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.
Marilynne Robinson, taking up questions of American sacred and secular religion, obliquely picks up on a famous maxim of Franklin Roosevelt. America is a Christian country, she says, but its political culture turns a deaf ear to that heritage and not in the way that people usually suggest: "There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.' We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, 'Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.' Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ 'was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made....The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.' The present tense here is to be noted. John's First Letter proclaims 'the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.' We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls. We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline--as in fact there always is--the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don't know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: 'The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.'" Robinson's point, apart from her claim that America is a Christian nation, is that if you fear indiscriminately, courage dissipates. Her worry is that the decline of religiosity is part and parcel of our fearful moral and political cowardice.
Kwame Anthony Appiah appraises contemporary higher education: "Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus. In the familiar caricature, there's the performance-studies major who is putting up fliers for the Naomi Klein talk, collecting signatures for the fossil-free petition and wondering whether the student alliance for gender equity is as racially inclusive as it claims. Then there's the engineering major, first in the family to go to college, traipsing across the quad with a discounted, two-editions-out-of-date version of the material-science textbook. All that identity stuff is a dimly perceived distraction in this student's light cone, readily tuned out. One student thinks 'bi-curious' is a word; the other doesn't see why you would use molecular-orbital theory when valence bonding provides answers faster. The two students cross paths only physically. It's almost as if they're attending two different colleges. One reason this is a caricature is that people aren't always found on the expected side of the disciplinary (and class) divides. At liberal-arts campuses, certainly, almost everyone drinks from the fountain of human betterment, albeit some from a Dixie cup and others from a Big Gulp. And very few are completely unmindful of the getting-a-job thing that's rumored to follow graduation. But when you superimpose the two visions of college--as a forcing house of virtue and as means for building human capital--you inevitably get interference patterns, ripples and ridges of indignation and disquiet. That's what you're seeing when the safe-space ethic runs amok, as with students who claim offense when their ideas are challenged or who want to see 'trigger warnings' on even canonical literature, like those cardboard lids on hotel-room glasses. Here, the student is at once the sensitive servant of high causes and a demanding customer. Nor are these tensions likely to resolve themselves, because higher education has to play so many roles. The truth is that colleges and universities do a tremendous amount that neither of these pictures captures--that just can't be reduced to the well-being of their graduates. For one thing, the old ideal of knowledge for its own sake hasn't been extinguished. For another, universities are the homes of all kinds of public goods. They are, for example, the source of much of today's best research. Without them we would know much less than we do about the nature of the cosmos or the workings of the human brain or the ways of reading a novel. A flourishing literary culture is made possible not because institutions of higher learning create writers but because they prepare readers (and yes, it helps that they provide jobs for plenty of poets and novelists too). There's even something to be said, especially in a democracy, for an educated citizenry, able to question the creeds of the moment."
Stephen Greenblatt in the New York Times argues that teaching Shakespeare still is meaningful to today's students but frequently in new and unexpected ways. "Shakespeare has not lost his place in this new world, just as, despite the grim jeremiads of the cultural pessimists, he has not lost his place in colleges and universities. On the contrary, his works (and even his image) turn up everywhere, and students continue to flock to courses that teach him, even when those courses are not required. But as I have discovered in my teaching, it is a different Shakespeare from the one with whom I first fell in love. Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare's plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary. A student with a beautiful voice performed Brahms's Ophelia songs, with a piano accompaniment by another gifted musician. Students with a knack for creative writing have composed monologues in the voice of the villainous Iago, short stories depicting an awkward reunion of Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, or even additional scenes in Shakespearean verse. This does not mean that I should abandon the paper assignment; it is an important form of training for a range of very different challenges that lie in their future. But I see that their deep imaginative engagement with Shakespeare, their intoxication, lies elsewhere. And I should add that no one, as far as I can tell, any longer dreams of establishing symbolic descent from Stratford-upon-Avon to substitute for or displace actual descent from Vilnius or Seoul or Johannesburg. Contrary to my expectations, my students at Harvard are far more diverse, in geographical origin, culture and class, than my students ever were at U.C. Berkeley. They embrace this diversity and confidently expect to make their way through a global environment linked by complex digital networks."
There are the challenges of the humanities. Star professors rarely teach. And the profit motive corrupts of our college and universities. Writing in the The Boston Review, Robert L. Kehoe III considers all these criticisms, but hones in the particularly gruesome state of college athletics. "Echoing Albert Camus's belief that the most profound ethical teaching he experienced was on the soccer field, theologian Stanley Hauwerwas has argued, 'The most determinative moral formation most people have in our society is when they learn to play baseball, basketball, quilt, cook, or learn to lay bricks.' That college athletics (and academics) could support the intellectual and moral development of student-athletes, while enhancing the communal strength of campus life, is inarguable. But it is only a sustainable prospect if administrators and faculty at colleges and universities preserve the nonprofit values of higher education and treat athletics as more than a source of entertainment, revenue, and prestige. To do so would demand a vision of athletic education that resists the temptation to profiteer at a time when college football's popularity is soaring. Last season's national championship game garnered the highest ratings in cable TV history, for a contest that featured Ohio State (whose starting quarterback Tweeted about his disregard for academic responsibility) and the University of Oregon (whose football players have an at-best middling graduation rate but enjoy a $68 million locker room paid for by Nike co-founder and Chairman Phil Knight). No amount of compromise or corruption has dissuaded fans and investors from tuning in--with eyeballs and cash. And when those investors include media conglomerates that attempt to do the work of journalism while promoting entertainment they profit from, there can be little hope that visible sports writers and commentators will take a more active role in reforming the current system. As the New York Times reports, media outlets often have a vested interest in the status quo; ESPN, for example, has infused so many billions of dollars into college football that it has effectively become 'both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches.' In such a landscape, those who question the centrality of football in college life appear little more than tedious gadflies spoiling the tailgate."
An author identifying herself as Michelle G, a student at MIT, acknowledges, "There is empirical evidence to support the idea that males have a higher capacity for spatial reasoning than females." But Michelle G. dives deeply into these and other studies to argue that such "evidence" is a "factual misconception." "I'm guessing that you're familiar with common notions that men are spatial and logical thinkers, while females are more verbally proficient. A man being tested for spatial ability might assume that he's going to have an easier time than a woman of otherwise equal intelligence, his conclusion based not on sexism but on objective science. And statistically speaking, he's right. It is true that men score higher on spatial reasoning tests, though you might have caught on that there's a little bit more to this picture (why would a female MIT student publicize stereotypes that actively work against her?). If you're now wondering whether I'm about to throw some kind of feminist rant at you, I'll give you a 'well, sort of,' because calling out factual misconception is just as important as promoting feminist ideals here, and because I think those two go hand in hand anyway. I'll largely put the romance of egalitarianism aside, though, to talk about empiricism.... I think it's important to acknowledge the very rightful discomfort that arises when scientific studies attempt to trace such differences to biologically determined origins. Yet, across decades of research, no biological cause has actually been identified as a suitable explanation for the spatial reasoning discrepancy. Studies regarding testosterone and mental rotation, for example, found inconsistent or absent effects across cultures, prompting inquiries into 'differing cultural values' to account for the results. And gaps between men's and women's scores on some spatially-geared tests have significantly shrunk in the past few decades, which is interesting because noticeable evolutionary or nature-based development might take thousands of decades to take effect. ('Nurture'-based conditions are of course rapidly changing.) Still though, the gap has lingered, and a satisfying and empirically-supported explanation as to 'what gives' was not achieved until 2008, when researchers eliminated the performance gap under a single simple condition."
Timothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books explores "Hitler's World" and what he finds will surprise some. Above all, human races were likes species involved in a fateful fight to the death. Life was a struggle that followed natural laws, but one that could be influenced by human action. And as Hannah Arendt so clearly emphasized in her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler and his Nazi party embraced a movement that transcended nations and states. In short, Nazism was not nationalist, a common misconception. "Hitler's basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler's thinking, but he grasped its conclusion: ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race. Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. 'There is no such thing,' wrote Hitler, 'as the state as an end in itself.' As he clarified, 'the highest goal of human beings' was not 'the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.' The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: 'One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.' If states were not impressive human achievements but fragile barriers to be overcome by nature, it followed that law was particular rather than general, an artifact of racial superiority rather than an avenue of equality. Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and during World War II the governor-general of occupied Poland, maintained that the law was built 'on the survival elements of our German people.' Legal traditions based on anything beyond race were 'bloodless abstractions.' Law had no purpose beyond the codification of a Führer's momentary intuitions about the good of his race. The German concept of a Rechtsstaat, a state that operated under the rule of law, was without substance. As Carl Schmitt explained, law served the race, and the state served the race, and so race was the only pertinent concept. The idea of a state held to external legal standards was a sham designed to suppress the strong."
Hua Hsu considers the case of white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who occasionally published poetry under the assumed identity of a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou but who, very unusually, owned up to the subterfuge when his work was admitted to the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology. The anthology's editor, Sherman Alexie, recently published a blog post about why he included Hudson's poem anyway, and that's where Hsu picks up: "The more revealing aspect of Alexie's response is his account of what attracted him to 'The Bees' once Hudson's calculated hunch had garnered the poem 'a close read.' The poem wasn't obviously 'Chinese,' however you might interpret that, Alexie explains. Instead, it referenced 'Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus.' It was, in other words, 'inherently obsessed with European culture.' Alexie goes on, 'When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.' Alexie is a sharp and self-aware Native American writer and filmmaker, and he didn't necessarily mean to suggest that a Chinese person raised in America wouldn't gravitate toward Western themes. (Isn't that how assimilation works?) But his phrasing reminds me of the odd standard often applied to marginalized voices: in this case, there was something refreshingly noteworthy about a Chinese poet writing about non-Chinese things. Consider the comparative privilege of the white artist, whose experiences are received as 'universal,' even if that artist chooses to assume the guise of the other. Ezra Pound's flawed 'translations' of Chinese poetry, for example, became a key foundation for modernism. The only limitation for such an artist, really, is the extent to which it can all be explained away as an avant-garde game if things get too weird... Perhaps, too, spoofing the Chinese struck Hudson as a relatively safe masquerade, likely to provoke less generalized rage than, say, the fake autobiography of a purported ex-gangster or a Holocaust survivor. Or maybe it was simply more efficient. When it comes to such hoaxes, it seems somehow easier to fake Asia, a land still distant and inscrutable to many Americans; while other hoaxes work because of their thoroughness and care, the Asian-themed sort often get by with only a few details, as long as those details seem just 'Asian' enough. After all, imitating the sound of Asian languages is something of a national pastime, from Mark Twain and Bret Harte's 'Ah Sin' to Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar's 'Cream of Sum Yung Guy.' In 2013, a Bay Area news report about an Asian Air crash listed the pilots' names as Ho Lee Fuk, Wi Tu Lo, Sum Ting Wong, and Bang Ding Ow, presumably because these names appeared sufficiently believable."
Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.
"[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution."
-Hannah Arendt, "On Revolution"
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm
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 email@example.com.
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, Louise Brinkerhoff discusses how even in solitude there are always two sides in dialogue in the Quote of the Week. Sir Aubrey De Vere comments on how one thought immortalized in ink can lead millions to think in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We share a chapter from Stephen Most's Stories Make the World, a book which describes how Most applied Arendt's thinking about stories to his work as a filmmaker. Finally, Thierry Ternisien d'Ouville shares with us an image of his personal Arendt library on Twitter in this week's Library feature.
I watched President Obama’s second Inaugural Address with my seven-year-old daughter. She had just completed a letter to the President—something she had been composing all week. She was glued to the TV. I found myself tearing up at times, as I do and should do at all such events. “The Star Spangled Banner” by Beyonce was… well, my daughter stood up right there in the living room, so I followed suit. The Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco began strong—I found the first two stanzas powerful and lyrical.
The invocation of “One sun rose on us today,” is Whitmanesque, as is: “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.” That second verse really grabbed me:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yearning to life, crescendoing into our day,
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
I was hooked here, with Blanco’s rendition of a motley American life guided by a rising sun. But the poem dragged for me. I lost the thread. Still, I am so grateful for the continued presence of poetry at inaugural events. They remind us that the Presidency and the country is more than policy and prose.
In the President’s speech itself, there was too much politics, some prose, and a bit of poetry. There were a few stirring lines affirming the grand dreams of the United States. His opening was pitch perfect:
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional -- what makes us American -- is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Storytelling, Hannah Arendt knew, was at the essence of politics. The President understands the importance and power of a story and the story of America is one of the dream of democracy and freedom. He tells it well. Some will balk at his full embrace of American exceptionalism. They are right to when such a stand leads to arrogance. But American exceptionalism is also, and more importantly, a tale of the dream of the Promised Land. It is an ever-receding dream, as all such dreams are. But that means only that the dream must be kept alive. That is one of the purposes of Presidential Inaugurations, and President Obama did that beautifully.
Another stirring section invoked the freedom struggles of the past struggles for equality.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
The President, our nation’s first black President now elected for a second term, sought to raise the aspiration for racial and sexual equality to the pantheon of our Constitutional truths. Including the struggles of gay Americans—he mentioned gay rights for the first time in an inaugural address—the President powerfully rooted the inclusivity of the American dream in the sacred words of the Declaration of Independence and set them in the hallowed grounds of constitutional ideals.
When later I saw the headlines and the blogs, it was as if I had watched a different speech. Supposedly the President offered an “aggressive” speech. And he came out as unabashedly liberal. This is because he mentioned climate change (saying nothing about how he will approach it) and gay rights. Oh, and many saw it as unabashedly liberal when the President said:
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
How is it “liberal” to value the middle-class and pride in work? There was nearly nothing in this talk about the poor or welfare. It was about working Americans, the people whose labor builds the bridges and protects are people. And it was about the American dream of income and class mobility. How is that liberal? Is it liberal to insist on a progressive income tax? Granted, it is liberal to insist that we raise revenue without cutting expenses. But where was that said?
And then there are the swarm of comments and critiques about the President’s defense of entitlements. Well here is what he said:
We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed. We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future. (Applause.) For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.
If I read this correctly, the President is here saying: We spend too much on health care and we need to cut our deficit. Outworn programs must change and we need innovation and technology to improve our schools even as we reduce the cost of education. We must, he says, “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” Yet we must do so without abandoning the nation’s creed: the every American has equal worth and dignity. This is a call for changing and rethinking entitlements while cutting their cost. It is pragmatic and yet sensible. How is it liberal? Is it now liberal to believe in social security and Medicare? Show me any nationally influential conservative who will do away with these programs? Reform them, yes. But abandon them?
More than a liberal, the President sounded like a constitutional law professor. He laid out broad principles. We must care for our fellow citizens. But he left open the way that we might do so.
Perhaps the most problematic section of the President’s speech is this one:
We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.
Here the President might sound liberal. But what is he saying? He is raising the entitlement programs of the New Deal to Constitutional status, saying that these programs are part of the American way of life. He is not wrong. No Republican—not Reagan, not Romney, not Paul Ryan—proposes getting rid of these programs. They have become part of the American way of life.
That said, these programs are not unproblematic. The President might say that “these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” But saying it does not make it true. There are times when these programs care for the sick and unfortunate. And yet there are no doubt times and places where the social safety net leads to taking and weakness. It is also true that these programs are taking up ever more of our national budget, as this chart from the Government Accounting Office makes clear.
The President knows we need to cut entitlements. He has said so repeatedly. His greatest liability now is not that he can’t control opposition Republicans. It is that he doesn’t seem able or willing to exert leadership over the members of his own party in coming up with a meaningful approach to bring our entitlement spending—spending that is necessary and rightly part of our constitutional DNA—into the modern era. That is the President’s challenge.
The problem with President Obama’s speech was not that it was liberal. Rather, what the President failed to offer was a meaningful example of leadership in doing what he knows we must do: Rethinking, re-imagining, and re-forming our entitlement programs to bring them into the modern era.