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.
Andrew Sullivan, pivoting off of a reader's response to an appreciation of Montaigne, offers thoughtful comments on conservatism in the contemporary political environment: "What motivated both Montaigne and Oakeshott was a preference for 'present laughter' over 'utopian bliss.' Yes, reforms may well be necessary; yes, there are times for collective action; but a political regime that leaves people alone in their consciences and allows us the task of ordinary living is the best regime. In that sense, Montaigne was stranded in the wrong country. While France was convulsed with the blood of religious conflict, England was benefiting from that very politique Queen, Elizabeth I. As for our time, an attachment to a fixed ideology called conservatism (which is currently suffused with the zeal and passion Montaigne so deeply suspected) or to an ideology called progressivism (which increasingly regards most of its opponents as mere bigots) does not exhaust the possibilities. A disposition for moderation and pragmatism, for the long view over the short-term victory, for maintaining the balance in American life in a polarized time: this remains a live option. You can see how, influenced by this mindset, I have had little difficulty supporting a Democratic president as the most conservative figure, properly speaking, now on the national stage. You can see why I have become so hostile to neoconservatism whose unofficial motto is 'Toujours l'audace!' And you can see why, after an important reform like marriage equality, I am deeply suspicious of those on the left seeking to remake society in its wake and to obliterate bigotry in our time."
One week after he published a masterful review on the promise of liberal Zionism that was written before the latest war in Gaza, Jonathan Freedland returns to his theme and wonders whether the facts on the ground have exhausted the possibilities of liberal Zionism: "For nearly three decades, the hope of an eventual two state solution provided a kind of comfort zone for liberal Zionists, if not comfort blanket. The two-state solution expressed the liberal Zionist position perfectly: Jews could have a state of their own, without depriving Palestinians of their legitimate national aspirations. Even if it was not about to be realized any time soon, it was a goal that allowed one to be both a Zionist and a liberal at the same time. But the two-state solution does not offer much comfort if it becomes a chimera, a mythical notion as out of reach as the holy grail or Atlantis. The failure of Oslo, the failure at Camp David, the failure of Annapolis, the failure most recently of John Kerry's indefatigable nine-month effort has prompted the unwelcome thought: what if it keeps failing not because the leaders did not try hard enough, but because the plan cannot work? What if the two-state solution is impossible? That prospect frightens liberal Zionists to their core. For the alternatives to two states are unpalatable, either for liberal reasons or for Zionist reasons. A single state in all of historic Palestine, dominated by Jews but in which Palestinians are deprived of the vote, might be Zionist but it certainly would not be liberal. A binational state offering full equality between Jew and Arab would be admirably liberal, but it would seem to thwart Jewish self-determination, at least as it has traditionally been conceived, and therefore could not easily be described as Zionist."
David Bromwich reviews the documentary film Ivory Tower and questions the anxieties plaguing academia as well as the technological fixes that so many believe can save it. "A fair number of the current complaints derive from a fallacy about the proper character of a university education. Michael Oakeshott, who wrote with great acuteness about university study as a 'pause' from utilitarian pursuits, described the fallacy in question as the reflection theory of learning. Broadly, this theory assumes that the content of college courses ought to reflect the composition and the attitudes of our society. Thus, to take an extreme case that no one has put into practice, since Catholics make up 25 percent of the population of the United States, a quarter of the curriculum ought to be dedicated to Catholic experiences and beliefs. The reflection theory has had a long history in America, and from causes that are not hard to discover. It carries an irresistible charm for people who want to see democracy extended to areas of life that lie far outside politics. An explicitly left-wing version of the theory holds that a set portion of course work should be devoted to ethnic materials, reflecting the lives and the self-image of ethnic minorities. But there has always been a conservative version too. It says that a business civilization like ours should equip students with the skills necessary for success in business; and this demand is likely to receive an answering echo today from education technocrats. The hope is that by conveying the relevant new skills to young people, institutions of higher learning will cause the suitable jobs to materialize. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, believes this, and accordingly has pressed for an alternative to college that will bring the US closer to the European pattern of 'tracking' students into vocational training programs. Yet the difficulty of getting a decent job after college is probably the smaller of two distinct sources of anxiety. The other source is the present scale of student debt."
Dan Piepinberg points to digital artist Cory Arcangel's new book Working on My Novel, an aggregation of tweets from people claiming to do just that, as a symptom of a peculiar cultural moment: "it's the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there's something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion-every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. ('I love my mind,' writes one aspirant novelist, as if he's just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)"
In a review of Cubed, Nikil Saval's history of the office, Jenny Diski considers the way that the pleasures of the office, and those of the idea of business, mask the reality of what is produced by office work: "But the actual work, what needs to be done with all the desirable sundries, the reason for them, wasn't clear. Obviously mostly it had to do with paper. Books were kept and letters written, loose-leaf papers filed. But what the letters were about, what was written in the books that were kept, wasn't even vaguely known. Some instinct kept me from demanding detail, perhaps because of a correct suspicion that the actual business of business was the very least of the pleasures of the office. What is done in offices, to generalise, is pretty boring and derivative, being at the hands-off service-end of those other places of work where things got made, mined, taught or sold. Work that is always about something other than itself. Paperwork. Allowed to play, I typed 'Dear Sir' at the desk on the huge typewriter, sitting high on the chair, legs dangling. And ended 'Yours Faithfully' ('Sincerely' only after a named 'Dear' - I learned that very young), after which I squiggled an elaborate signature that bore no relation to the alphabet. In the space between I let my fingers run riot over the keys, to produce a gobbledygook body of the letter that probably made as much sense to me as most of the real correspondence would have. The accoutrements and contraptions of the office were the delight, the actual commerce remained not so much a secret as an unwanted answer to an uncompelling mystery. Like the most extraordinary couture, Alexander McQueen's designs, say. You delight in and admire them, gorgeously and dramatically displayed in the videos of professional mannequins on runways, but you don't want to see them in everyday action, being worn disappointingly as clothes, in real life, to dull receptions or dinners without the special lighting and the right pose (how many frocks are designed to be sat down in?), by people who have them only because they are rich."
The New Yorker has put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we'll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. This week we point to John Hershey's poignant account of what happened when American war planes dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, an article that took up an entire issue of the magazine and has also since been published as a book.
Our membership challenge ended this past week. Overall, we received 106 memberships and raised over $12,000. Thank you to all of our members for making this year's challenge a huge success!
Didn't know about the membership challenge? You can always become a member here!
The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
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Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Lance Strate discusses Arendt's thoughts on the loss of the public realm in the Quote of the Week. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a lecture Douglas Irvin delivered in 2012 on the origins of genocide in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz observes how radical viewpoints perpetuate the conflict in the Middle East in the Weekend Read.
Thomas Piketty is not the only Frenchman making waves with a new book about inequality. The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon was just published in a translation by Arthur Goldhammer with Harvard University Press (the same press that published Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). As does Piketty, Rosanvallon employs philosophy and history to characterize the return of inequality in the late 20th and now 21st centuries. But Rosanvallon, unlike Piketty, argues that we need to understand how inequality and equality now are different than they used to be. As a result, Rosanvallon is much more sanguine about economic inequality and optimistic about the possibilities for meaningful equality in the future.
Paul Star of Princeton and The American Prospect reviews The Society of Equals in the New York Review of Books. Rosanvallon begins, Star writes, by noting that the return of massive inequality in European and American societies has not been met with real anger or revolutionary unrest. There is, instead, “passive consent to inequality,” and, as Rosanvallon writes, “‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown ‘too large’ or even become ‘scandalous.’” And yet, that sense “‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’” Economic inequality for Rosanvallon is rampant and important, but the widening income gap in and of itself is no longer seen as unjust. As Star writes:
The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: “It reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice” and “must be grasped as a total social fact.”
In other words, Rosanvallon wants to enlarge and transform what we mean when we speak about inequality. He seeks to “provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project.”
Specifically, Rosanvallon wants to move the discussion of inequality away from an exclusive focus on income and towards an equality of individual self-flourishing, what he will call an “equality for a new ‘age of singularity’ when ‘everyone wants to ‘be someone.’” Here is how Star summarizes Rosanvallon’s approach to equality:
The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways. Since the 1980s, he writes, capitalism has put “a new emphasis on the creative abilities of individuals,” and jobs increasingly demand that workers invest their personalities in their work. No longer assured of being able to stay at one company, employees have to develop their distinctive qualities—their “brand”—so as to be able to move nimbly from one position to another.
As a result of both cognitive and social change, “everyone implicitly claims the right to be considered a star, an expert, or an artist, that is, to see his or her ideas and judgments taken into account and recognized as valuable.” The demand to be treated as singular does not come just from celebrities. On Facebook and many other online sites millions are saying: here are my opinions, my music, my photos. The yearning for distinction has become democratized. Yet amid this explosion of individuality, equality loses none of its importance: “The most intolerable form of inequality,” Rosanvallon writes, “is still not to be treated as a human being, to be rejected as worthless.”
The kind of inequality that Rosanvallon is concerned with—the kind that makes one feel rejected and worthless—is neither economic nor political, but a matter of social status.
There is good reason for such a focus, but one that has little to do with the purported Marxist revival that Piketty’s book is supposed to herald. The strange thing about the incessant talk about inequality today is that rarely does one encounter genuine concern regarding the plight of the poor. The inequality debate has little to do with poverty or the impoverished and everything to do with the increasing gap separating the super-rich from the merely rich and the middle class. For Rosanvallon, we need to simply accept that economic inequality is part of our reality; what is more, he suggests that most of us have accepted that reality. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the ideal of equality. Instead, we must re-imagine equality for the modern age.
Rosanvallon wants to renew the egalitarian tradition in line with the changed circumstances of our time. “We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,” he writes in his new book. Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work.
Reading Star’s account of Rosanvallon recalls John Adams’ claim that the true evils of poverty are less economic than invisibility:
The poor man’s conscience is clear; yet he is ashamed…. He feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind takes no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market… he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or a cellar. He is not disapproved, censured, or reproached; he is only not seen… To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable. If Crusoe on his island had the library of Alexandria, and a certainty that he should never again see the face of man, would he ever open a volume?
For Hannah Arendt, from whom I take this quotation of Adams, these words express “the feeling of injustice” and “the conviction that darkness rather than want is the curse of poverty.” For Arendt, as for Adams, the “political predicament of the poor” could only be seen because of the relative “absence of misery” prevailing in revolutionary America.
Of course there was misery and poverty in revolutionary America, some amongst whites but clearly amongst black slaves. But as Arendt writes, even as the founding fathers “were aware of the primordial crime upon which the fabric of American society rested, if they ‘trembled when [they] thought that God is just’ (Jefferson), they did so because they were convinced of the incompatibility of the institution of slavery with the foundation of freedom, not because they were moved by pity or by a feeling of solidarity with their fellow men.” She concludes from this that “the institution of slavery carries an obscurity even blacker than the obscurity of poverty; the slave, not the poor man, was ‘wholly overlooked.’” It was this blindness to misery that allowed the founders of America to imagine the true evils of inequality to rest not in deprivation but in invisibility. And it was upon this blindness that the American Revolution imagined a kind of political equality in which the freedom to appear in public could flourish.
What Rosanvallon sees is that the fact of extreme inequality today carries the threat not of misery but of irrelevancy. But such an analysis of inequality has very nearly obscured the question of poverty; it focuses, instead, on the feelings of disempowerment and resentment of the upper and lower middle classes. It is for these classes that Rosenvallon’s new ideal of equality will appeal—the right to equally appear as a singular individual. Here is how Star understands the new ideal of equality as singularity:
The idea of framing equality around the principle of singularity is provocative and appealing. Of course, even in the age of YouTube and Twitter, no society could possibly satisfy the desire of everyone to be a star, but in Rosanvallon’s conception singularity is a basis of human connection: “The difference that defines singularity binds a person to others; it does not set him apart. It arouses in others curiosity, interest, and a desire to understand.” Singularity demands recognition and acceptance:
‘Each individual seeks to stand out by virtue of the unique qualities that he or she alone possesses. The existence of diversity then becomes the standard of equality.’
Star raises serious questions about the way Rosanvallon depoliticizes economic inequality as he refocuses the idea of equality around the equal right to stand out and exist in public. But Star also recognizes that there is something true in Rosanvallon’s account, something that all the attention given to his countryman Piketty continues to overlook: That inequality absent misery may not be the real problem of political justice. The reason so much inequality is greeted with resentment but acceptance, is that our current imagination of justice concerns visibility and singularity more than it does equality of income. Of course, both these points depend upon our leaving the truly miserable and poor outside of the debate on inequality. So far, that has proven a fairly reliable assumption.
Star’s review is well worth being your weekend read.
How are we to explain the formation and collapse of the world’s great empires in the sweep of human history? And what might the fates of past civilizations suggest about the global political scene in the present and future? Such questions are the focus of Robert D. Kaplan’s recent book, The Revenge of Geography (2012), which Malise Ruthven treats in extensive detail in the February 21st issue of The New York Review of Books. Kaplan has worked for decades as a journalist, author, consultant, and lecturer, and one of his earlier books, Balkan Ghosts (1993), apparently dissuaded President Clinton from earlier intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Kaplan served as a member of the Defense Policy Board under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2009 to 2011, and since then he has been chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm based in Austin, Texas.
As the title of his book suggests, Kaplan regards geography, the physical features of the earth’s landmasses and waters, as the most basic and abiding determinant of human history. He takes issue with accounts that position culture and ideology as the motor forces of social and political affairs, and he questions the notion that globalization, with its boundary-traversing flows of people, goods, ideas, ideas, and images, is fundamentally recasting the contemporary world. Yet he would be among the first to admit that his analytical optic is not new, for he draws much inspiration from the work of the medieval Arab chronicler and social theorist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) as well as the British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder (1861-1947).
Ibn Khaldun argued that the earliest societies were formed by nomadic peoples in the rugged steppes, deserts, and mountains who constructed relations of authority through ties of kinship and “group feeling” (‘asabiya). Groups with pronounced ‘asabiya were the most capable of forming expansive dynasties and empires, and stable empires in turn offered the most promising conditions for productive agriculture, prosperous cities, and refined urban life. But every empire bore the seeds of its own demise, since the luxuries of rule were all too likely to result in corrupt and tyrannical rulers. New groups from the severe margins would eventually displace the old dynasts, according to Ibn Khaldun, and the cycle of imperial ascent and decline would begin once more.
Ibn Khaldun’s claims have been most thoroughly elaborated in the work of historian Marshall Hodgson, who is best known for his three-volume work Venture of Islam. But they also resonate with the vision of Halford Mackinder, who proposed the existence of a Central Asian “heartland” within a larger “World Island” of Eurasia and Africa. For Mackinder, this heartland of flatlands and steppes has consistently served as “the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests.” In Mackinder’s analysis, the geography of Central Asia, with its arid expanses and harsh climates, bred tough nomadic peoples (think of the Huns and Mongols) who not only formed their own empires, but also prompted Russians and Europeans to establish powerful states in order to fend off their advances. In Mackinder’s estimation, controlling this heartland, and that portion of Eastern Europe that lay on its doorstep, provided the key to world domination.
Robert Kaplan draws heavily on Khaldun and Mackinder’s ideas to explicate the geopolitical challenges faced by a number of contemporary states. For example, he applies Ibn Khaldun’s scenario of settled states and nomadic invaders to present-day China, which is defined in his characterization by a dominant Han population in the country’s arable cradle and a host of restive Tibetans, Uighur Turks, and Inner Mongolians on its periphery. “The ultimate fate of the Chinese state,” he contends, will depend on whether the Han can keep these groups under control, “especially as China undergoes economic and social disruptions.” In similar fashion, Kaplan turns to Mackinder’s heartland thesis to make sense of Russia’s recent geopolitical aspirations, which in his view have turned on Putin and Medvedev’s efforts to create a land-based Central Asian empire with vast oil and natural gas reserves.
There are certainly some instances when Kaplan’s insistence on the salience of geography is well-taken. But there are far too many moments when his account is overly narrow if not myopic. China’s “economic and social disruptions”—the embrace of neoliberal restructuring, the rapid but uneven economic expansion, the simmering discontents of both avowed dissidents and ordinary citizens—are hardly secondary to the state’s fraught relations with its sizable ethnic minorities, which cannot in any case be entirely reduced to the realities of the physical environment. In addition, Kaplan is much too quick to impute sweeping cultural effects to geographic factors. For example, he proposes that Mongol incursions from the steppes helped to deny Russia the full impact of the Renaissance.
He also suggests that the country’s current lack of natural boundaries (aside from the Arctic and Pacific oceans) has promoted its thorough militarization and obsessive focus on security. In short, Kaplan paints a canvas of the world’s past and present in bold but overly broad strokes, strokes that in the end obscure a good deal more than they reveal.
Indeed, the thrust of Kaplan’s argument reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Samuel Huntington, another commentator who has sought to provide a skeleton key to the world’s current conflicts. To be sure, The Clash of Civilizations posits cultural divides, not geographical configurations, as the main force driving contemporary geopolitical tensions. But Huntington and Kaplan share the same penchant for more or less monocausal explanations, the same readiness to cast reified peoples, cultures, and states as the central protagonists of their geopolitical dramas. Moreover, both writers imply that the Cold War was a brief interlude that departed only momentarily from the more consistent and defining dynamics of world history. To an important extent, both writers suggest that our global present is not merely shaped by the past, but fundamentally in its thrall.
Thus, The Revenge of Geography and other works of its ilk are troubling not merely because they carry considerable weight in key sectors of U.S. policymaking circles and the broader reading public. More broadly, they leave us ill prepared to confront the specificity and singularity of the current global conjuncture. Much as Hannah Arendt insisted on the newness of totalitarianism even as she placed it within the long arc of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and modern oppression, we too should scrutinize the present with an eye for its irreducible distinctiveness. Little is to be gained, and much potentially lost, from the impulse to read the current moment as the product of general determining forces. Whether such forces go by the name of “geography” or “culture,” they encourage an interpretation of history by commonplaces, including the commonplace that history is ultimately—and merely—a narrative of rise and fall.
In 2010, Peter Beinart made waves with an essay in The New York Review of Books that laid bare the conflict between the Zionism of the American Jewish establishment and the liberalism of many young American Jews. The key faultline of his essay is this:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal. One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
On Thursday, April 26th, The Arendt Center, along with JStreet U at Bard, is co-sponsoring a lecture by Peter Beinart on his recently published book, The Crisis of Zionism. The lecture will be held at Bard in Olin 102 at 6:30 PM.