Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Amor Mundi 4/26/15


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-upWill It Never End?

violenceJohn Gray, writing in The Guardian, takes on Steven Pinker's argument that progress and the Enlightenment are bringing about the decline and extinction of violence. "It may be true that the modern state's monopoly of force has led, in some contexts, to declining rates of violent death. But it is also true that the power of the modern state has been used for purposes of mass killing, and one should not pass too quickly over victims of state terror. With increasing historical knowledge it has become clear that the 'Holocaust-by-bullets'--the mass shootings of Jews, mostly in the Soviet Union, during the second world war--was perpetrated on an even larger scale than previously realised. Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million. Along with fatalities caused by state terror were unnumbered millions whose lives were irreparably broken and shortened. How these casualties fit into the scheme of declining violence is unclear. Pinker goes so far as to suggest that the 20th-century Hemoclysm might have been a gigantic statistical fluke, and cautions that any history of the last century that represents it as having been especially violent may be 'apt to exaggerate the narrative coherence of this history' (the italics are Pinker's). However, there is an equal or greater risk in abandoning a coherent and truthful narrative of the violence of the last century for the sake of a spurious quantitative precision."

How About Improving High Schools?

college reformDavid Leonhardt takes on the conventional wisdom that college is not for everyone. (Although I thought the conventional wisdom is that college is for everyone.) In his Upshot column in the NY Times, Leonhardt argues that new studies show that college benefits even the most marginal students. "The fate of students like Mr. Escanilla is crucial to today's debate over who should go to college: How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree. As it happens, two separate--and ambitious--recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don't clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don't attend any four-year college. Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn't, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college. And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students. Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor's degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found." What is unasked in Leonhardt's argument is, "What about high school?" It is not controversial that sending someone to college will help people. But does it make sense for us to continue offering free high school educations that are horrific and then charge people for better college educations? Wouldn't the money and effort spent on community colleges and financial aid for lower tier colleges be better spent reforming high school education in a meaningful way? It seems most people simply have given up on high school, which is why college becomes an expensive and next-best alternative.

Your Smart Things, They're Spying On You

smart homeJustin McGuirk says the smart house is here and that it's here less to make your life convenient and more to gather data about what you do at home: "For the first time since the mid-twentieth century--with its labor-saving household appliances and rising quality of life--the domestic is once again the site of radical change. And though domestic space appears to fall within the realm of architecture, architects themselves have been almost mute on the implications of such change. Architecture, it seems, has given up its dreams of imagining how we might live, and so into that void technology is rushing. That tired old trope of 'the house of the future' has been replaced by what is now called the 'smart home.' The smart home is the network's great white hope for ubiquitous connectivity. It sounds benign enough, and may conjure Jacques Tati-style mise-en-scènes populated by absurd devices--the smart home is prime territory for farce--but it is also an ideology. It is the house-shaped manifestation of the internet of things, according to which all our devices and appliances will join the network, communicating with us and each other. To say that the internet of things is an ideology is to suggest that the use-value of the concept has yet to be sold to the consumer. It is easily mocked by skeptical hacks who question the need for talking fridges and washing machines that you can program with your smartphone ('You still need to put the clothes in yourself, right?'). Bruce Sterling argues that the internet of things has nothing to do with the consumer and everything to do with the business interests of the service providers. Given that data is the new currency, the internet of things is an epic power grab by the lords of the network--Sterling focuses on the 'big five' of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft--to gain control of as much human data as physically possible. As the primary interface of the internet of things, the smart home is effectively the tendrils of the network rising out of the ground and into every one of our household appliances to allow mass data collection and digital surveillance." And while it used to be that you could strategically opt out of this data gathering, McGuirk suggests that the smart home will just render you redundant. Home, then, is no longer any retreat from the public space.

amor_mundi_sign-upMindfulness and Social Control

mindfulnessVirginia Heffernan is wary of the way "mindfulness," an idea brought into Western thought from various Eastern religions, has been taken up by businesses and 21st century self-help gurus: "Mindfulness as 'keeping in tune' has a nice ring to it. But it's 'focused on the task at hand' that appeals to managers, like Jackson, who are conscious of performance goals. Might workplace mindfulness--in the cubicle or on the court--be just another way to keep employees undistracted and to get them to work harder for nothing but airy rewards? In this context of performance enhancement, 'mindfulness' seems perilously close to doggerel from the same playbook that brought us corny affirmations, inner children and vision boards. Maybe the word 'mindfulness' is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness--taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails--makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer."

Feeling and Thinking

Françoise MoulyFrançoise Mouly, in an interview, talks about the relationship between thought and emotion in art: "Often, we separate intellectual discourse from emotional reaction. But I take such genuine pleasure in things that are intellectually well architected. It's definitely an integrated experience for me. Much more than any kind of cheap, emotional pulls that you get in popular culture, when I read a sentence and it's beautifully written, it can bring me to tears. I know what I respond to is a voice. A voice is not just a stylistic thing, but it means someone who really has something to say. I think a lot of what I get from books--whether they be books of comics or books of literature--is a window into somebody's mind and their way of thinking. I love it when it's so specific. It's a new way to look at the world. It's as if I could get in and see it through their eyes. It also reaches a level of universality because, somehow, I can recognize some of my feelings in seeing somebody who is actually expressing their own inner reality. Even though Flaubert has not been in Madame Bovary's skin, you do get a sense of what it's like to be that person. It's a kind of empathic response when you're reading it."

The Fiction and the Fact

joseph mitchellIn a piece on the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, Janet Malcom, starting with facts from a new biography of Mitchell, tries to work out whether it matters that his tendency to exaggerate or flat-out invent in his profiles for the magazine, more prevalent than previously believed, matters. Ultimately, she says, it doesn't. But only because he was good at it: "Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don't invent because they don't know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn't create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell's travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they're so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition. In the title piece of The Bottom of the Harbor, a short work of great subtlety about the ability of fish and shellfish to survive in polluted water, Mitchell mentions a small area of the New York waterfront where, in contrast to the general foulness, 'clean, sparkling, steel-blue water' can be found. This image of purity in the midst of contamination could serve as an emblem of Mitchell's journalistic exceptionalism. He has filtered out the impurities other journalists helplessly accept as the defining condition of their genre. Mitchell's genre is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named."

What We Talk About When We Talk About Dresses

dressMegan Garber wonders what might have caused the backlash against some designer dresses that went on sale at Target this week, coming up with an answer that suggests, as always, that when we're talking about clothes, we're not just talking about clothes: "A common phrase you'll hear associated with Pulitzer is 'uniform'--as in, as Givhan put it, 'part of a preppy uniform that announces itself from fifty paces,' or, as the Boston Globe put it, 'a uniform of the well-heeled WASP.' Which is ironic, of course: Uniforms are about the constriction of freedoms, and preppiness and WASPiness are, in general, about the freedom that comes with privilege. And clothing, furthermore-'fashion,' in haughtier moments--is most optimistically about the freedoms of self-expression and self-reinvention. It recognizes very little distinction between faking it and making it. If you have the money and the inclination, you can stock your closet--and swath your body--with Alice + Olivia and Thakoon and Marc Jacobs and Marchesa, or with very convincing knockoffs. You can balance them out, as the fashion magazines have taught you to do, with items from H&M and Zara and Forever 21. We live in an economy of sartorial abundance; one outcome of that is that 'style' is something we have come to associate with freedom. But Pulitzer's clothes are, again, 'uniforms'--which are, on the whole, designed to free their wearers from the burdens of free thinking. And this is perhaps the main source of the ire about Pulitzer's clothes: The garments suggest a kind of willful conscription, celebrating what happens when wealth and status are accompanied by an insistent rejection of creativity. It was, and to some extent still is, popular to deride women for being 'basic,' which is to say for loving pumpkin-spice lattes, Ugg boots, Gucci handbags, and other predictable outcomes of commercialized femininity. 'Basic' is a terrible epithet in many ways, but it is also, as far as 'Lillys' are concerned, an instructive one: Pulitzer's clothes are, in this sense, the worst kind of basic. They promise class and community and the relief of conformity. They are marketed to people of privilege. Worst of all, though, they suggest that the best thing one can do with one's privilege is to use it to go on vacation."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #8

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, May 15, 2015

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



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han discusses how Arendt's and Kant's conceptions of critical thinking help open us up to the rest of the world in the Quote of the Week. Albert Einstein provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. In a special feature, Zelda May Bas, a student fellow with the Hannah Arendt Center, recounts our second "Courage to Be" dinner, during which Professor Uday Mehta spoke on Gandhi. Finally, we visit the Hannah Arendt Collection and peruse a number of books dedicated to understanding the character and political aspirations of Adolf Hitler 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.

The Perplexities of Secularism



Does a cross in a courtroom infringe on the religious freedom of non-Christians involved in legal proceedings? Does it violate the principles of a secular state? These questions have recently arisen in Germany thanks to the trial of Beate Zschäpe. Zschäpe is the one surviving member of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a band of neo-Nazis that allegedly murdered eight people of Turkish descent, one person of Greek descent, and one non-immigrant German police officer in a string of premeditated attacks from 2000 to 2007.

Zschäpe is currently standing trial at the upper court of appeals in Munich, and like other legal chambers in the state of Bavaria, its décor includes a modest wooden cross.


This cross did not evoke comment from the judge and lawyers in the run-up to the trial, and it was not an initial source of concern for the victims’ immediate relatives, who are acting as joint plaintiffs in the case. But it did draw the ire of Mahmut Tanal, a member of the Turkish parliament who attended the first day of the proceedings. Tanal, who is affiliated with the secularist Republican People’s Party, argued that a religious symbol like a cross has no place in the courtroom and should be removed immediately. In his estimation, the cross not only violated the principle of state neutrality in religious affairs, but also constituted a “threat” for the Muslim relatives of the Turkish victims.

Several conservative politicians in Germany responded to his complaints with sharply worded defenses of the cross. Norbert Geis, a parliamentarian for Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU), announced that “the cross belongs to our culture” and urged Tanal to display more respect for the Christian influence on German life. Günter Krings, a member of parliament for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), contended that the cross “symbolizes brotherly love and tolerance and is an expression of our Christian-Western roots.” And Günther Beckstein (CSU), Bavaria’s former Minister President, insisted that it was important to make clear, even in a courtroom, that “God stands above the person.”

The matter might have ended there if one of the joint plaintiffs, Talar T., had not agreed with Mahmut Tanal and filed a motion for the cross to be removed. Talar T. insisted that he had a pressing claim “not to be exposed to the influence of a religion—even in the form of a symbol—by the German state.”

Significantly, there is no established legal precedent on this and related matters. The State Court in Saarbrücken ruled in 2001 that a cross must be removed from a courtroom when a concerned party believes that its presence injures her or his right to religious freedom. But it is not clear whether this judgment would apply to courts in Bavaria, especially when Germany’s federalist system grants individual states considerable legal and policymaking autonomy. Indeed, it is precisely this system that has allowed Bavaria to hang crosses in its courtrooms when most other German states avoid and even disavow the practice.

We should not place undue emphasis on this aspect of the trial, which is highly charged for reasons that have nothing to do with the presence or absence of a cross. After all, German prosecutors accuse Zschäpe and her NSU compatriots of a string of xenophobic if not racist murders, and they charge that incompetence at the highest levels of German law enforcement allowed many if not all of these murders to occur. Nevertheless, I would argue that the contention and uncertainty surrounding the cross remain significant in their own right, for they speak to important arguments about the nature of secularism as a modern historical phenomenon.

In a series of recent articles and a concluding book, the University of Chicago anthropologist Hussein Agrama has proposed that secularism, contrary to the normative claims advanced in its favor, is not an institutional framework in which religion and politics are clearly separated. Instead, secularism consistently fashions religion as an object of governmental management and intervention, and it therefore expresses the state’s sovereign power to decide “what count should count as essentially religious and what scope it can have in social life.” Yet in the act of exercising this power, the secular state repeatedly blurs the very line between religion and politics that it aims to draw. For example: if a state insists that religiosity may only be expressed in the private sphere, what is the nature and extent of that sphere? Does it only include the home? Or does it also encompass communal places of worship, or believers’ choice of clothing and other forms of adornment? Is not the demarcation of a private realm of legitimate religious expression itself a political act?

In the end, Agrama argues that secularism is not a solution that neatly defines religion’s place in contemporary life. Instead, it constitutes a problem-space “wherein the question of where to draw a line between religion and politics continually arises.” Moreover, this question cannot be easily ignored, for it is inextricably bound up with the distribution of liberal rights and freedoms.

In Germany’s case, the state and federal governments, including the one in Bavaria, have adopted the principle that the state is independent of religious institutions and should not invoke or favor one religious tradition over another. The state and federal governments have also affirmed the right of all citizens to express their religious beliefs without undue interference from the state. These commitments are basic elements of German liberal governance, and the presence of the cross in Bavarian courtrooms would appear to complicate if not directly contradict them. To use Agrama’s language, the cross blurs the line between religion and politics, and it raises questions about the substance of the religious freedom that citizens may claim.

As my preceding discussion indicates, proponents of the status quo in Bavaria have tended to finesse these difficulties by insisting that the cross is merely a “symbol.” The cross, they imply, evokes a tradition that has exerted a formative influence on culture and politics in Germany and humanist thinking more broadly, but its presence is ultimately incidental to the legal proceedings and judgments that the state initiates. Moreover, the cross does not “threaten” non-Christians because it does not enshrine Christianity as the state’s religion, and it does not infringe on citizens’ freedom of religious belief or their equality before the law. To an important extent, this logic would seem to deny that the cross, at least in this context, is a “religious” artifact at all.

Of course, we might well wonder whether a symbol that is incidental to legal proceedings really needs to be present in a courtroom in the first place. More importantly, though, we might wish to question the innocence of the cross given the larger context of the case against Beate Zschäpe.


The NSU murders have led many migrants and post-migrants, including those from Muslim-majority countries like Turkey, to doubt their full inclusion in the German nation and polity. Moreover, the climate of lingering distrust surrounding Islam has only sharpened many Muslims’ perception that their faith is not a welcome and integral aspect of German life. Thus, even if the inclusion of a cross is not meant to be a “threatening” gesture, it is hardly a neutral, merely “symbolic” one either.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many Euro-American commentators have wondered whether the new governments in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries will be “secular” or “religious.” At least some of them have also maintained that “secular” governments will further the region’s democratization and long-term stability. To my mind, this line of thinking presumes that states in Europe and North America are exemplary polities which have more or less resolved the perplexities of secularism. But if the recent debates over the cross in Germany are any indication, such a judgment is premature if not complacent and self-serving. Even in those polities where secularism seems firmly established, uncertainty and dissension over religion persist. Indeed, such a condition may be the norm that defines secularist structures of power, not their fleeting and aberrant exception.

NOTE: as I was finishing this post, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it will rule on the constitutional status of prayer in town board meetings, based on a case from Greece, New York. Many of my remarks on the Zschäpe trial are pertinent in this instance as well.

-Jeffrey 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.

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul


Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.


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.