed O'Bannon have a say in the use of his name, his image, and his likeness? After all, that's him in that game. The avatar runs the court like he did. It shoots the way he did. It passes the ball the way he did. There doesn't seem to be any moral basis for an argument that Ed O'Bannon doesn't have the right to control - let alone profit from - all the Ed O'Bannons that have been created out of the work that the real Ed O'Bannon did as an athlete. How can an actual person find himself an indentured servant in virtual reality?"

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Faisal Baluch explores Arendt's distinction between politics and violence as a way to understand her support of a Jewish army in the Quote of the Week. American philosopher Eric Hoffer provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz distinguishes Arendt's banality of evil from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in the Weekend Read.

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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.
19May/140

Arendt on the Limits of Social Science

Arendtquote

“[Regarding The Origins of Totalitarianism] while I feel that within the necessary limitations of a historical study and political analysis I made myself sufficiently clear on certain general perplexities which have come to light through the full development of totalitarianism, I also know that I failed to explain the particular method which I came to use, and to account for a rather unusual approach [to] the whole field of political and historical sciences as such. One of the difficulties of the book is that it does not belong to any school and hardly uses any of the officially recognized or officially controversial instruments.”

--Hannah Arendt, Review of Politics, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Reply to Eric Voegelin (1953)

Arendt wrote this in defense of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, less as a direct reply to the criticism of the political scientist Eric Voegelin than to the criticism in general which her book had received. According to this criticism Arendt got carried away by her “emotionally determined method of proceeding from a concrete center of shock toward generalizations” which “leads to a delimitation of (the) subject matter” and ignores the duties of a scientist regarding objectivity, universality and (the) validity of their research and the representation of the results of that research. There can hardly be a worse reproach against a political philosopher operating within the terrain of history and social science, and we can imagine how a still unknown Arendt would get on in our contemporary world of peer-reviewed journals with their comprehensive control that results in a kind of intellectual self-censorship.

But Arendt did not think at all to subordinate herself to the common scientific norms.  Her Oeuvre contains only a few remarks like those in her reply to Voegelin about the way she understood scientific work. They refer mainly to three aspects: critical thinking, commitment, and judgment.

1. Critical thinking: Writing her essays about the origins of totalitarianism Arendt asked herself how to write the history of anti-Semitism when you do not want to preserve but to destroy it. One answer would be: “from the perspective of the victims”, but according to Arendt this would be an apology, not historiography. So, she saw no other choice but to approach the analysis through historical concepts. This is also true for her book On Revolution, which is no historiography of the American and the French revolution either but also an analysis with historical concepts. To read these two books as works of history would miss the essential point.

Similar is the case of her writings about political phenomena. They do not either fit into traditional political science. The reason is, Arendt was a political thinker, not a scientific commentator: “The authors are auctores, that is, (they) augment the world,” she explained in a university course. “We move in a world, which is augmented by the authors. We cannot do without them, because they behave in an altogether different way from the commentators. The world in which the commentator moves is the world of books. This difference becomes visible in a person like Machiavelli. Machiavelli was interested in Italy, not in political theory, not even his own. Only the commentator is interested in political theory per se” (History of Political Theory, 1955). Therefore, Arendt was not interested in commenting on intellectual and theoretical systems like liberalism or pragmatism but rather in analyzing facts. “I proceed from facts and events instead of intellectual affinities and influences”, she declared in her reply to Voegelin.

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2. Commitment: The criticism of her book on totalitarianism repudiated her tone as too committed and emotional. Arendt replied that the style should be appropriate to the context. Extreme poverty like that of the British miners at the beginning of industrialization would provoke indignation. To describe these conditions without indignation consequently would mean to remove them from their context and rob them of one of their essential qualities. This also applies to the concentration camps; to describe them sine ira “is not to be ‘objective’, but to condone them; and such condoning cannot be changed by a condemnation which the author may feel duty bound to add but which remains unrelated to the description itself. “

It is worth reading again Orwell’s social report The Road To Wigan Peer (1937) about the misery of the British miners. Is anything as memorable being written about the refugees on their way to the borders of the EU and the US, about the feminicide in Mexico and other countries, or the living conditions in Southern Europe during the economic and financial crisis? What do social scientists think about their social responsibility when in their research they transform subjects into objects and try to represent the social conditions objectively instead of adequately?

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3. Judgment: it is very unusual for a scientist to show the limits of the sciences that common sense places upon them as Arendt did. She subdues scientific judgment to everyday understanding. In her essay “Understanding and Politics” (1952) she explains: “Knowledge and understanding are not the same, but they are interrelated. Understanding is based on knowledge and knowledge cannot proceed without a preliminary, inarticulate understanding. Preliminary understanding denounces totalitarianism as tyranny and has decided that our fight against it is a fight for freedom. ... Preliminary understanding ... no matter how rudimentary and even irrelevant it may ultimately prove to be, will certainly more effectively prevent people from joining a totalitarian movement than the most reliable information, the most perceptive political analysis, or the most comprehensive accumulated knowledge. Understanding precedes and succeeds knowledge. Preliminary understanding, which is at the basis of all knowledge, and true understanding, which transcends it, have this in common: They make knowledge meaningful.”

This means that the scientists can only illuminate, but neither prove nor disprove what they have preliminarily understood. And when he tries to create politics out of the results of his research he loses all common sense, “which alone will guide him securely through the labyrinth of his own knowledge”. And when he tries to make his knowledge meaningful, he “must become very humble again and listen closely to the popular language, in which words like ‘totalitarianism’ are daily used as political clichés and misused as catchwords, in order to re-establish contact between knowledge and understanding.”

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This understanding means to judge, which is to take into consideration all real or possible points of view and to pronounce a judgment. Arendt discussed this procedure in another course with the example of a slum and its inhabitants whose points of view we should know in detail to be able to judge their situation, which does not mean to be in agreement with them.

But without critical thinking and commitment this judgment remains empty.

These three aspects show that the hitherto existing characterization of Arendt’s method as “thinking poetically” or of her position as “between the disciplines” are improper. Arendt rather attunes her style to the context and moves beyond the disciplines. And for her it is just as little about the alternative scientist or public intellectual, as she was sometimes called. While this professional thinker tends to raise himself above the common citizens, it is the non-professional action and judging of ordinary citizens, which stand at the center of Arendt’s work.

--Wolfgang Heuer

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.
5May/142

Demanding Thinking of Everybody

Arendtquote

"Thinking in its non-cognitive, non-specialized sense as a natural need of human life, the actualization of the difference given in consciousness, is not a prerogative of the few but an everpresent faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the “prerogative” of those many who lack brain power but the everpresent possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered."

--Hannah Arendt, “Thinking and Moral Considerations: A Lecture” (1971)

Published eight years after Eichmann in Jerusalem, “Thinking and Moral Considerations” is Arendt’s elaboration of her argument in that book that Adolf Eichmann’s criminal role in the Holocaust did not originate from any “base motives” or even from any motives at all, but from his “thoughtlessness” or “inability to think.” If, she asks, Eichmann’s crimes, which he committed over the course of years, resulted from the fact that he never paused to think, what exactly does it mean to think, and what is the relation between thinking and morality?

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In the above quote, which appears on the penultimate page of the lecture, Arendt defines thinking—or the kind of thinking that she argues is necessary for morality—as “the actualization of the difference given in consciousness,” as “that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered.” She describes this “non-cognitive, non-specialized” kind of thinking both as “a natural need of human life” and as “an everpresent faculty of everybody.” By contrast, she defines “inability to think” as the everpresent possibility for everybody to shun thinking.

We might wonder at this point why Arendt does not simply speak of an “ability not to think,” an ability to (actively) shun thinking, rather than an “inability to think.” Is this because she wants to maintain a hierarchy between something that is natural and human (thinking) and something that is unnatural and inhuman (not thinking)? What would be the justification for such a hierarchy? Or does she want to suggest that Eichmann has become unable to think (through barbarous “nurture”), losing touch with his (nevertheless everpresent) faculty of thinking, which everybody has from birth (“nature”) or from the moment they learn to speak? Thinking and language are intrinsically connected from the first page of Arendt’s lecture, where the primary evidence of Eichmann’s inability to think is that he speaks in clichés. (Also, the lecture is dedicated to a poet, W.H. Auden.) Finally, how does Arendt’s description of thinking as a “natural need of human life” relate to her suggestion that Socrates did not merely discover the importance but the very possibility of thinking?

Arendt casts Socrates as “a model, (…) an example that, unlike the ‘professional’ thinkers, could be representative for our ‘everybody,’ (…) a man who counted himself neither among the many nor among the few (…).” She takes Socrates not as “a personified abstraction with some allegorical meaning ascribed to it,” but as an “ideal type” who “was chosen out of the crowd of living beings, in the past or the present, because he possessed a representative significance in reality which only needed some purification in order to reveal its full meaning.” What, then, is this representative significance?

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Arendt bases her conception of thinking and its relation to morality primarily on two famous propositions that Socrates puts forward in the Gorgias: “It is better to be wronged than to do wrong,” and “It would be better for me that my lyre or a chorus I directed should be out of tune and loud with discord, and that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict me” (Arendt’s emphases). According to Arendt, these propositions are not primarily “cogitations about morality” but “insights of experience,” of the experience of the process of thinking. Arendt claims that Socrates means by the first proposition that it is better for him to be wronged than to do wrong if he is thinking, because in thinking you are carrying on a dialogue with yourself, which presupposes some friendship between the partners in the thinking dialogue. You would not want to be friends and enter into a dialogue with someone who does wrong, and since Socrates presupposes that the unexamined life is not worth living, doing wrong leads to a life that is not worth living because examining it in thinking is no longer possible.

Arendt argues that conscience is a “by-product” of consciousness, of the actualization of the difference of me and myself in thinking, because: “What makes a man fear his conscience is the anticipation of the presence of a witness who awaits him only if and when he goes home” (Arendt’s emphasis). However, this formulation suggests that there is no reason to fear your conscience if you never go “home,” that is, if you never engage in the activity of thinking, which, according to Arendt, was precisely Eichmann’s problem. What, then, determines whether someone uses her faculty of thinking or realizes the everpresent possibility of not thinking?

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Alfredo Jaar's "The Geometry of Conscience"

Arendt’s lecture does not contain a strong answer to this question. But although the relation between phenomenological description and normative argument in this lecture remains somewhat unclear, the lecture seems to contain a defense of thinking and a “demand” that everybody think, that everybody aspire to some extent to the ideal-type represented by Socrates, because only thinking can provide an antidote to the “banality of evil.” Arendt acknowledges that thinking can lead to license, cynicism, and nihilism through the relativizing of existing values, because “all critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and ‘values’ by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions.” However, Arendt’s anti-elitist suggestion is that the problem of nihilism is never that too many people think or that people think too much, but rather that people do not think enough.

Yet Arendt does not tell us what would promote thinking. She does not propose, for instance, to generalize the teaching of thinking through educational institutions, the way that Adorno proposed to create “mobile educational groups” of volunteers to teach “critical (…) self-reflection” to everybody, in his 1966 radio talk, “Education After Auschwitz.” A Habermasian model where people become critical through participation in democratic politics is unavailable for Arendt given her strong opposition of thinking to politics, which belongs to the realm of action. What Arendt does tell us is what is conducive to actualizing the everpresent possibility of not thinking: “(…) general rules which can be taught and learned until they grow into habits that can be replaced by other habits and rules,” the way that Eichmann, as Arendt argues in Eichmann in Jerusalem, simply substituted the duty to do the Führer’s will for Kant’s categorical imperative.

--Michiel Bot

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.
28Apr/142

Bearing the Burden of the Past

Arendtquote

"If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice...Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon..."

—Hannah Arendt

Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, fell on the 27th day of the month of Nisan or in April this year. It begins at sundown and continues into the next day. A memorial to the six million Jewish people who were slaughtered by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945, it is a time to call these events to mind and consider their continued resonance and relevance in our own dark times. How shall we, in the words of Hannah Arendt, bear the burden of such a past? With what attitude should such events be commemorated?

Fifty years ago, on October 28, 1964, a televised conversation between the German-Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, and the well-known German journalist, Günter Gaus, was broadcast in West Germany. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her controversial analysis of the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, had just been published in German in the Federal Republic and Gaus used the occasion to generate a “portrait of Hannah Arendt.” The interview ranged across a wide field of topics, including the difference between philosophy and politics, the situation in Germany before and after the war, the state of Israel, and even Arendt’s personal experiences as a detainee in Germany and France during the Second World War.

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Arendt-Gaus interview

Already a cause célèbre in the United States the book had brought Arendt lavish praise and no small amount of damnation. What Gaus especially wanted to know was what Arendt thought about criticism levied against her by Jews angered by her portrait of Eichmann and her comments about Jewish leaders and other Jewish victims of the Holocaust. “Above all,” said Gaus, “people were offended by the question you raised of the extent to which Jews are to blame for their passive acceptance of the German mass murders, or to what extent the collaboration of certain Jewish councils almost constitutes a kind of guilt of their own.”

Gaus acknowledged that Arendt had already addressed these critics, by saying that such comments were, in some cases, based on a misunderstanding and, in others, part of a political campaign against her, but he had already crossed a contested border. Without hesitation, she corrected Gaus:

First of all, I must, in all friendliness, state that you yourself have become a victim of this campaign. Nowhere in my book did I reproach the Jewish people with nonresistance. Someone else did that in the Eichmann trial, namely Mr. Hausner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. I called such questions directed to the witnesses in Jerusalem both foolish and cruel.

True, Gaus admitted. He had read the book and agreed that Arendt had not made that point exactly. But, he continued, some criticism had been levied against her because of “the tone in which many passages are written.”

“Well,” Arendt replied, “that is another matter...That the tone of voice is predominantly ironic is completely true.”

What did she mean by ironic? “If people think that one can only write about these things in a solemn tone of voice.... Look, there are people who take it amiss—and I can understand that in a sense—that, for instance, I can still laugh. But I was really of the opinion that Eichmann was a buffoon...” To convey the shock she experienced when, contrary to her own expectations, Eichmann “in the flesh” appeared to be more a clown than a monster, Arendt countered with a reverse shock, adopting a sardonic, unsentimental voice to unmask what she later termed “the banality of evil.” It could be read as her way to diminish the self-aggrandizement of the architects of the Final Solution to middling size. The trouble was she used this voice rather undiplomatically to describe not only Eichmann’s actions but also the complicity of others, including some members of the Jewish community she judged harshly for cooperating with Nazis. “When people reproach me with accusing the Jewish people, that is a malignant lie and propaganda and nothing else. The tone of voice is, however, an objection against me personally. And I cannot do anything about that.”

Eichmann trial, 1961

Eichmann trial, 1961

“You are prepared to bear that?” asked Gaus. “Yes, willingly,” Arendt claimed. What she had not anticipated was how unprepared many who read her were to take on this new shock of the “banality of evil” on top of the horrifying accounts of Jewish suffering conveyed at the trial.

In fact, “bearing the burden of the past,” thinking about the past in its morally perplexing and disconcerting entirety, was the focus of Arendt’s writing, from her earliest essays to her last. And in no case did this burden bearing affect her more personally than when she published Eichmann in Jerusalem. When she returned from a European trip taken for a needed rest soon after the book’s release, she found stacks of letters waiting for her. Some correspondents praised the bravery of her truth-telling, but the lion’s share found her book detestable. A few included death threats.

Was her refusal to concede that her “tone” had anything to do with the hostility the book generated merely a matter of sheer stubbornness? Or was the ironic tone itself emblematic of Arendt’s ideas about the danger implicit in thinking and the burden of responsibility that lay at the heart of judgment?

In the introduction to The Life of the Mind, Arendt offered this account of the generation of her controversial and still frequently misunderstood concept of “the banality of evil”:

In my report of [the Eichmann trial] I spoke of ‘the banality of evil.’ Behind that phrase I was dimly aware of the fact that it went counter to our tradition of thought—literary, theological, or philosophic—about the phenomenon of evil...However, what I was confronted with was utterly different and still undeniably factual. I was struck by the manifest shallowness in the doer that made it impossible to trace the uncontestable evil of his deeds to any deeper level of roots or motives. The deeds were monstrous, but the doer—at least the very effective one now on trial—was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous...Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?...Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?

But, Arendt insisted, thinking’s ability to condition people against evil-doing did not mean “that thinking would ever be able to produce the good deed as its result, as though ‘virtue could be taught and learned’—only habits and customs can be taught, and we know only too well the alarming speed with which they are unlearned and forgotten when new circumstances demand a change in manners and patterns of behavior.” What cold comfort, then, this thinking business seemed to be, offering no guarantee that evil will be avoided and good prevail.

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Arendt had removed the guarantee of absolute innocence and automatic guilt from the question of moral responsibility. What did she put in its place? The capacity to exercise an “independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” And who evidenced this capacity? They were not distinguished by any superior intelligence or sophistication in moral matters but “dared to judge for themselves.” Deciding that conformity would leave them unable to “live with themselves,” sometimes they even chose to die rather than become complicit. “The dividing line between those who think and therefore have to judge for themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences.”

Nonetheless, Arendt’s tone made it seem as if she knew she would have acted more valiantly than those who cooperated with the Nazis. Outraged by her moral judgment of Jewish leaders many asked: Who is she to judge those who were forced to make difficult decisions and, in the interests of saving the many sacrificed the few? Arendt answered this question in a 1964 essay entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” “Since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled by the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”

—Kathleen B. Jones

This Quote of the Week is adapted from an essay originally appearing in Humanities Magazine, March/April 2014.

 

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.
20Apr/145

Inequality and Democracy: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

ArendtWeekendReading

 

A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse:

 “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.”

That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms:

"When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. There are nevertheless ways democracy can regain control over capitalism and ensure that the general interest takes precedence over private interests, while preserving economic openness and avoiding protectionist and nationalist reactions. The policy recommendations I propose later in the book tend in this direction. They are based on lessons derived from historical experience, of which what follows is essentially a narrative."

Over in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf applauds the importance of Piketty’s book, but he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: Is inequality really a bad thing?

“Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.”

And in The Nation, Timothy Shenk has penned a long, wandering, but insightful essay setting Piketty’s book within and against a burgeoning neo-Marxist revival. Shenk begins with an introduction questioning what capitalism really means and suggesting that capitalism has always been defined in its negation, largely by Marxists. He then turns to the new interest in Marxism today.

His story begins with the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street that, together, have spawned a new generation of young writers, largely congregated in New York, who have returned to Marx for ammunition in fighting against the perceived ill of rising inequality. Shenk traces this revival in a series of recent books including: Cubed: 
A Secret History of the Workplace.
By Nikil Saval; Utopia or Bust: 
A Guide to the Present Crisis.
By Benjamin Kunkel; and the magazine Jacobin
: A Magazine of Culture and Polemic. Clearly intrigued by these millennial Marxists, Shenk is also highly critical. “In good Marxist tradition, the millennials are best when they’re on the attack.” And the new Marxists “seem more inclined to recite Marx than to rethink Marxism, or move beyond it.” Above all, Shenk sees them as overly interested in political ideology and uninterested in meaningful inquiry:

“Searching for conceptual breakthroughs in the journals of the newest left, however, misunderstands their project. They aim not just to transform the world of ideas but also to advance a political agenda, a point that’s made especially clear in Jacobin. Here, politics does not mean an endless conversation open to ambiguity, uncertainty and difference. No, politics is a war—specifically, a class war—and the only hope an embattled left has is to organize. The inspiration derives from a mash-up of the greatest hits of European Marxism and the history of the American right from Barry Goldwater to Ted Cruz. Allies will be taken, even sought out, wherever they can be found. But the purpose is to teach (and preach), not to learn.”

This Marxist revival is, as Shenk writes, largely stillborn, more social media project than political movement: “the rebirth of Marxism that have become a minor genre in the last year. Like a puffer fish temporarily ballooning to vastly larger sizes, the Marxist revival can seem more imposing than it is. For a certain type of reader, however, it’s easy to forget the illusion when there are so many withering tweets to skim.”

More interesting than Shenk’s review of the millennial Marxists is his account of the “good timing” that gives Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century a “fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century.” What follows is the most revelatory of the reviews of Piketty’s book published to date.

“Much of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, essentially, a history of the modern world viewed through the relationship between two factors: economic growth, with all its promises, and the return on capital, a reward that goes to the small fraction of the population that has mastered what Tina Fey’s character in 30 Rock referred to as “that thing that rich people do where they turn money into more money.”

“The rich perfected that art a long time ago. According to Piketty, the average return on capital, after adjusting for inflation, has hovered around 5 percent throughout history, with a slight decline after World War II. Whatever problems capitalists will face in the future, he suggests, a crisis generated by falling profits is not likely to be among them. Economic growth, by contrast, has a far more abbreviated chronology. According to the most reliable estimates—sketchy, but better than nothing—for most of human history, economic growth was on the order of 0.1 percent a year, provided there were no famines, plagues or natural disasters. This gloomy record began to change for part of the world during the Industrial Revolution. Judged by later standards, “revolution” might seem too generous a phrase for growth rates in per capita output that ran to under 1.5 percent in both Western Europe and the United States; but compared with the entire earlier history of human existence, those rates were astonishing.”

The empirical and research driven conclusion is that over long periods of time beginning in the 1800s and continuing through till today, rates of invested return on capital rise faster than economic growth. This means that the rich get richer and capitalism breeds ever greater inequality. Piketty thus attacks the common-sense version of economic history that understand the 20th century to be proof that capitalism can yield increasing equality and higher than average economic growth. For him, the decline of inequality in the 20th century is an aberration caused by the catastrophes of WWI and WWII. Here is how Shenk summarizes Piketty’s argument:

 “Piketty uses a simple formula to illuminate the dynamics at work. Inequality tends to rise, he argues, when the average rate of return on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (or, as he puts it, when r > g). That ratio worked in capital’s favor throughout the nineteenth century, and at the dawn of the twentieth, there was little reason to believe it would change without a revolution by the proletariat. Then 1914 inaugurated three decades of catastrophe.

The wealth of Europe’s elite was one of the era’s casualties: outright destruction, high inflation, confiscatory taxation, and governments that began catering to labor’s demands all combined to obliterate vast swaths of capital. By 1950, economic inequality had plummeted, not because of the welfare state’s rational evolution, but through some of history’s greatest tragedies. What amounted to the collective suicide of capitalist Europe coincided with astounding growth rates produced by recovery from the war. With capital reeling and growth rocketing ahead, the conditions were set for unprecedented egalitarian advances, including the birth of a property-owning middle class, all because of an extraordinary inversion: for the first time, g > r.”

Although the 50 years after the end of WWII brought optimism that “economic growth automatically reduced income inequality,” Piketty shows that “time soon deflated this optimism.” Growth of global GDP has accelerated; but not only does Piketty believe that growth is unsustainable, it is also true that “the link between rising GDP and falling inequality was severed, with the largest gains from diminished growth flowing to the richest of the rich—not even to the 1 percent, but to the one-tenth of 1 percent and higher.” In short, Piketty argues that the iron rule of rising inequality in capitalist economies is reasserting itself.

“Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, given the tendency for the returns on capital to outpace growth. Unfortunately for us, he concludes, “the inequality r > g has clearly been true throughout most of human history, right up to the eve of World War I, and it will probably be true again in the twenty-first century.”

Shenk seems to have little interest in Piketty’s proposal for a global progressive tax on capital. What he values in Piketty’s book is the drive to build “a social state for the twenty-first century.” Piketty’s book might be most valuable neither as a work of economics nor as a call for revolution, but as a spur to political reform.

The real danger of inequality is not economic, but political. Piketty has shown us that capitalism breeds inequality. But whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. The question the book raises is: What does this mean for our democracy?

We are in the midst of an experiment that will reveal what the influx of unfathomable amounts of money will mean for a democratic political system. This is a new political experiment because for most of the history of the United States—with exception of the period at the very end of the 19th century—the dollars of the wealthy could not and did not dominate our democratic system. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizen United and McCutcheon, however, we are about to experience what the unlimited access of money in politics can mean at a time of unprecedented concentration of wealth. It likely does not mean that the richest candidate always wins. Nor will all well-financed candidates be conservative. But it does mean that no candidate who cannot raise money from the wealthy has a real chance of winning. And that means that politics is captured by those with money and largely seen as inaccessible to those without.

For a country identified with the spirit of government by the people, for the people, and of the people, unprecedented inequality combined judicial invalidation of democratic attempts to limit the impact of money in politics threatens to radically undo our democratic tradition. Even democracy, however, is not an argument against inequality, so much as for the need for democratic patrolling of the integrity of the democratic system.

Piketty's book should definitely be on your list. For now, here is the introduction. It is your weekend read.

—RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
15Apr/140

An Arendt Library in Istanbul

ArendtLibrary

Photo submitted by Barış Tunçel in Istanbul.

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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.