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.
Writing in The Diplomat, Ben Reynolds invokes Hannah Arendt to illustrate the paradoxical ineffectiveness of protecting refugees under international law. "The stateless may be technically protected under international law, but they lack enforceable rights without the corresponding protection of a state. International law recognizes the right of states to determine who they recognize as citizens. This is a fundamental component of state sovereignty. States are thus permitted to deny citizenship and its corresponding rights to persons fleeing war, disaster, and tyranny who seek shelter within their borders. Lacking the normal rights of citizens, refugees are subject to the caprice of the host nation. Paradoxically, the very ideas of nationality and citizenship deprive human beings of their rights the moment they leave their own polity. The resulting 'natural' response of states has been to contain the stateless within refugee camps, isolating them from the normal civic and social life of the host nation. International agreements, like the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, seem to offer some level of protection for the rightless. They are, however, essentially unenforceable. No one should believe that international law will convince the government of Myanmar, for example, to provide an acceptable level of rights to all of the Rohingya people, much less citizenship. Even if someone were to naturalize every currently stateless person, an almost impossible task, the very next large scale political crisis would create a new wave of refugees which states would seek to exclude from their political communities."
"Without the existence of a right to belong to a political community, the 'right to have rights,' there can be no lasting solution to the problem of statelessness." Pointing to Arendt's idea of the "Right to have rights," he suggests that there is such a right to belong to a political community that has little to do with states as they are understood in the international legal system. It's worth revisiting what Roger Berkowitz writes about Arendt and human rights: "Human rights, in other words, are only those rights to speak and act amidst a people such that one's words and deeds are seen and heard in such a way that they matter. At bottom, the only truly human right - the right to have rights - is the right to speak and act as a member of a people. Confusion over this point - and thus the efforts of human rights advocates to extend human rights to life and liberty (and also to second and third generation rights like economic prosperity) - cleaves human rights from its foundation in the human condition and risks, therefore, exposing the entire edifice of human rights as nonsense upon stilts. Arendt names the human condition of acting and speaking that underlies the right to have rights natality. Natality, the capacity to be born, is, as Peg Birmingham has seen, a double principle. On the one hand, natality reflects the fact that man can, by acting and speaking, start something new. In this sense, natality refers to man's freedom in the sense of his spontaneity, the ability to begin and initiate something new. On the other hand, natality says also that a human being is born and, having been born, is given the gift of existence. This givenness - this 'mere existence' that is 'mysteriously given us at birth' - is an 'anarchic' principle that is '[c]ut off and adrift from any sovereign constituting power or foundation....' Since human existence, as physis, is cut off from any prior reason or ground, man is unjustifiable and thus vulnerable. Man stands alone as alien and strange. And this radical singularity that attaches to man's natality both underlies Arendt's defense of plurality and her insistence that the right to have rights includes the right to be as you are. It is the obligation in the face of the alien that must be respected as part of the human that, pace Birmingham, underlies Arendt's guarantee of the right to have rights to every human being."
Walter Russell Mead makes the case that if we are to resurrect our foreign policy, we need to move beyond the President and his appointees: "not many of our executive appointees are either as wise or as all-seeing as they may think they are: witness the Libya mess. From the side of the Congress, what's needed is a serious personal commitment from a critical mass of members to master the knowledge required to play a role in American foreign policy commensurate with the needs of the hour and the importance of Congress's constitutional role - combined with efforts to upgrade the processes and institutions through which the Congress carries out its mission. What we need to do at this point is begin to rethink the role of the Congress in American foreign policy.... The United States Congress has to be part of the solution. The Congress has, for example, the power to review and reform the agencies in the executive branch, and this power may need to be invoked. Is it, for example, a good thing that the National Security Council in the White House has accreted so much power? If the President's closest adviser on foreign policy is no longer the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, what degree of Congressional oversight is required in the NSC? Should its officials be subject to senatorial confirmation? If not, should the President accept limits on the NSC staff and the role of its chief? But to really live up to its potential and to carry out its constitutional role in foreign policy, the Congress is going to have to raise its sights. It's time to rethink what oversight means and how it should work. In particular, the Congress is the place where the country's most serious public conversations and deliberations about foreign policy should be held. As it is, this country's most important foreign policy debates are held on cable television and other news programs. That isn't good either for American foreign policy or for the long term health of American democracy."
Hannah Arendt insisted that a trial, even a Grand Jury Trial, requires that we pay attention to the individual accused. That is not what most people wanted following the trial of Darren Wilson. Yet to abide by Arendt's words, we must recognize that the case against Wilson as a singular individual was incredibly weak. Thus it is important, as Ta-Nehisi Coates demands, that we understand Michael Brown's death as a manifestation of institutional, rather than individual, racism: "Black people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who 'bulk up' to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson but a staple of American racism."
Perhaps the best analysis of the Darren Wilson shooting of Michael Brown has come from Benjamin Watson, a football player for the New Orleans Saints. "At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts: I'M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.... I'M SAD because another young life was lost from his family; the racial divide has widened; a community is in shambles; accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over; and we may never know the truth about what happened that day. I'M SYMPATHETIC because I wasn't there so I don't know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self-defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point. And I'M OFFENDED because of the insulting comments I've seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others."
In an interview, writer on religion and former nun Karen Armstrong sees organized religion as attempting to stop violence rather than cause it: "I've tried to show how the various traditions devised ways to help people get over violence. How Jewish rabbis actually completely revised their interpretation of the Jewish scriptures to take the violence out. How the ideal of ahimsa took root strongly in India. And how Jesus, who was an excitable man, says that extraordinary thing: Love your enemies. We're living in a globalized world, and the great theme that religion can give us, and perhaps national mythologies cannot, is that we are profoundly interconnected. Our histories are intertwined; economically we're absolutely bound up with one another; what happens in Syria has a blowback in Canada. So what the religions have insisted is that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group. You must love your enemies and reach out and practice what the Indian sages called equanimity: You cannot prefer one being to another. You cannot put yourself on a privileged pedestal because that is no longer a rational response to our globalized world."
Despite the tendency among critics and fans to separate Marilynne Robinson's first book, Housekeeping, from her later Gilead novels, Alex Egrebretson argues that her work is actually a coherent corpus: "The notion that there is indeed profound continuity between the early and late work would require much more space to prove. But let me at least sketch a different perspective on Robinson's career, one that sees the difference between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels as greatly exaggerated. In this view, Robinson moves from being an author with an odd, two-stage career to an author with deep imaginative habits, one who has worked and re-worked, emphasized and de-emphasized, a single literary vision. Housekeeping is that vision, serving as Robinson's spiritus mundi, a storage house of symbols, allusions, images, themes, and dramatic situations. From those basic materials, she has built each of her successive novels. Instead of an author who recreated herself late in her career, Robinson is one who has returned and renewed imaginative possibilities already latent within her first book."
Film Screening & Director's Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito '60 Auditorium, 5:00 - 8:00 pm
Roundtable on Academic Freedom
A panel discussion with guests Andrew Ross, Steven Salaita, and Katherine M. Franke.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm
This holiday week on the Blog, Michiel Bot explores Arendt's understanding of the "national idea" as one of the origins of totalitarianism in the Quote of the Week. And George Bernard Shaw provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking.
This coming Friday, December 5th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the second session of its new Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapter One of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more!
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.