Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
13Jan/140

Amor Mundi 1/12/14

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.

False Analogies: Stalin and Cromwell

cromwellPeter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)” For a lesson in false analogies, read more here.

After All the People We Killed

ecuSome stories are so morally complicated and politically convoluted that they tug us this way and that as we read about them. That is how I felt reading Bethany Horne’s account of the genocidal, environmental, political, criminal, and corporate tragedy that is unfolding in Ecuador. Horne’s title, “After All the People We Killed, We Felt Dizzy” is a quotation from a member of the Huaorani tribe describing their massacre of an entire family group from the Taromenane people. A 6-year-old girl who survived the massacre has since been kidnapped twice and has now been elevated into a symbol in a political war between environmentalists and human rights activists on one side and the Ecuadoran government on the other. “Conta [the kidnapped girl] can't know that the jungle she was snatched from by those armed men in helicopters is a rallying cry for 15 million people in Ecuador. She can't know that the land rights and human rights of her people are the cause of a massive movement to force the president of Ecuador to do something he does not want to do. And last of all, Conta can't possibly comprehend the full impact of what Correa wants so badly from the Taromenane: the crude oil underneath their homes, a commodity that powers a world she does not understand that threatens to swallow her.”

Talking to Each Other

John Cuneo

John Cuneo

In a short profile of author and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber elucidates the difference that Turkle makes between the way we talk at each other, with our machines, and the way we talk to each other, in person-to-person conversations: “Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. ‘You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,’ Turkle says. 'It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.’”

Incomplete Tellings are all that Remain

manMark Slouka remembers his recently passed father and elaborates on one of the particular things he lost: "With him gone, there’s no one to reminisce with, no one to corroborate my memories (or correct them), no one to identify the little girl smiling up from the curling photograph at the bottom of the shoebox. In 1942, in Brno, my father’s family hid a man in the rabbit hutch for a week, until he could be moved. That’s all I know of the story, and now it’s all I’ll ever know. With no one to check me, error will spread like weeds. Which is how the past is transmuted into fiction, and then the fool’s gold of history."

Banking and the English Language

benThomas Streithorst, before attempt to untangle the language of finance, explains why he thinks the task is necessary: "Sometimes I think bankers earn all that money because they make what they do seem both tedious and unintelligible. Banking may be the only business where boredom is something to strive for, so its jargon both obfuscates and sends you to sleep. But six years of pain forces us to realize that economics is too important to be left to the bankers. If the rest of us keep bailing them out, we might as well know what they do. Fortunately, finance isn’t as complicated as its practitioners pretend. It does, however, have its own language, and if you don’t understand it, it sounds like gobbledygook."

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Steven Tatum considers what it means to teach Arendtian thinking. In the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz reflects on President Vladimir Putin's recent attempt to justify statues memorializing Josef Stalin by comparing him to Oliver Cromwell.

 

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.
10Jun/130

Labor and Summer Vacation

Arendtquote

"There is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration, and whatever throws this cycle out of balance – poverty and misery where exhaustion is followed by wretchedness instead of regeneration, or great riches and an entirely effortless life where boredom takes the place of exhaustion and where the mills of necessity, of consumption and digestion, grind an impotent human body mercilessly and barrenly to death – ruins the elemental happiness that comes from being alive."

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

A great deal has been written about Hannah Arendt’s philosophical and political thinking, but as the academic year draws to a close, it is important to remember that she urges her readers to think about and appreciate all aspects of human existence, including the life of the body. The passage quoted above comes from the Labor chapter of The Human Condition, in which Arendt traces the worrisome trend in the modern world where human activity is more and more dominated by a concern for the cyclical process of production and consumption. It is safe to say that ours is the kind of “waste economy” she speaks of, in which all objects become consumed and used up rather than used and re-used over time. Even highly technologically advanced devices such as our mobile phones are manufactured and treated as more or less disposable, made to last for a few years before they become obsolete and need to be replaced.  The threat that a laboring and consuming society poses to a stable and durable human world has potentially disastrous consequences not only for political life, but also more generally for our ability to feel at home in our condition as earthly beings. In light of Arendt’s critique of labor as a human activity, it is remarkable that she pauses to acknowledge that this essentially worldless cycle of production and consumption with the aim of merely preserving our biological existence is the only activity that holds the key to “lasting” and “elemental” happiness in our lives.

The need to labor is “prescribed” by our condition as living beings most obviously in the case of needing to eat. In one way or another, all of us must continually expend energy in order to have food on the table. Happiness is found in this cycle of exhaustion and regeneration when each side balances the other, when pain and pleasure each contribute to feeling fully alive.

alive

For most Americans this cycle is somewhat indirect since the number of people working on farms or growing food remains a minority. As the expenditure of energy through labor is abstracted (usually through the medium of money) from the regenerative act of consumption, it becomes more difficult to find happiness in the endless cycle of necessity. Furthermore, Arendt points out that the balance of exhaustion and regeneration can only be found in a middle-class life that is harder to come by today given the ever widening gap in income distribution. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, life itself becomes a burden for both extremes – a source of misery on one hand and a sign of impotence on the other – rather than a source of sustaining fulfillment.

How might we seek to reclaim this balance?

While many students and teachers (myself included) may be feeling the need for a pleasurable regeneration in the form of a vacation after a long season of schoolwork, Arendt is clear that “intellectual labor” shares few characteristics of manual labor related to maintaining our biological existence. However, there is also a pervasive notion that summer vacation from school was not designed to give students a break from thinking, but rather out of the necessity for young people to work on their families’ farms. Summer vacation is often thought of as a remnant of America’s agrarian past. Despite the fact that this interpretation of summer vacation is in fact historically erroneous, its persistence in the American mind suggests a collective nostalgia for a time when there was a balance of work, labor, and leisure in our lives.

Many educators and politicians today are questioning the wisdom of taking two or more consecutive months off from school, citing the educational demands that the 21st century economy places on individuals trying to earn a living. Summer vacation has been shown to negatively impact those students who are most in need of academic support since they are the least likely to have the privilege of enriching summer experiences at home or in summer programs. Many charter schools have turned to extended school days and extended school years to improve test scores of historically failing (usually urban) populations. It would be wrong to oppose eliminating summer vacation on the grounds that it takes away regenerative time for students, because summer is only regenerative for a privileged segment of the population. But perhaps a case can be made for the present relevance of the historical misconception that summer vacation is a time for young people to learn by laboring for food.

Although the local food movement has largely been the preoccupation of the upper-middle class, it has the potential to change how people in communities across the country participate in cycles of production and consumption. Community based agricultural opportunities are popping up in urban and rural areas, many of which seek to involve as many young people as possible through schools and other community organizations. These farming programs have the potential to teach young people that happiness comes through painful laboring while reaping the direct benefits for oneself and one’s own community. These kinds of work opportunities could begin to shift the imbalance of human activity in our society and reclaim a more direct and fulfilling form of laborer than the mere “jobholder.”

farmers

Insofar as education aspires to be more than training in how to make a living in the modern economy – a task made nearly impossible given the rapid technological and societal changes that make it very difficult for teachers to predict what the world may be like when their students are adults – it can open opportunities for young people to reflect on and make meaning of the various aspects of human living on earth. Schools must stand apart from the economic life process long enough to foster a free appreciation for, rather than enslavement to, the cycles of being alive. Participating in the growing of one’s own food during the summer months – whether at home, in a community garden, or on an urban farm – is a good way to learn gratitude for the bodily pain and pleasure that define the life that we have been given.

-Steven Tatum

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.
14Oct/121

Flipping Over The Flipped Classroom

There are few more contentious issues in thinking about education today than the place of technology in the classroom. For all of us parents struggling to figure out how to respond to the inevitable request from our children to use the ipad or the iphone—to play Brainquest, of course—there is an obvious trade off: No doubt, our kids learn math and reading with the ipad. And yet, there is something that seems wrong as they spend more and more time in front of the screen, interacting with a machine instead of with other human beings. As efficient and productive as that machine is at teaching, it thinks and acts like the electronic circuits that it is. As parents, we can't help but worry what is lost as our children spend an increasing amount of time engaged with machines—even educational machines.

For those of us who are teachers, there are similar trade offs. I wrote about one last weekend in my essay on the flipped classroom.  I made it clear that there were many reasons to like the flipped classroom, and not only because it offered enormous cost savings. The main reason is that it frees the classroom up for advanced discussion, the clarification of uncertainties, and teacher-student engagement. A good seminar is based on the discussion of a book that all students have read. Now imagine that prior to the seminar the students have both read the book and watched a lecture by the professor on the book. They may even be able, in addition, to answer study questions about the book and the lecture. By the time they attend class, they are ready for a real engagement.

In an excellent comment on my post, Steven Tatum makes a strong case for the advantages of the flipped classroom. He writes that the flipped classroom would

look much more like a collaboration between students and teachers than a knowing teacher giving information about the past to passive students. We could turn to Arendt’s husband, Heinrich Blucher, as an example of such a teacher. He saw teachers as “more experienced collaborators” who are engaged in the same thought process as their students: “[the teacher] must think together with his students and work out with them the problems of vital concern to the modern personality. He must place himself together with his students right into the midst of the situation which the modern world has created for man.” This situation is the loss of tradition and authority – and in the classroom, the teacher has to be a model for the kind of re-reading of the past that such times call for. This is undoubtedly the goal of an Arendtian education – to create the kind of independent and engaged thinkers that [Roger Berkowitz] talked about [in his original post]. How could we expect students to practice this kind of thinking if they don’t see their teachers practicing it too?

I do agree with Steven's citation from Blücher that a teacher "must place himself together with his students right into the midst of the situation which the modern world has created for man.” Any good teacher in a regular or a flipped classroom must reconcile him- or herself to the reality of our world, which includes the loss of tradition and political authority. That I find indisputable.

Heinrich Bluecher

But there is a difference between reconciling oneself to the loss of political authority and reconciling oneself to the loss of authority in the parent-child or teacher-child relationship. Indeed, Arendt writes "The Crisis in Education" to counter the crisis in education. In doing so, she takes an approach that is deeply unpopular today, but is consistent throughout her work. In many essays—"Reflections on Little Rock," "Truth and Politics," "On Violence," and "The Crisis in Education"—Arendt insists that education not be seen is part of the public or political realm. Nor is education in the social realm. It is part of the private realm.

The importance of the private realm is core to Arendt's thinking about politics. It is in private that the child is free, with their parent or teacher, to grow into the person they are. The desire to mold or Americanize or normalize students in school is, for Arendt, an affront to the plurality of persons and the basic principle of individual uniqueness. She is not afraid of allowing some children to grow up in families or in schools that are racist or antisemitic or homophobic. This of course does not mean she is racist; it means only that her respect for plurality reaches even to her respect for individual prejudices.

Arendt is willing to accept prejudicial persons in the world, but only so long as those persons limit their prejudices to the private and the social realms. In the political realm, all persons must accept the fundamental political principle of equality. But we can only have a vibrant political realm in which plural persons talk and act in public when those people have grown up in a private realm, sheltered from the normalization of the social and the glare of the public, so that they have strong opinions and prejudices, precisely what makes them plural and different.

The private realm is and must be shielded from the public realm. "Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness." Children need a "place of security where they can grow." The political realm of equality, in turn, depends on a vibrant private realm of uniqueness and real difference. There are many reasons for this. One, which Arendt explores in "Truth and Politics," is that the public realm is the realm of opinion and makes no room for truth. Truth depends on the authority of the truthteller, someone who must be outside the political realm. One common place for the emergence of truthtellers is the university, a non-political space in which truth can emerge that is then essential for politics. Such truth is never prospective, but always turned toward the past. Which is why it is "the function of the school to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living." Arendt insists that educating citizens to be good citizens is something fully different from teaching them to be citizens. It is, instead, introducing them to the truth of the world as it presently is.

Arendt insists—against what she calls the "illusion" that public schools "serve to Americanize" children—that the "true situation" is that "children are introduced, even in America, [into] an old world, that is, a pre-existing world, constructed by the living and the dead." This is not a world of equality, but a world of prejudice and difference. It is not a homogeneous world of civic equality, but a plural world of private prejudices. It is a world of discrimination, inequality, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, consumerism, nihilism, and loneliness. It is also a world of opportunity, liberty, freedom of speech, plenty, individualism, globalization, travel, and self-actualization.  School is not, for Arendt, a means by which "a new world is being built through the education of children." It is, rather, a means to introduce people to the old world, the present world, as it is.

All of this is to say that while a teacher today must recognize and accept the world in which we live as a world without authority and tradition, the teacher cannot accept such a loss of authority in the classroom. We may, Arendt writes, "remove authority from political and public life." But we cannot do so in education. She writes:

"In education, on the contrary, there can be no such ambiguity in regard to the present-day loss of authority. Children cannot throw off educational authority as though they were in a position of oppression by an adult majority."

It is of course true that "the more radical the distrust of authority becomes in the public sphere, the greater the probability naturally becomes that the private sphere will not remain inviolate." But Arendt does not conclude from this that we must reconcile to the loss of authority in private education. On the contrary, she doubly insists that "education must be conservative." She writes that "conservation... is the essence of educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new." Education, she insists, must preserve the newness newcomers and children by teaching them the old, what the world is, and leaving to the children the task of revolution and renewal.

Steven writes in his comment that when Arendt

calls on teachers to teach “the world as it is,” she is insisting that teachers have the responsibility to make judgments about what should be taught, what elements of the past are worth learning about. The progressive educators she criticizes are the ones who a) think it should be up to the students to decide what’s worth learning (which often leads to education in “the art of living,” that is, practical training) and b) present the world as it could be, interpreting it for their students instead of presenting it as it is. Teachers make these decisions before they step into the classroom.

I agree fully with that. What I questioned in my post was the possibility, and it seems the reality according to the article about MIT that I cited, that the flipped classroom would dilute the teacher's responsibility to make judgments about what will be taught. This is the crux of what I was trying to point out in my post.

If teachers don't "teach" in the classroom but do so online, they may still tell people what to read or give a online lecture, but the reading and lecture are now read and digested by students on their own schedule, at their own time. Students can read a book half asleep. They can watch a lecture at 1.5 speed, fast-forwarding when they want, or while they are checking their email. The point is that the flipped classroom removes the performance of the teacher as an authority in the classroom. By diffusing the connection between teacher and student, by taking away the experience of being in the same room, by removing eye contact and physical interaction, by putting the teacher at the mercy of the student's fast forward, pause, and delete buttons, the video lecture empowers the student and dis-empowers the teacher and professor. The students can, precisely, increasingly decide what is worth learning, as Steven writes above about progressive educators. Above all, education becomes less and less a process of personal interaction and more an avenue of knowledge distribution.

Heinrich Blücher was renowned as a brilliant lecturer and teacher. He enraptured students. Inspired them. And yet, to read transcripts of his lectures or to listen to recordings of them now is to be struck by how unclear and unpersuasive they are as written texts. This does not mean they were bad lectures, but it does point to the power of personal presence and individual interaction in education. There is no doubt that the video lecture in a flipped classroom will sacrifice that experience.

Steven is right, that Arendt is less interested in pedagogy than in the fact that teachers have authority—by which she means that the teacher, not the student, guides and controls the educational experience. It is possible, of course, that in a flipped classroom the teacher facilitators in the classroom will remain respected figures who can push and challenge students to see uncomfortable and challenging truths about the world  they share. But this is unlikely. Empowered, it is most likely that students will increasingly drive the classes. These courses will be judged by how popular they are and syllabi and lectures will be  held to the metrics of "Like" and "Number of Eyeballs." This is already happening to some extent through the dominance of student teacher evaluation forms; but these forms still have limited power. That will no longer be the case in the flipped classroom, where the consumer will be King. This is, of course, not a revolution so much as a continuation of a longstanding trend. Which does not make it any less worrisome.

 

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
4May/120

Leading a Student Into the World

As long as our world changes so rapidly that children can expect to live very differently than their parents, it is likely that education and child rearing will always be in crisis.

This is the first sentence of a senior project I am reading today, the first of many I will read over the next two weeks. If the others are as fascinating as this one, it will be a happy two weeks.

The Bard senior project is the culmination of a Bard Student's year-long inquiry into a topic of their choosing. In this case, my student Steven Tatum—an aspiring teacher who will attend Bard's Master in Teaching Program next year—set out to explore the sense and import of our crisis in education.

In its most basic sense, education is how we lead new human beings into the world and introduce them to it. The Latin root of our word “educate” is educo, which means to rear or bring up a child, but it also means to lead forth and draw out. For most of Western history, education in this sense was a relatively simple matter of leading children into the lifestyles that their families had maintained for generations. But with the modern emphasis on equality, self-determination, and social mobility, the task of leading children into the world became much more difficult since educators could never know how a given student would choose to live in the world. Schools were given the task of leading students into a world of freedom and possibilities.

While these benefits for human freedom certainly make the increased burden on education worth bearing, this difficulty becomes a crisis when parents and teachers cannot be sure what the world will be like when their children and students reach adulthood. How can parents and teachers lead the next generation into a world that neither generation knows?

Tatum's Senior Project asks how to lead a student into the world, and seeks guidance from Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education.

In this project I follow Arendt through the crisis in education as a way of learning with her about the essence of education and the educational challenges we face in our uncertain time. I begin at the beginning of education: the birth of a child. For Arendt, the fact that new people are continuously born into the world is the essence of education. In addition to marking the beginning of a living growing being, Arendt focuses on birth as the origin of our capacity to make new beginnings of our own throughout our lives by acting in the world. She believes the task of education is to preserve and foster this capacity for action so that the members of each new generation can participate in building and rebuilding a common world.

The tension in education today is between the need to lead people into an already existing world and the equally pressing imperative to prepare them for a new world that certainly is approaching, faster and more unpredictably than any of us imagine. The news this week is filled with articles about new initiatives at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and MIT to create new corporations that will offer courses on the internet. This is part of the trend to orient education toward the future, in the hope that we can teach students more quickly and more efficiently what they will need to know in the new economy.

Underlying much contemporary educational thinking is the assumption that our present world will not last long. More important than leading students into the world, is the need to give them the tools of the future. And this is not wrong. We do live in a world in which the constancy of tradition has been disrupted. Ours is a world in which the foundations are fluid and we cannot rely on past verities, be they moral, political, or scientific. Everything is changeable, and we must prepare our children for such a world.

And yet, even in a world in which we must "think without banisters," there is still a world, a common sense and a common space where people congregate. As Arendt writes,

The loss of worldly permanence and reliability ... does not entail, at least not necessarily, the loss of the human capacity for building, preserving, and caring for a world that can survive us and remain a place fit to live in for those who come after us.

It may be that we live in a time of flux and change, one where permanence and structure are necessarily fleeting. At the same time, it is human to build structures that last, to tell stories that are meaningful, and build works that memorialize. As much as education is about preparing students for the new, it is also about teaching them the stories, showing them the works, and introducing them to the heroes that together comprise the world into which they have been born. Education is importantly a collective effort at remembering and thus calling to mind the world in which we live.

 

With that in mind, it is helpful to consider these lines from Steven's Thesis.

While I focus on the arguments she makes in her published work, studying Arendt has also allowed me to reflect on how my own education has taken place. As a student at Bard College, I found Hannah Arendt’s grave in the college cemetery well before I read any of her work. In writing this project, I have found more and more ways in which I share a common world with her. I did research in her personal library, read her letters, spoke with people who knew her, and sat by her grave. I also learned recently that one of the desks in the classroom at Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center where I took a class on her book Between Past and Future is the desk from her apartment in New York City. These experiences have done more than add personal touches to my research; they resonate with the content of this project in the sense that they have lead me to a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the world that I am entering.

For your weekend read, I commend to you Hannah Arendt's essay, The Crisis in Education.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
4Oct/112

Thinking Challenge Submission- Steven Tatum

I would like to conduct a poll: “If you had to describe political life today with one word, what would it be?” My hunch is that popular responses from both sides of the isle might include variations on ideological gridlock, frustration, partisanship, self-interestedness and impotent.  In any case, with the approval ratings of congress at an all time low, there is a general sense that there is something seriously wrong with politics today.  I worry that we are growing increasingly tolerant of our dysfunctional at worst, frustrating at best, political life.  Is this just the way it has to be?

While much of Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics” is devoted to an examination of the disintegration of political life that sounds all to familiar to a contemporary reader, she concludes by defending what she calls “the actual content of political life.”  For Arendt, associating with others in public with the goal of making something new together can give rise to feelings of joy and gratitude.  So what has gone wrong?  Why is it that any attempt at political engagement today leaves us frustrated, resentful, and cynical?

I believe Arendt makes a strong case that the quality of our political environment has deteriorated because of our understanding of what it means to tell the truth.  One easy way to see what Arendt is talking about is to consider comedian Stephen Colbert’s understanding of what truth is and where it comes from.  When he coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, he went a long way toward explaining our society’s attitude toward truth.  In Colbert’s satire, the proper source of truth is not reason or fact, but conviction and instinct, “know[ing] with the heart.”  Extending these themes in his address at the White House Correspondents Dinner, Colbert argues that truth exists only in the “no facts zone” of personal conviction.  By this definition, truth is no more than our personal understandings of the way the world appears and how it works.  In other words, truth is just a very strong opinion.

It is precisely this tendency to blur the lines between truth opinion that Arendt believes undermines the “common and factual reality” which gives meaning and balance to our lives together in public.  In a world where opinions are held to be true and truths debated with as if they are opinions, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth, and the common ground on which we stand erodes even further.  A disinterested truthteller, who tries to make facts known to the public with no motives besides the desire to establish the existence of a common world, finds him or herself in danger of being swept up into politics.  If one political group or another notices that the truthteller’s facts either to support or oppose their personal convictions, the facts themselves can be disagreed with as matters of political opinion.

Consider the climate change debate in this country.  When scientists presented evidence that the global climate is changing and that human activity is a main cause, liberal environmentalist politicians quickly adopted their findings as justification for regulation and investment in alternative energy sources.  When criticism of climate researched emerged in the scientific community the political right capitalized on the doubt, which is a normal part of the scientific process.  Once science blurred with political opinions, it was subject to debate just as any other political opinion, and we could no longer look to science as a source of unbiased truth.

To the extent that we locate the truth with one political interest or another, we find ourselves in danger of destroying the concept of truth altogether.  This is essentially what Colbert shows us.  Truth has disappeared from our world.  This should be shocking.  And yet when Colbert dismisses books and their cold facts and celebrates truth that comes from the gut, we laugh.  It’s as if we always knew that this was the case, but no one was audacious enough to say it.  When a funny guy on comedy television announces it point-blank to everybody, even to the White House Press Corps, he made us aware of our unconscious worry that politics was really a farcical struggle for power that had nothing to do with what was true. We laughed because he showed us we were right all along.

Hannah Arendt isn’t laughing.  She understands that people living in a political environment that is not grounded in apolitical facts will eventually lose faith in the existence of any truth whatsoever.  Without the firm ground of truth, we literally lose our bearings in the real world that we share with others.  In search of stability, we tend to strengthen our belief in a consistent narrative of opinions and lies that provides a satisfying explanation for the way things are.  Since, for example, many climate scientists found themselves sucked up into political debate and subsequently lost their authority as truthtellers, we are left to orient ourselves by whichever political ideology that matches what we want to believe.  In this situation, conversation between opposing groups becomes nearly impossible.  Without reference to a shared factual reality, and individual or group that is convinced of his/her/its political opinions literally lives in a different world than someone who holds a different opinion.

I believe this loss of the ability to communicate with one another is largely responsible for the loss of the joy and gratitude that political life offers.  As we feel more and more that we are living in differing realities, the opportunities for coming together, affirming the existence of a common world and taking action to make our new contribution to it become fewer and fewer.  By associating more and more with people who share our political opinions, we make it more difficult to exchange opinions with someone with whom we are likely to disagree.  How, then, in today’s political climate can we reclaim some of the joy in doing something together and gratitude for living in a world in which we act with others?

Obviously we won’t find that all our differences will vanish if we just start talking with one another.  The emphasis on civility in politics today may change the tone of debate, but it will not help us find common ground.  In fact, speaking nicely to one another may just make it more pleasant to stay in our separate worlds, convinced that our view is the right view, but polite enough to let others believe in their views.

One thing that can begin to reverse the trend of defactualization is increasing our awareness of the limits of political action and our sensitivity to the non-political experiences in our lives.  If we were a little more willing to lay aside our political views and temper our conviction enough to experience facts and events as they are without the filter of political interpretation, we would begin to recognize that however powerful our capacity for understanding may be, the world of facts and events that stretches into the past defies our attempts at total explanation.  Neither can we change or undo what has happened.  Ultimately this contemplation of reality leads to the experience of wonder at things as they are.   This experience of things as they are is the experience of truth.  We make sense of this experience by selecting certain facts and events to incorporate into our own narratives and opinions.  But the world as it is always serves as our starting point for political debate and the renewal of our world.

Arendt underscores the importance of maintaining institutions devoted to this contemplation of things as they are.  Philosophers, scientists, artists, judges, and reporters must forfeit their roles in political life in order to be faithful truthtellers.  But unless everyone cultivates their own sensitivity to the world that we share as it is, either through solitary contemplation or through dialogue with someone who has a different perspective, we will cease to live in one common world and all attempts at renewal will fail.  Nothing less is at stake here than the continuation of the world of human affairs.  As political debate reaches into more and more aspects of our lives, from health care and taxes to which television channels we watch and which newspapers we read, we lose more and more of the already rare opportunities to lay aside politics and be alone long enough to be overtaken by the world as it is.  If everyone experienced a little more non-partisan care for and commitment to the world and a little less conviction that we know what is best, we might rediscover the joy and gratitude that Arendt tells us are meant to come with the task of renewing our common world.

 

Steven Tatum

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.