Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
29Nov/150

Amor Mundi 11/29/15

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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-upThe Great Transformation

social equality protestDanielle Allen argues that "the real issue" in the campus protests around the country is not free speech. It is, rather, "how to think about social equality." For Allen, we are coming up against old and petrified cultural and aesthetic ideals that were imagined in a time of racial inequality. What is needed is a "re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace" of the ideal of equality. She writes: "To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction. The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle? The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called 'n-' on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call 'implicit bias,' a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on.... How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood? The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal." Allen is right that the issues are grave and important, and she is correct insofar as in nearly all of the recent cases of campus protest, speech has been met with speech. When students have demanded too much--for example, the firing of House Masters at Yale or that the President of Amherst College issue a statement expressing the College's intolerance for posters on campus advocating free speech and saying that the free speech posters were "racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus"--administrators have thankfully refused to go along. It is a right of free speech to make demands, however silly or offensive. That is why Allen is right to suggest that in most instances the accusations of a violation of free speech are overblown. And she is also right that the yelling over free speech actually obscures the difficult discussions about race and equality that need to be had on college campuses and beyond. That is why the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference will ask: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus." Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016.--RB

The Soul of Harvard Law

harvard law defacementsRandall Kennedy considers the recent incident at Harvard Law School where pieces of black tape were put over the faces of the portraits of black law professors. While many at Harvard are outraged, Kennedy--whose own portrait was defaced--says he feels neither alarmed nor hurt. He takes it for granted that racism exists at Harvard, at colleges, and around the country. Like Danielle Allen above, Kennedy understands that there is implicit bias at work in our society--indeed in every society and in every social group. But Kennedy suggests that we not confuse a "pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice" with something less pervasive. He writes: "Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School." Kennedy points out that shortly after the black tape appeared, it was removed and replaced by "hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry." In this respect, he advises that we attend not only to our failures but also to our successes, especially the successes of the campus activists who have elevated the dissatisfactions of African American students to the top of the higher-education agenda. And amidst these successes, Kennedy offers us caution. "Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. They complain of a paucity of black professors, courses in which racial issues, though pertinent, are marginalized, teachers whose interactions with black students display far less engagement than interactions with nonblack students, white classmates who implicitly or even expressly question the intellectual capacity of black peers ('You know, don't you, that they are here only because of affirmative action') and campus police officers who subject black students to a more intensive level of surveillance than white students. Students are also taking to task schools that allegedly disregard the sensibilities of minorities by memorializing figures who perpetrated cruel wrongs, including the Royall family, who sponsored what became Harvard Law School with funds drawn from the labor and sale of enslaved blacks; John C. Calhoun, the statesman for whom a residential college at Yale is named despite his having propounded the idea that slavery was a positive good; and Woodrow Wilson, the former president who is lionized at Princeton despite having reinforced racial segregation throughout the federal government. While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are."

Confronting Our Hatred and Our Dirt

oscar pistoriusJacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books has a long, moving, and deeply provocative reading of the roles of race, sex, and disability in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. Rose offers compelling portraits of Pistorius and his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, as well as of the black female South African Judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa. Struggling to untangle the racial and sexual demons that terrorize South Africa, Rose concludes: "If there is a lesson I take from all this, it is that we should not disavow our hatreds in a futile effort to make ourselves--to make the world--clean." Her essay is a brave effort at making good on that promise to not disavow our hatreds. In one of many literary reflections on the trial, she writes: "I happened to be in Cape Town a week after the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. At the time I was reading A Bantu in My Bathroom, a book of essays by Eusebius McKaiser, a South African political and social theorist and radio talkshow host. He is known for being provocative and likes to challenge South Africans to confront their darkest thoughts. (His collection is subtitled 'Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics'.) In 2012, 18 years after the end of apartheid, he was looking for a room to rent and lighted on an advertisement from a woman willing to share her house but only, the ad stipulated, with a white person. On the phone, McKaiser got her almost to the point of sealing the deal before announcing that he wasn't white (she hung up when he suggested her choice might be racist). When he related the incident to the audience of his weekly radio programme, Politics and Morality on Talk Radio 702, two responses predominated. Either the listeners sided with the owner of the house (her property, her preference, no different from 'only non-smokers need apply'), or they made a more subtle but disquieting distinction: if the room was in a cottage in her backyard, the choice would be racist, but she clearly had the right to share her house, or not, with whomever she pleased. 'Reasonable' as the second preference might seem, McKaiser concedes in his essay, it is still 'morally odious', still 'the product of our racist past'. 'This viewpoint,' he elaborates, 'is an acknowledgment (indeed, an expression) of a deep racial angst. Why else would you be fine with Sipho [the name McKaiser gives the fictional black tenant] sleeping in the flat outside but heaven forbid that you should wake up in the morning and the first thing you see on your way to the bathroom is the heart attack-inducing spectacle of Sipho smiling at you, a horror that just might elicit a scream of apartheid proportions: "Help! There is a Bantu in my bathroom!"' 'Not one listener,' McKaiser writes, 'grappled with how it is that 18 years after our democratic journey ... racialism's reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about.' Not one avoided the cliché--indeed they all rehearsed it to perfection--that your private life is private and it is up to you what you do in your own home (a cliché whose potentially lethal consequences were of course long ago dismantled by feminism). In failing to do so, they 'betrayed dark secrets about themselves and our country'. In another essay McKaiser refers to the Coloureds of Cape Town--he himself is a Coloured--as 'the dirty little secret' of the city: 'Cape Town, you see, treats Coloured people like dirt.' 'The dirty secrets of both Jozi [Johannesburg] and Cape Town are a stain on both cities' images, like mud on a kid's new white pants.' It soon became clear that a strange, racially charged and legally confused distinction would be at the heart of the trial. If Pistorius didn't fire the shots through the toilet door in the knowledge that Steenkamp was inside, then he believed he was shooting at an intruder, in which case the charge of premeditated murder wouldn't hold up. There was no doubt that the second possibility was seen--or rather would be presented by Barry Roux for the defence--as the lesser offence, and not just because the legal category of 'putative private defence' (defending oneself against a presumed attacker, even if the presumption was wrong) could present the shooting as a legitimate response to fear. What was largely unspoken was that in the second case we can be more or less certain that the person killed in the bathroom would be--could only be--imagined as black. 'As the judge will not have failed to register,' the journalist John Carlin writes in Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, 'if his story were true--and even if it were not--the faceless intruder of his imagination had to have had a black face, because the fact was that for white people crime mostly did have a black face.'"

Looking for Shiny Things

luc sante parisLuc Sante describes his method of finding material for his upcoming book on a Paris we don't often think about: "I wanted to tell the story of what Louis Chevalier calls the 'working and dangerous classes.' Those are my people--my forebears on both sides all the way back, Belgian in my case but with many cultural points of similarity--and it also happens to be the aspect of Parisian life that American readers know the least about. It's easy enough to define the borders there, since they were vigorously enforced by the larger culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as indeed they still are. Ambiguity arises only in a few specific areas: the worlds of literature and art, for example. Many writers and artists portrayed the poor sympathetically, and even fought on their behalf, but they themselves were not of that class. Gay life is perhaps even more subject to ambiguity, since it so often involves crossing classes.... My method is the magpie's: I look for shiny things. That is, I look for concrete material details of daily life, and I look for vigorous prose, which is the only kind I can read for very long. That effectively bars a great deal of scholarly work, but I didn't feel its loss. It's not hard to find vigorously written, colorfully detailed accounts of life in the Paris of the past, in all kinds of places. There is not just the eloquence of the people you list, but also that of reactionaries like Maxime du Camp and the Goncourt brothers, and even of a police commissioner like Adolphe Gronfier. There is such an abundance of engaging writing about the city, much of it untranslated, that my research felt like a spree."

amor_mundi_sign-upIs Separate Unequal?

separate unequal collegeSince Brown v. Board of Education, the rejection of "separate but equal" is one tenet of American law. Fareed Zakaria writes that many of the demands made by student protestors over the last few weeks run counter to that basic tenet. "Over the past four decades, whenever universities have faced complaints about exclusion or racism--often real--the solution proposed and usually accepted has been to create more programs, associations and courses for minority students. This is understandable, because these groups have been historically ignored, slighted and demeaned. But is this solution working, or is it making things worse? A 2004 empirical study led by Harvard University psychologist James Sidanius (who is African American) concluded that 'there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented ... organizations increased the students' sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community. Furthermore ... the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one's ethnicity.' The academic programs that have been created and expanded also reinforce feelings of separateness. Again, there was a need for greater attention to many of the areas of study, and some extraordinary scholarship has been produced in these fields. But the cumulative effect is one that distinguished scholar Tony Judt wrote about in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 2010. 'Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: "gender studies," "women's studies," "Asian-Pacific-American studies," and dozens of others,' he noted. 'The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves--thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.'" None of this changes or challenges the moving testimony of students, largely African American students, of how demeaning and de-humanizing the reality of racism is in their lives. It is natural and even sensible for students who feel marginalized and dismissed to seek safe spaces. As colleges and universities announce new programs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on, among other things, new Deans of Diversity and new cultural and social centers for particular student groups, one hopes that research along the lines that Zakaria mentions will at least be considered.--RB

"Black Afflictions"

Partially burned American flag lies on the street near the spot where Michael Brown was killed before an event to mark the one-year anniversary of the his death in FergusonOne refrain heard over and again during the student protests of the past few weeks is that those who don't live as black on American campuses can't understand the feelings of those who do. This is a truism, and yet the very essence of a liberal education is to seek, to explore, and to understand the experiences of those who are different from oneself. Thus it is helpful that Jim Sleeper seeks to articulate four separate 'Black Afflictions' that are the root of the experience of being black on American campuses. He lists: "The pressure of others' outsize hopes", "The pressure of white fear", "White classmates' myopia", and "A Wall of Malevolence". Here is a sample: "A four-walled vise presses in upon every black student at Yale, even as doors in those walls open and close unpredictably and the walls themselves sometimes seem to withdraw--all this invisible to most of us, its pressures unseen and unfelt. 1. The pressure of others' outsize hopes. Last year a black Yale undergraduate I know was working late one night in the office of a history professor for whom he was a research assistant. A custodian entered the room to empty the waste baskets. Black, too, but graying and near retirement, the older man broke into a broad smile. 'This makes me glad,' he said, as much from the heart as from the mouth. 'This makes me glad,' he repeated. 'Thank you,' the student replied, cordially but cryptically, his accent signaling his upbringing in formerly British East Africa. A distancing look flickered across the countenance of the custodian, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers and slaves whose grandparents had come to New Haven during World War II to work in gun factories now long since closed. But as quickly as the older man's doubt surfaced, he displaced it with a reaffirming smile and nod. Neither man needed to say anything more. Both understood that although the younger had grown up in a majority black society--and in an elite bubble within it, at that--they both now bore burdens of white American incomprehension, coldness, fear and, occasionally, of the kind of over-solicitude that is almost an insult. This African-American janitor expected this East African student to mitigate those burdens a bit by setting a different example, and the hope is credible precisely because the vast differences in these men's backgrounds and prospects are invisible to most whites and, for that matter, to most non-black people 'of color.' 'It only added to the weight of things,' the student told me, recalling the encounter a year later. 'If I remain here, I'm obligated to meet not only my parents' expectations but also those of black people in a white country I didn't grow up in.' He does plan to stay, not only because, on balance, that broadens his prospects against narrower ones back home, but also because he would take 'some pride and satisfaction' in lessening the weight of racism for others. But contemplating the challenge while making occasional campus forays to meet it 'saddens me,' he said three times during our conversation--saddens him in ways few of the rest of us comprehend. Sometimes it takes an outsider's shock to alert us Americans to what we usually ignore. A student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don't differ noticeably in physiognomy from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it, on arriving at Yale, to see an overwhelmingly black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-black population. At least 70 percent of Yale's custodial and cafeteria workers are black. Fewer than 5 percent of the faculty are. Like the student from East Africa who finds himself carrying the hopes of a janitor with decades of white racism on his back, other black Yalies find that most black elders in their lives in New Haven are service workers. Thirty-five percent of the city's 130,000 residents are African-American; 31.8 percent are non-Hispanic white. Yale, including its medical affiliates, is black workers' biggest employer."

Rewriting History

john hope franklinDrew Gilpin Faust pens an elegy to historian John Hope Franklin: "Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter's racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II. But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts--facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered. Franklin's approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began 'stalking' him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation's past and the place of African-Americans within it."

Love the Gift

black fridayIan Bogost suggests that Black Friday is in keeping with the meaning of Christmas: "Christmas gift exchange owes a debt to the social imbalance of potlatch-like excess rather than reciprocal exchange. Gift-giving symbolizes the ultimate gift of the Christian God. As John 3:16 puts it, 'God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.' Theologically speaking, both God's and Jesus's sacrifices set an unreachable bar: a gift so peerless that no worldly version could ever best it. It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love. Black Friday's gift-giving is not nearly as magnanimous, but there are gifts being exchanged nevertheless, and not only from parent to child or spouse to spouse. When Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or Target or any other retailer offers sales, discounts, special hours, and all the rest, it's easy to see them just as brusque trappings of consumerism run amok. That's not entirely wrong, but it doesn't tell the whole story, either: Sales and discounts are also gifts. And as gifts, they also participate in the social practice of reciprocity and one-upsmanship. Instead of offering greater or more valuable offerings, Black Friday deals issue their own version of the gift's challenge: They allow companies to say, 'Look what we are willing to give away, even though we normally operate by currency exchange... Sacrilegious though the suggestion might be, perhaps Black Friday ought to be thought of as the real start of Advent, rather than as a counterpoint to it. As a ritual, it is actually closer to the excessive origin of God's sacrifice than is unwrapping the latest toys and electronics a month hence. Sure, we could do without the retail bedlam and trampling, without the shadow of consumption and corporate rule by proxy, and all the other very real defects of Black Friday. But there's also something fundamentally fitting about it for the season."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #15

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, December 4, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:30 pm

 

 


images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit goethe.de/ny/sensitivedata.

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003


How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE - 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: "How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus". We'll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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


From the Arendt Center Blog

This holiday week on the Blog, Martin Wagner discusses how Arendt reconstructs from Kafka's work a writer inspired by a world "in which the actions of man depend on nothing but himself and his spontaneity" in the Quote of the Week. Also, American journalist Theodore H. White discusses what it means to go against the thinking of your friends in this week's Thoughts on Thinking.

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.
26Aug/130

Amor Mundi – 8/25/13

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Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor MundiLove 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.

Peter Maass on the Surveillance State

lauraHow does the rise of a secret, inscrutable, and unaccountable security bureaucracy in the United States impact law-abiding citizens? This is a crucial question as many of us struggle to understand the domestic spying programs unveiled by Edward Snowden. In one such program, Xkeyscore, low-level NSA analysts are permitted to “mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.” It is arguably true that the government needs to be able to act in extraordinary ways to protect the country at a time of world terrorism. It is equally true, however, that once such information is available and held by the government, it is likely that it will be abused. Information is easily transferred. If the government collects and holds data on citizens, that data will eventually be misused, whether by the government or others. One case in point is Laura Poitras. In Peter Maass’ must-read cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine, he tells how since 2006 Poitras has been on government watch lists because of rumors falsely spread about her. While winning awards and producing lauded documentaries, she was repeatedly detained, met with armed guards, and had her computers and notes taken, searched, and held for weeks—because of secret and ultimately false rumors. And all before she got involved with Edward Snowden. Now Poitras—who has helped to bring Snowden’s revelations about the illegal excesses of government surveillance to light in a responsible manner—may never be able to enter the United States again without being harassed and arrested. It is important to balance the need for security against the rights of citizens and the essential American right of free speech and meaningful dissent. But how did it happen that the Attorney General of the United States of America had to write to the President of Russia assuring him that if Snowden were extradited to the U.S. he would not be tortured? As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, when he turned himself in after publishing the Pentagon papers, he was freed on bond pending trial. Would the Obama administration’s justice department have treated Snowden that way? There is in the end a fine line separating the surveillance of terrorists and the harassment of citizens. Maass’ article sheds light on the surveillance state through the personal story of one woman. Wherever you come down on the question of national security surveillance, it is an essay that you should read.

"In America, It is Always a Paranoid Time"

truthersLaura Miller reviews Jesse Walker's new short history of American conspiracy theories, For Walker, the conspiracy theory is a kind of national past time, with some conspiracy or another widely discussed within many disparate demographics. Miller delves into why this might be: "As Walker sees it, our brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively."

Snowballing Assessments

metricsPresident Obama gave a speech this week promising to take on university tuition. It is a worthy goal at a time of skyrocketing student debt. But the devil is in the details and here the details include a universal assessment board that will rank how well schools prepare students for employment. The idea is to allow students and parents to know which schools are the best return on their investment and to shame colleges and universities into cutting costs and focusing more on preparing students for gainful employment. There are many questions that could be asked, including whether we are better served spending money to make college more affordable or by actually turning high school—which is already free and mandatory—into a meaningful experience that prepares students for work and citizenship? But philosophical questions aside, does such assessment work? Not according to Colin Macilwain, writing in the Scientific Journal Nature. Discussing “Snowball,” a system designed to assess British Universities, Macilwain writes: “A major problem with metrics is the well-charted tendency for people to distort their own behaviour to optimize whatever is being measured (such as publications in highly cited journals) at the expense of what is not (such as careful teaching). Snowball is supposed to get around that by measuring many different things at once. Yet it cannot quantify the attributes that society values most in a university researcher — originality of thinking and the ability to nurture students. Which is not the same as scoring highly in increasingly ubiquitous student questionnaires.” As assessments become a way of life, it is important to recall their unintended ill-effects.

The Young and the Rebellious

iranIn an essay about the ways that Iran's regime has used the deaths of "martyrs" to political advantage in the past and how opponents of the regime used that same rhetoric to push the opposite way following the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, Mehdi Okasi describes his own youthful push back as an American-Iranian visiting Tehran as a teenager: "I ignored my family’s warnings, and carried my copy of The Satanic Verses with me throughout Tehran: to coffee shops, internet cafes, even the park. I held it in my hand as I walked around the city, placed it on tables as I ordered in restaurants, or on the counter at the local bakery where my sweet tooth was placated daily by cream pastries layered with jam and rolled in crushed pistachios. I even made a point of opening it in view of police and soldiers. But to my disappointment, no one paid me any attention. When I visited the many bookstores around Engelob Square, I asked booksellers if they had a copy squirreled away. My question didn’t inspire rage or offense. They didn’t gasp in disbelief or chase me out the store with a broom. Instead, in a rather bored tone, they informed me that the book wasn’t available in Iran. When they learned that I was visiting from America, they added that I could probably find a copy at so-and-so’s bookstore. Like anything else that was forbidden, you only had to know where to look and how to ask for it."

An American Speaker in Paris

parisTa-Nehisi Coates has spent part of the summer learning French in Paris. His continuing education in a foreign tongue, and his decision to pursue that education in a place where that language has spoken, has revealed to him the arrogance of native speakers of English; Coates tells his friends that he wishes more Americans were multilingual and "they can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else?" For his own part, Coates seems to have been dissuaded of that particular notion simply by venturing into the world outside of his door; humility and empathy have been his prizes. "You come to this place" he says "and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence."

Featured Events

smallfailingOctober 3-4, 2013

The sixth annual fall conference, "Failing Fast:The Crisis of the Educated Citizen"

Olin Hall, Bard College
Learn more here.

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.
24Jan/130

The Rationality of Breaking the Rules

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Controversy is raging around Thomas Friedman’s column today advising the presumptive Secretary of State John Kerry to “break all the rules.”

In short, Friedman—known for his faithful belief that technology is making the world flat and changing things for the better—counsels that the U.S. ignore hostile governments and appeal directly to the people. Here’s the key paragraph:

Let’s break all the rules. Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb. We should not only make this offer public, but also say to the Iranian people over and over: “The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.” Iran wants its people to think it has no partner for a civil nuclear deal. The U.S. can prove otherwise.

Foreign policy types like Dan Drezner respond with derision.

Friedman's "break all the rules" strategy is as transgressive as those dumb-ass Dr. Pepper commercials.  Worse, he's recommending a policy that would actually be counter-productive to any hope of reaching a deal with Iran.  This is the worst kind of "World is Flat" pablum, applied to nuclear diplomacy.  God forbid John Kerry were to read it and follow Friedman's advice.

I’ll leave the debate to others. But look at the central assumption in Friedman’s logic. If the leaders of a country don’t agree with us, go to the people. Tell them our plan. They’ll love it.  But why is that so? For Friedman and so many of his brothers and sisters on the left and the right in the commentariat, the answer is: because our proposals are rational. Whether it is Friedman on Iran or Brooks on the economy or liberals on gun control or conservatives on the budget, there is an assumption that if everyone would just get together and talk this through like rational individuals, we would agree on a workable and rational solution. This is of course the basic view of President Obama. He sees himself as the most rational person in the room and wonders why people don’t agree with him.

This rationalist fallacy is wrong. Neuro-scientists tell us that people respond to emotional and non-rational inputs. But long ago Hannah Arendt understood and argued that the essence of politics is neither truth nor reason. It is plurality and opinion. The basic condition of politics is plurality, which means people need to come together and pursue a common good in spite of their disagreements and differences.

For Arendt, Western history has seen politics had come under the sway of philosophy and thus the pursuit of rational truth instead of being what it was: a space for the public engagement of different opinions. The tragedy of the last 50 years is that philosophical rationality has now been supplanted by technocratic rationality, so that politics is increasingly about neither opinion nor common truths, but technocracy.

One lesson Arendt took from her fundamental distrust of unity and rationality was the importance of the diffusion of powers and her distrust of centralized power. Her embrace of American Constitutional Federalism was neither conservative nor liberal; it was born from her insistence that politics cannot and should not seek to replace opinions with truths.

Friedman wants rational truth to win out and believes that if we just talk to the people, the veils will fall from their eyes. Well it doesn’t work here at home because people really do disagree and see the world differently. There is no reason to think it will work around the world either. A thoughtful foreign policy, as opposed to a rational one, would begin with the fact of true plurality. The question is not how to make others agree with us, but rather how we who disagree can still live together meaningfully in a common world.

-RB

 

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.