Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
19Jul/150

Amor Mundi 7/19/15

Arendtamormundi

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upRevisiting a Fairy Tale

harper leeHarper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is an industry and a cultural icon that has been read by millions of white Americans as a tale of courage and racial color blindness. Now, with the publication of Lee's original manuscript Go Set A Watchman--in which Atticus Finch is depicted as a somewhat typical if also honorable and generous man of the south--it is time to revisit our energetic worship of Atticus as well as our generations-long misreading of To Kill a Mockingbird. Randall Kennedy reminds us that Monroe Freedman had already in 1992 written--in an obscure law journal--that Finch was depicted in the book as a reluctant hero and someone who was at home with the racism and segregation of the South. For Freedman, it was wrong to see Finch as a model for lawyers. Kennedy argues that the Go Set a Watchman now proves Freedman right and requires that we ask ourselves how, and why, we got it so wrong--why for so long we have been satisfied with the fairy tale when a more nuanced and less comforting truth was staring us in the face. In Hannah Arendt's vocabulary, we should ask why and how is it that we have contented ourselves to embrace the coherent and pleasing fantasy of an exceptional white man fighting for racial justice in the 1960s south despite all the facts that show such an ideal to be a fantasy? Kennedy writes: "Generations have admired Finch for his fidelity to due process even at the risk of unpopularity and personal harm. Freedman noted, however, that Finch did not volunteer to represent Robinson; he did so only upon assignment by the court, saying that he had 'hoped to get through life without a case of this kind.' Freedman also pointed out that Finch abstained from challenging the obvious illicit racial exclusion of blacks from the jury that wrongly convicted Robinson and the racial segregation in the courtroom itself, where blacks were confined to the balcony. At the time of this fictional trial, there would have been good strategic reasons for forgoing objection to these customs. Confrontation would have had little chance at success and a large likelihood of provoking retaliation against the defendant. In Freedman's view, however, those considerations were not decisive in influencing Atticus Finch. Rather, Freedman inferred that Finch failed to oppose Jim Crow custom because he was at home with it. He told his children that the Ku Klux Klan was merely 'a political organization' and that the leader of the lynch mob was 'basically a good man' albeit with 'blind spots along with the rest of us.' To Freedman, Finch's acts and omissions defined a lawyer who lived his life as a 'passive participant' in 'pervasive injustice.' This column by a legal academic, published in a relatively obscure trade journal, so enraged admirers of Atticus Finch that this newspaper published an article about the column and the impassioned responses it provoked. Dismissed by some as the ravings of a curmudgeon, Freedman's impression of Atticus Finch has now been largely ratified by none other than his creator, Harper Lee herself.... In America in 1960, the story of a decent white Southerner who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman had the appeal of a fairy tale and the makings of a popular movie. Perhaps even more promising, though, was the novel Lee first envisioned, the story of Jean Louise's adult conflicts between love and fairness, decency and loyalty. Fully realized, that novel might have become a modern masterpiece."

Go Set a Lawyer

go set a watchmanClaire Suddath looks into the questions surrounding the release of To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchmen, which appears to be just a different, earlier draft of the former book: "Watchman is the most preordered book in HarperCollins's history. Its first print run is two-thirds larger than the final Hunger Games book and more than twice that of the last Game of Thrones installment. HarperCollins is selling the book for up to $20 to bookstores, which means a sold-out first printing could rake in close to $40 million. The novel's topped Amazon.com's best-seller list since its release was announced in February and is the website's most preordered book of any genre in the last four years. Monroeville's two-room bookstore has presold almost 7,000 copies and is trying to find a loading dock big enough to accept them the night before they go on sale. 'This Watchman publication is what physicists call a singularity. There has been nothing like it before now, and there never will be again,' says Daniel Menaker, a former editor at Random House and, before that, the fiction editor at the New Yorker. 'You couldn't plan for this if you tried.' But someone did plan for this, although it might not have been Harper Lee. Ever since Watchman was announced, rumors have persisted that a younger, more mindful Lee--the one who swore not to publish anything again--wouldn't abide any of this. At one point, the state of Alabama even got involved to assess a claim of possible 'elder abuse.' How aware is Lee, really, of this new book? Does she, as her publishers insist, approve of its publication? The answers lie with Lee's lawyer, friend, and confidante, Carter. So I traveled to Monroeville to talk with her."

Machines, Information, and Post-Capitalism

capitalism endPaul Mason argues that the information economy is creating new material conditions that enable a post-capitalist economy based on sharing and zero-marginal cost production to emerge. What is more, he argues that all this was foreseen by Karl Marx in a little known fragment on Machines from 1858. "The scene is Kentish Town, London, February 1858, sometime around 4am. Marx is a wanted man in Germany and is hard at work scribbling thought-experiments and notes-to-self. When they finally get to see what Marx is writing on this night, the left intellectuals of the 1960s will admit that it 'challenges every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived'. It is called 'The Fragment on Machines'. In the 'Fragment' Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines. Given what Marxism was to become--a theory of exploitation based on the theft of labour time--this is a revolutionary statement. It suggests that, once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of 'wages versus profits' but who controls what Marx called the 'power of knowledge'. In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must, he writes, be 'social'. In a final late-night thought experiment Marx imagined the end point of this trajectory: the creation of an 'ideal machine', which lasts forever and costs nothing. A machine that could be built for nothing would, he said, add no value at all to the production process and rapidly, over several accounting periods, reduce the price, profit and labour costs of everything else it touched. Once you understand that information is physical, and that software is a machine, and that storage, bandwidth and processing power are collapsing in price at exponential rates, the value of Marx's thinking becomes clear. We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever. In these musings, not published until the mid-20th century, Marx imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a 'general intellect'--which was the mind of everybody on Earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everybody. In short, he had imagined something close to the information economy in which we live. And, he wrote, its existence would 'blow capitalism sky high'."

amor_mundi_sign-upYour Home Is Your Transparent Castle

arne svensonArne Svenson, an artist, used a telephoto lens to take pictures surreptitiously of everyday people in their apartments. He then exhibited these photos in an art gallery, obscuring the faces, seeking, in his telling, "to comment on the 'anonymity' of urban life, where individuals only reveal what can be seen through their windows." Photos included a half-naked young girl dancing in a tiara. Svenson's neighbors, recognizing themselves and their children, sued Svenson for a violation of their privacy. Two New York State Courts have now upheld Svenson's rights to artistic expression and denied that the neighbors had their privacy rights violated. This is how Justice Dianne Renwick of the New York Appellate Court summed up the decision. "In this action, plaintiffs seek damages and injunctive relief for an alleged violation of the statutory right to privacy. Concerns over privacy and the loss thereof have plagued the public for over a hundred years. Undoubtedly, such privacy concerns have intensified for obvious reasons. New technologies can track thought, movement, and intimacies, and expose them to the general public, often in an instant. This public apprehension over new technologies invading one's privacy became a reality for plaintiffs and their neighbors when a photographer, using a high-powered camera lens inside his own apartment, took photographs through the window into the interior of apartments in a neighboring building. The people who were being photographed had no idea this was happening. This case highlights the limitations of New York's statutory privacy tort as a means of redressing harm that may be caused by this type of technological home invasion and exposure of private life. We are constrained to find that the invasion of privacy of one's home that took place here is not actionable as a statutory tort of invasion of privacy pursuant to sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law, because defendant's use of the images in question constituted art work and, thus is not deemed 'use for advertising or trade purposes,' within the meaning of the statute." Justice Renwick does recognize that the violation of privacy in this case is real, but she calls upon the legislature to address it. "To be sure, by our holding here--finding no viable cause of action for violation of the statutory right to privacy under these facts--we do not, in any way, mean to give short shrift to plaintiffs' concerns. Undoubtedly, like plaintiffs, many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken in this case. However, such complaints are best addressed to the legislature--the body empowered to remedy such inequities. Needless to say, as illustrated by the troubling facts here, in these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and ever more invasive technologies, we call upon the legislature to revisit this important issue, as we are constrained to apply the law as it exists."

Getting Out

re-entry movementUsing two ex-cons who pick recently released prisoners up from jail and get them to wherever they need to be going as a way in, Jon Mooallem peeks in at the lived experience of reentering a changed world: "It wasn't until the mid-2000s that this looming 'prisoner re-entry crisis' became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the 're-entry movement.' The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can't even navigate public transportation; they're too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens. In a recent study, the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western describes a woman who 'frequently forgot to eat breakfast or lunch for several months because she was used to being called to meals in prison.' I met one man who explained that, after serving 15 years, he found himself convinced that parked cars would somehow switch on and run him over. So many years inside can leave people vulnerable in almost incomprehensibly idiosyncratic ways, sometimes bordering on helplessness: 'Like that little bird, getting his wings' is how one man described himself on Day 1. Many spill out of prison in no condition to take advantage of the helpful bureaucracies the re-entry movement has been busily putting in place."

The Euro on the Left

euroJames K. Galbraith makes a prediction about the end of the Euro and where that end might come from: "SYRIZA was not some Greek fluke; it was a direct consequence of European policy failure. A coalition of ex-Communists, unionists, Greens, and college professors does not rise to power anywhere except in desperate times. That SYRIZA did rise, overshadowing the Greek Nazis in the Golden Dawn party, was, in its way, a democratic miracle. SYRIZA's destruction will now lead to a reassessment, everywhere on the continent, of the 'European project.' A progressive Europe--the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion--would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long. What will become of Europe? Clearly the hopes of the pro-European, reformist left are now over. That will leave the future in the hands of the anti-European parties, including UKIP, the National Front in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece. These are ugly, racist, xenophobic groups; Golden Dawn has proposed concentration camps for immigrants in its platform. The only counter, now, is for progressive and democratic forces to regroup behind the banner of national democratic restoration. Which means that the left in Europe will also now swing against the euro. As that happens, should the United States continue to support the euro, aligning ourselves with failed policies and crushed democratic protests? Or should we let it be known that we are indifferent about which countries are in or out? Surely the latter represents the sensible choice. After all, Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Romania (not to mention Denmark and Sweden, or for that matter the United Kingdom) are still out and will likely remain so--yet no one thinks they will fail or drift to Putin because of that. So why should the euro--plainly now a fading dream--be propped up? Why shouldn't getting out be an option? Independent technical, financial, and moral support for democratic allies seeking exit would, in these conditions, help to stabilize an otherwise dangerous and destructive mood."

On The Frontlines

avant-gardePaul Stephens wonders if avant-garde poetry may help us work through the flood of information we carry around in our pockets and on our wrists: "Avant-garde poetry may have a small role to play in our understanding of global information flows--on the other hand, the avant-garde has always aspired to be predictive, to keep up with the present, to stay ahead of history. The avant-garde's attempts to maintain critical distance from mainstream bourgeois values may be grandiose and hyperbolic, but the questions raised by avant-garde movements should not be dismissed as nihilistic or unrepresentative of larger social developments. To adapt a question posed by Lyn Hejinian-'Isn't the avant-garde always pedagogical?'--I would ask: 'Isn't the avant-garde always technological?' Much of the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde was extremely self-conscious of the rapid changes in technologies of communication and data storage. From Dada photomontage to hypertext poetry, avant-garde methodology has been deeply concerned with remediation and transcoding--the movement from one technological medium or format to another. As Brian Reed has recently written, 'poetry is a language-based art with a penchant for reflecting on its channels of communication.' For Reed, poetry 'offers unparalleled opportunities for coming to grips with the new media ecology. Poets, as they experiment with transmediation, serially bring to light each medium's textures, contours, and inner logic.' While poetry may seem the most non-technological of literary genres, over the past century poets have frequently been obsessed with the changing nature of information and its dissemination. The news that there is more news than we can process is not so new; while avant-garde poetry may not figure prominently in the global information glut, the global information glut figures prominently in avant-garde poetry."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #11

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 dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

 

 


why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," 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 and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how in The Human Condition Arendt at one point refers to a type of monument that complicates the process of creating historical memory through a common world in the Quote of the Week. Lao-Tze traces how thoughts translate into an individual's destiny in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we relate the history of Bard College's Hannah Arendt Collection in this week's Library feature.

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.
2Apr/130

Amor Mundi 3/31/13

Arendtamormundi

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.

Are Animals One of Us?

animalJohn Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay in the new Lapham's Quarterly on animals. Sullivan begins his essay "One of Us" with this description of studies that upend our view of humankind's unique place in the universe. Against the view that humans are special, that we think differently than animals, and that only humans have consciousness, Sullivan writes, "If we put aside the self-awareness standard-and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)-it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed." For Sullivan, we can no longer rely on an easy distinction between human and animal; on the Arendt Center blog Roger Berkowitz responds.

Writing After Tahrir

typeLast year Stephen Morison Jr. went to Egypt to seek out the country's post-Mubarak literary culture. What he found were people alternately disillusioned and still hopeful, including the short story writer Muhamed "Nebo" Abdelnaby, who told him that, as the possibility of censorship has replaced the reality of corruption, the Western expectations for Egyptian writers has changed little: "They don't want us to be experimental; they don't want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers."

 

 

Traveling America's Arteries

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

John F. Cline recently began a trip that will retrace many of the routes African Americans took from the South into the North in the early parts of the 20th century. One of his first stops was Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, which he was allowed to tour. Among other things, he describes Angola's hospice program, at which inmates care for dying members of the prison population. Cline notes that those who pass are buried with dignity and respect: "when the hospice patients die, they are no longer buried in a corner of the facility in Styrofoam containers: wooden coffins are built in the prison's carpentry shop, covered with hand-quilted palls, and the dead are taken to their graves in a horse-drawn hearse trailed by an inmate procession."

 

The Trial of General Rios Montt

rios

Flickr via Ian Bunn

Aryeh Neier points to the beginnings of Guatemala's proceedings against its former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt as a "repudiation" of America's Latin America policies in the 1980s. This is the first time "a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country." The charges against Rios Montt include the deaths of more than 1,700 Ixils, one of the country's indigenous populations, and his trial includes testimony from Ixil survivors, something that Neier thinks is, of itself, "a remarkable development."

 

Charles Krafft and the Conundrum of Nazi Art

artRachel Arons considers the recent outing of fine artist Charles Krafft as a neo nazi and Holocaust denier. Krafft's work has often included Nazi imagery, which was previously widely believed to have been used ironically. As Arons points out, however, interpreting Krafft, and other artists who appropriate Nazi iconography, has always been complicated. "There isn't," she writes, "a clear line between 'irony' and 'homage' in Krafft's work, and it's a mistake to assume, as many members of the art world apparently have, that an ironic artistic appropriation of Nazi symbols safely amounts to an anti-Nazi critique."

Featured Upcoming N.Y.C. Event

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual

An Ongoing Series of discussions moderated by Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead.

April 9, 2013 at Bard Graduate Center

David Frum, blogger for

The Daily Beast&

The Huffington Post.

Learn more here.

"David Frum is back. And he's jockeying to be the front and center of the post-Romney American conservative movement". - Eddy Moretti

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

 

This week on the blog, Nikita Nelin rites about his experience as a teacher of literature working with students focused on employment and Jeff Jurgens wonders whether Americans will ever understand what the invasion of Iraq meant for Iraqis.

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.
22Jan/133

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.
25Oct/120

Defining American Democracy Differently

How do our understandings of democracy shape how we imagine racial equality and the means by which it might be achieved? That was the question posed by Maribel Morey at the most recent lunchtime talk at the Arendt Center. Morey is currently a fellow at the New York University School of Law, and she has recently completed her dissertation in the Department of History at Princeton University. Building upon her research on the Swedish economist and social theorist Gunnar Myrdal, Morey offered an incisive comparative reading of Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma (1944) and Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock” (1959).

As became evident in the course of her talk, these texts posit different visions of democracy in the U.S., and they come to different conclusions about a central feature of the civil rights era: the federally enforced integration of public schools in the segregated South.

Myrdal was a strong advocate of such government intervention. In his argument, the premises and principles of American democracy effectively demand the racial integration of schools and other institutions, and it is legitimate for the federal government to enforce such integration for the sake of America’s ongoing democratic life. This position insists that education constitutes a crucial public resource provided by the state, and it proposes that inequitable access to this resource limits individual and collective participation in the political realm. Indeed, Myrdal goes even further by contending that discrimination and segregation violate the very “American creed”—the liberal commitment to equality and fair treatment—that makes national co-existence possible. Since its initial publication, Myrdal’s position has exerted a deep influence on U.S. public discourse: it played a key role in civil rights activism in the 1950s and ‘60s, and it figured prominently in the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Arendt was also committed to the project of political equality in the U.S., but she parts ways with Myrdal by sharply questioning the legitimacy of federally enforced integration. On the one hand, she objects to this form of intervention because it “burden[s] children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve”. Government-mandated integration thereby inserts young people into a political struggle for which they are not prepared and to which they do not properly belong. On the other hand, Arendt takes issue with the way that federally mandated integration transgresses the boundaries that ought to be maintained between the realms of political, social, and private life.

These boundaries are necessary, in Arendt’s argument, because polity, society, and privacy are defined by different animating principles. Politics is defined by the principle of equality: all adult citizens enjoy the same right to vote and be voted into office, and no differences should exist in their ability to participate in the polity. By contrast, the social realm is characterized by the principle of discrimination: social relations follow the adage “like attracts like,” according to Arendt, and individuals are therefore entitled to associate—and not associate—with others along the lines of profession, class origin, ethnicity, level of education, and other vectors of difference. Finally, the private realm is defined by the principle of exclusiveness: individuals choose the people with whom they will spend their lives on the basis of those people’s unique qualities, and the government should and indeed must assure “the rights of every person to do as he pleases within the four wall of his own home.”

Arendt charges that state action in the service of racial integration is acceptable when it attacks the legal enforcement of discrimination in the political realm. One of her key differences with Myrdal, however, lies in the fact that she does not regard the education provided by the school as necessary for political participation. Indeed, she does not ultimately consider the school to be a “political” institution at all. To be sure, the state has the right to prescribe educational content that will prepare children for future work and citizenship. But in Arendt’s argument government cannot dictate the forms of association and social life that emerge in school, and it cannot infringe on parents’ rights to bring up their children as they deem appropriate. These points lead her to a rather provocative conclusion: “to force parents to send their children to an integrated school against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies—the private right over their children and the social right to free association.”

As Roger Berkowitz writes in his essay "Solitude and the Activity of Thinking," Arendt's argument is grounded on her belief that a vibrant private realm is a constitutive need of a free political society. Without a strong protection of the private realm where people can grow to be different, unique, and self-thinkers, there will be no true plurality, which is the condition for action and politics. The price for plurality, she writes, is that we allow for people to live freely in private. It is for this reason that Arendt argues against anti-miscegenation law and why she would insist on the right to gay marriage. For Arendt, there is nothing more constitutive of privacy than the right to raise one's children as one wishes. For the state to forcefully require parents to send their children to a specific kinds of school means, she writes, that there would be no meaningful realm of privacy left—which would endanger the plurality she understands is the pre-condition of politics. As Berkowitz writes:

What offends Arendt in the Little Rock case is not the ideal of desegregation, but the danger that well-intentioned governmental attacks on social discrimination will erode the walls of privacy that nourish the possibility of thinking and of acting—and thus of plurality. Since the space for solitary thought depends on the protection of a vibrant private realm, the protection of privacy is a necessary first step in the cultivation of thoughtful political action.

Given the controversial nature of Arendt’s position, it should come as no surprise that much of the discussion turned on the questions her essay leaves unanswered. For example, many audience members wondered about the connections between private upbringing, social discrimination, and political equality. What is it that enables or requires citizens to forego the discrimination they practice in social life so that they might recognize other citizens as equals?

For that matter, how is it possible for people to transcend those aspects of their familial socialization that might hinder them from participating in politics without prejudice?

Other listeners focused on the two writers’ divergent intellectual predilections. As several of them noted, Myrdal’s work reveals a basic confidence in the ability of government, working in tandem with enlightened social science, to conceive and implement policies that further democratic freedoms. Arendt, on the other hand, betrays a much more skeptical stance not only on power of the state, but also on the capacity of social scientists (like Myrdal) to guide productive social and political interventions.

Finally, discussion turned to one point where Arendt, despite the contentious nature of her remarks, might be developing a more interesting view of democratic societies than Myrdal. As Morey noted in the Q and A, Myrdal’s reflections on democracy are ultimately premised on the existence of a national Volk defined by broad moral and cultural commonality. Prejudice and discrimination are pernicious, in his reading, because they prevent racial minorities from complete integration into the nation and its defining sense of peoplehood. Arendt’s vision, by contrast, adopts a much more guarded stance toward “conformism” of this sort. Indeed, “Reflections on Little Rock” proposes that people have a strong right to their opinions and sentiments in the private and social realms, even when those opinions and sentiments are deeply unpalatable in the wider public sphere and polity. As a result, Arendt’s notion of democracy appears to allow much greater room for the existence and maintenance of difference.

On the whole, then, Morey’s talk cast thoughtful light on the work of these two thinkers. It sought neither to venerate nor to dismiss their claims wholesale, but instead probed the many differences in their starting points and claims. In the end, Myrdal and Arendt’s positions seemed so divergent that it was hard not to regard them as “two ships passing in the night”—despite their common abhorrence of racial segregation.

You can view Maribel Morey's talk and the ensuing discussion on the Hannah Arendt Center website, here.

Maribel Morey's essay, "Reassessing Hannah Arendt's 'Reflections on Little Rock' (1959)" was published in the Journal of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. You can sign in with a password to read the article here

-Jeff Jurgens

 

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.
10Jul/120

American Criminal Justice, Made in Texas (Part 2)

In my last blog (June 20, 2012), I highlighted a few scholars’ recent efforts to situate current patterns of African American imprisonment within this country’s longer history of racial conflict and subjugation. More specifically, I focused on some of the central claims in Robert Perkinson’s book Texas Tough (2010), which offers a sharp account of the historical connections between racial hierarchy and mass imprisonment in the Lone Star State and the larger American South. In its broadest outlines, Perkinson’s book contends that incarceration in Texas has, from its very outset, been closely bound up with chattel slavery and its legacies.

This entanglement is perhaps most evident in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced inmate labor, much of which took place—as late as the 1970s—on state-run prison farms that bore a striking resemblance to antebellum plantations. It is also discernible in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practice of “convict leasing,” which allowed private entrepreneurs to purchase the right to use inmate labor power from the state prison system.

Despite regulations that required the humane treatment of prisoners, convict leasing generated widespread neglect and abuse, and in the early twentieth century it drew the ire not only of many African Americans, but also of white labor leaders, radical farm organizers, and progressive middle-class reformers. This last group launched a concerted campaign to move the state prison system away from punitive revenue-bearing production and toward newer, ostensibly more benevolent forms of rehabilitation. In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernizers in the prison administration implemented a variety of reform measures, including better food and medical care, religious services and reading classes, ten-hour workdays, and even nominal compensation for prison workers (ten cents per diem). In Perkinson’s account, however, these efforts were undermined by vocal opposition from prison personnel and, perhaps counter-intuitively, a surge in inmate dissent and rebellion. This uptick in prisoner discontent in particular prompted administrators and lawmakers to reassert penal authority, and the prison system basically reverted to its former pattern of plantation agriculture and severe discipline.

To be sure, progressive reform campaigns reemerged in Texas in the late 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. They commonly looked for inspiration to similar initiatives in New York (which represented the cutting edge of inmate participation in prison management) and California (which led the way in inmate counseling and the professionalization of prison staff). But they also responded to homegrown scandals, including a spate of self-mutilations among Texas prisoners in the 1940s. In a desperate effort to avoid and/or protest harsh work conditions, unsanitary housing, and guard mistreatment, hundreds of inmates chopped off digits or limbs, injected gasoline into their arms and legs, or severed their Achilles tendons. As Perkinson notes, similar tactics were common in the era of slavery and convict leasing, and prisoners’ recourse to such deliberate violence against the self ultimately drew a more sustained response from the state government than previous reform efforts.

Texas Prison Board, 1930's

Nevertheless, when a new system of prison management coalesced in the 1950s, it continued to emphasize “work and force” (Perkinson, p. 228) as the central pillars of incarceration, even as it embraced certain forms of rehabilitative programming like church services, formal schooling, vocational training, and after-work programs. This emerging style became known as the “control model,” and it garnered significant praise for Texas in the national press and in professional organizations like the American Correctional Association. As eventually became clear, however, the “control” that this model promoted ultimately rested on a culture of routine repression among prison guards as well as systemic reliance on convict enforcers, or “building tenders.” Since the late nineteenth century, building tenders in Texas prisons had dispensed disciplinary violence against fellow inmates with impunity, and they had enjoyed a variety of unsanctioned privileges, including the prerogative to engage in consensual and non-consensual sex with other prisoners.

In the face of such endemic brutality, a small number of convict activists began to draw on the 1871 Civil Rights Act to sue the state of Texas for violations of their constitutional rights. One of the most prominent activists, David Ruíz, filed a petition in June 1972 that offered a harrowing chronicle of his treatment at the hands of prison staff and building tenders, and a small team of lawyers and judges transformed it into a class action lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, on behalf of the state’s entire inmate population. The presiding district judge ruled in 1980 that the Texas penal system had subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived them of due process of law on a massive scale, and he ordered the state government to undertake sweeping changes. The Ruiz decision effectively ended Texas’s regime of plantation-style prison farming, and it represented the most comprehensive reform order that a federal court had issued to a state penal system up to that point. Drawing on the momentum created by the lawsuit, prison modernizers in the early 1980s lobbied for the redistribution of the state’s inmate population into smaller, less isolated facilities with understated security and extensive links to outside communities.

These reform efforts were (yet again) outweighed, however, by rising crimes rates, the ascendance of the New Right, and a concomitant turn toward “law-and-order” politics on both the state and national level. Texas’s prisoner population increased dramatically as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed stiffer sentencing guidelines and curtailed inmates’ eligibility for parole. These trends spurred a massive prison construction boom, but with the collapse of the control model following the Ruiz decision, the new facilities were increasingly structured less like plantations and more like warehouses that emphasized “confinement, separation, and complete architectural control” (Perkinson, p. 315). As violence against both prisoners and guards increased once more, Texas prisons resorted to extended “administrative segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “super segregation” cell blocks in their efforts to contain not just disruptive inmates, but relatively compliant ones as well.

This recent punitive turn in criminal justice has not been restricted to Texas: rates of incarceration and prison construction have increased sharply in most states over the past three decades, as has the proportion of African American and Latino inmates. Meanwhile, the federal government—particularly under former Texas governor George W. Bush—has displayed a striking commitment to expanded law enforcement, extended sentencing, and more frequent recourse to capital punishment. In Perkinson’s analysis, then, the historical arc of American imprisonment has not bent toward the rehabilitative goals championed most forcefully in northern states like New York. Rather, “the northern prison became more southern rather than the other way around…. If northern prisons once gestured toward freedom and southern penal farms toward bondage, the whole Union is in alignment now, pointing back toward the eternal bifurcations of slavery” (Perkinson, pp. 362-363).

This provocative argument raises serious questions about America’s commitment to the granting of ostensibly inalienable rights to all its citizens, and it suggests that race continues to shape how we approach the protection and violation of human dignity. To be sure, there are moments when Perkinson’s claims overstep the limits of his evidence. I am not convinced that the recent proliferation of prisons in Texas and other parts of the South and wider U.S. can be read as a reaction to the end of Jim Crow and the successes of the civil rights movement. I also doubt that the second Bush administration’s conduct in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be traced to the practices of southern slavery and imprisonment as neatly as he suggests. Nevertheless, the heart of Perkinson’s argument skillfully outlines disturbing historical linkages between slavery and incarceration without equating these two forms of domination. In the process, he implies that we may need to rethink the relationship that prisoners, especially prisoners of color, have maintained with American citizenship in both the past and present.

On some occasions, incarcerated people have not merely constituted a recognized exception to juridical norms, which nevertheless enjoys “some kind of human equality,” as Hannah Arendt described criminals in The Origins of Totalitarianism (p. 286). Rather, they have formed a social category whose claim to “retain [their] rights over [their] bodies” (p. 444) has been substantially limited by their exposure to forced labor, sexual degradation, and violence that often has not been subject to public scrutiny and political accountability. This point does not imply that prisoners’ experiences can therefore be conflated with those of slaves, stateless persons, or concentration camp inmates, to name only a few of the dominated groups that concerned Arendt in the Origins. But it does suggest that prisoners’ enjoyment of constitutional and human rights cannot be taken for granted, as she seems to presume. It is still an exaggeration, I think, to say that prison inmates live “outside the pale of the law” (p. 277) in Arendt’s understanding of that phrase. But I would also insist that, in all too many instances, they have resided closer to its margins than we may care to admit.

-Jeff Jurgens

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.