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.
The Patriots v.s. The Cosmopolitans
Greg Ip argues that the ideological battle of our time is between globalists and patriots.
“Late on a Sunday evening a little more than a year ago, Marine Le Pen took the stage in a depressed working-class town in northern France. She had just lost an election for the region’s top office, but the leader of France’s anti-immigrant, anti-euro National Front did not deliver a concession speech. Instead, Ms. Le Pen proclaimed a new ideological struggle.
“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots,” she declared, with a gigantic French flag draped behind her. Globalists, she charged, want France to be subsumed in a vast, world-encircling “magma.” She and other patriots, by contrast, were determined to retain the nation-state as the “protective space” for French citizens.
Ms. Le Pen’s remarks foreshadowed the tectonic forces that would shake the world in 2016. The British vote to leave the European Union in June and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November were not about whether government should be smaller but whether the nation-state still mattered. Ms. Le Pen now has a shot at winning France’s presidential elections this spring, which could imperil the already reeling EU and its common currency.Supporters of these disparate movements are protesting not just globalization—the process whereby goods, capital and people move ever more freely across borders—but globalism, the mind-set that globalization is natural and good, that global governance should expand as national sovereignty contracts.
The new nationalist surge has startled establishment parties in part because they don’t see globalism as an ideology. How could it be, when it is shared across the traditional left-right spectrum by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and David Cameron ?
But globalism is an ideology, and its struggle with nationalism will shape the coming era much as the struggle between conservatives and liberals has shaped the last. That, at least, is how the new nationalists see it.”
The last time we witnessed a worldwide populist revolt against democracy was in the 1920s and 1930s. Then the populist movements in Europe were internationalist and imperialist. The populists of today are nationalist. In one sense that is comforting. As Hannah Arendt argued in the magisterial second part of Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarianism is connected with internationalist and imperialist movements that seek infinite and totalizing expansion. It is in the nature of totalitarianism that it makes absolute and totalizing claims that are not limited to particular nations.
What needs to be understood is why, after nearly a half-century of world-wide consensus in favor of globalization, have the people around the world rejected the ideology of globalism. Ip argues that the backlash against globalism is less economic than cultural. There is, also, a third possibility, that the backlash against globalism is neither economic nor cultural, but is driven by the failure of political, cultural, and economic institutions at all levels. Whatever the cause, cultural movements—while they need not be racist and xenophobic—easily can be. As Ip writes, ” In short, there is ample reason for skepticism about whether the new nationalists can prove themselves a genuinely secular, democratic alternative to globalism.”
Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism has never been more relevant. The Hannah Arendt Center Founder and Director Roger Berkowitz will lead a 10 session online reading group on The Origins of Totalitarianism beginning on Friday, Jan. 20th. Learn more and register here.
The Revolt of the Public
Martin Gurri argues that we are witnessing a “Revolt of the Public” (also the title of his recent book) that is fractured and “unified only by the force of its negations” and a “mood of rejection.”
“Many reasons have been proposed for the events of 2016, most of them related to the public’s unhappiness with the global economy and the open borders it requires. I think this confuses a token instance with the underlying cause.
“The public” subsumes the hyper-educated multicultural Millennials who made a thing of Bernie Sanders, as well as the protectionist working class whites who put Trump over the top in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Fractured and many-minded, the public, in truth, is unified only by the force of its negations: but these transcend specific political or economic grievances to reach a nearly absolute judgment against the status quo.
The mood of rejection is driven by information, distance, and failure. Governing elites have lost control of the information sphere, and stand naked before the public. In fear and loathing, under the pretext of managing utopian programs, they have withdrawn ever higher into hierarchies they have made ever steeper. In a very real sense, the public isn’t alienated from government: it’s the other way around. Once this move is made, politicians are hostage to real-world outcomes – and having promised “solutions” to intractable social and economic conditions, they can only deliver failure.
Elite failure sets the agenda for an informed public. Officeholders, bureaucrats, elections, the whole creaking machinery of democratic governance, bleed out authority. At length a tipping-point arrives, and the storm breaks.
We can watch this dynamic at work on the potent issue of illegal immigration. At street level, where the elites rarely show, immigration is experienced as a failure of border control. Possibly a million undocumented persons enter the US each year. Refugees are pouring into Europe in ever larger numbers. Much of the public feels that the migrant tide threatens their jobs, safety, and culture. They expect the government to intervene and stop the influx.
But on this question government has ascended an astronomical distance away from the governed. Ruling elites absolve themselves of any responsibility for border control, and treat illegal immigration as a test of moral purity. Angela Merkel invited a million predominantly Muslim refugees into Germany and, by extension, the EU. Embracing immigration was a “humanitarian duty,” she asserted. Opposition was judged by its most immoderate voices, those of “rightwing extremists and neo-Nazis.” It was from similar moral heights that Hillary Clinton famously dismissed “half” of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables…racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.””
Gurri argues that the tremendous growth in accessibility to information has nullifed the authority of elites in government and the media. In place of authoritative narratives, we now have vital communities, each with their own facts and their realities. The very premise of a nation-state, one with a common identity, may simply be incompatible with the emerging information age. If that is true, the resurgence in nationalism may be understood as a final and futile attempt to hold on to national identities that have defined the liberal world order for nearly 400 years.
We are excited to announce that Martin Gurri will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 10th Annual Conference, “Thinking in Dark Times: The Crisis of Democracy,” taking place Oct. 12-13, 2017. Save the Date.
To understand the way fake news works, Simon Van Zuylen Wood decided to dive into the world of Michael Flynn Jr., the 33-year-old son of President-elect Trump’s choice to be national security adviser. Flynn Jr. is an avid tweeter of fake news stories and has been especially enamored of the pizza-gate conspiracy. Van Zuylen Wood formed a fake Twitter account @HighCastlePhil and followed Flynn Jr.’s tailored feed of over 900 accounts for a week. Here is a bit of what he learned.
“The John Podesta-is-running-a-child-sex-trafficking-organization-out-of-a pizzeria conspiracy theory ricocheted from 4chan to reddit to fake news sites then back to social media throughout October and November. But only after real bullets were fired at the pizzeria on December 4 did mainstream news outlets begin thoroughly debunking the story. Michael Flynn Jr. wasn’t having it. “Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story. The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it,” he tweeted. Within a few days, Flynn Jr. was formally relieved of his duties on the Trump transition, and most of us in the pro journalism orbit moved on. But in the world of bizarro news, tens of thousands of pizzagate truthers were just warming up, convinced that our lack of interest was proof of a cover-up.
Over the course of a couple days after I set up my feed, alt-right standard-bearer Mike Cernovich (183,000 followers, of which Flynn Jr. and @HighCastlePhil were two) went on a tweetstorm positing that liberal organ Salon was wrapped up in a “money-laundering mechanism for pedophiles.” Cernovich posted screenshots of several recent (non-fake) confessional-style articles published on the site with titles like “I’m a Pedophile But Not a Monster.” Cernovich was trawling for evidence that liberal media pizzagate deniers were sympathetic toward child abusers. He was in turn widely derided by journalists, which, he said, only proved his point. “Daily Beast, BuzzFeed, and Upworthy already attacking (weak) me for this investigation. This means we are on point. Investigate Salon.”
Eager to learn more, I read a piece by a blogger named Aaron Kesel that Cernovich had been retweeting. Published on www.wearechange.org, it was titled “‘Virtuous Pedophiles’– Mike Cernovich Reveals Salon’s Dirty Secret.” Now Keseltoo started connecting dots between the Salon articles and Pizzagate, begging his readers to “FOCUS ON THE REAL EVIDENCE,” like “declassified FBI pedophile symbols.” “Then tell me how places like Comet Ping Pong Pizza were not possible pedophile meeting places or places to network given their symbols for pedophiles?”
By then I was in deep. Kesel also linked to some YouTube footage about old pedophilia scandals, which is how I eventually stumbled upon a former TheStreet.com writer named David Seaman who has refashioned himself into a Pizzagate authority. A December 6 video homed in on CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who had urged Flynn Jr. to knock it off via direct Twitter message. Seaman said his hackles were raised by Tapper’s interest in quashing the story, combined with the presence of his name in certain of the leaked John Podesta emails, plus—gasp!—an interview Tapper’s wife had given in which she identified Comet Ping-Pong as one of her favorite restaurants to take the children. “Do you have something you want to tell us here, Jake?” Seaman asked, on camera. No, he didn’t, because it was all baloney—Tapper was just trying to stand up for the truth. But at last count, the video had racked up more than 239,000 views. No way to know if Flynn Jr. watched the video, but for @highcastlephil, the path to Seaman’s videos was marked like an airplane runway at night.”
The Future of The Fourth Estate
In an interview, Joi Ito considers the current crisis in journalism:
“My working theory is that mainstream media are the red coats and everybody else are the guerrillas. I have a feeling that while there may be some inspiration, I don’t think we’re going back, and I think the stuffiness that we cherish is like classical music. I was a disc jockey. Tools like Ableton Live let you remix and remix, and real musicians don’t believe that people who don’t make the original sounds are musicians, but there’s a tremendous amount of creativity. In fact, I would say if you’re trying to hold people’s attention for 10 hours, a DJ has more creative output in reading the audience than a musician who’s playing a song over and over again.
What I think is happening is that the creativity is going to a different place. It’s a different game, and the hard part for the media is the game is no longer a physical fight that the reporter is covering. The game is actually the reporters themselves. It’s gotten so meta. As a journalist, when you see something bad, you write about it, but what the kids are trying to do is get you to write about them. Every time you are appalled and you write about it more, it’s the whole “feed the troll” thing. It’s so funny because a journalist’s reaction to anything is so predictable.
There’s two things happening. One, you’ve got a somewhat classical system that we’re trying to preserve, and two, the battleground has changed so that it’s hard to see because it’s about you now. Journalists, in recent history, have been third-person. You often say, “There was a journalist there,” even if it was you.”
What If We Had Been Right The First Time?
Joshua Rothman profiles Ted Chiang, the author of the short story that inspired last year’s movie Arrival:
““I’m curious about what you might call discredited world views,” he told me, during a phone conversation. “It can be tempting to dismiss people from the past—to say, ‘Weren’t they foolish for thinking things worked that way?’ But they weren’t dummies. They came up with theories as to how the universe worked based on the observations available to them at the time. They thought about the implications of things in the ways that we do now. Sometimes I think, What if further observation had confirmed their initial theories instead of disproving them? What if the universe had really worked that way?”
Chiang has been described as a writer of “humanist” sci-fi; many readers feel that his stories are unusually moving and wonder, given their matter-of-fact tone, where their emotional power comes from. His story “The Great Silence” was included in last year’s edition of “The Best American Short Stories,” and Junot Díaz, who edited that volume, has said that Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others” is “as perfect a collection of stories as I’ve ever read.” Chiang himself seems to find this kind of praise bewildering. When, after about a month of long-distance conversation—he is a slow, careful speaker, and so I had asked to interview him again and again—we met for lunch at a ramen restaurant in Bellevue, I asked Chiang why he thought his stories were beloved. He threw up his hands and laughed with genuine incredulity. He had “no idea” how to account for his own success, he said. He seems almost to regard his stories as research projects pursued for their own sake. When I asked him to speculate—surely all writers have some sense of why they are valued?—he blushed and declined….
What Chiang really wanted to talk about was science fiction. We spoke about free will (“I believe that the universe is deterministic, but that the most meaningful definition of free will is compatible with determinism”), the literary tradition of naturalism (“a fundamentally science-fictional approach of trying to work out the logical consequences of an idea”), time travel (he thinks of “A Christmas Carol” as the first time-travel story), and the metaphorical and political incoherence of Neill Blomkamp’s aliens-under-apartheid movie “District 9” (he believes that “Alien Nation,” in which the aliens are framed as immigrants, is more rigorously thought through). Chiang reframes questions before answering them, making fine philosophical distinctions. He talks more about concepts than he does about people. “I do want there to be a depth of human feeling in my work, but that’s not my primary goal as a writer,” he said, over lunch. “My primary goal has to do with engaging in philosophical questions and thought experiments, trying to work out the consequences of certain ideas.””
You See, I See, We All See For Ice Cream
Tim Parks and Riccardo Manzotti have a conversation about consciousness:
“We must distinguish between internalism as an approach to the problem of consciousness (the idea that it is entirely produced in the head) and neuroscience as a discipline. The neuroscientists have made huge progress in mapping out the brain and analyzing the nitty-gritty of what goes on there, which neurons are firing impulses in which rhythms to which others, what chemical exchanges are involved, and so on. But you are right, the way they describe their experiments by way of a computer analogy—in particular of information processing and memory storage—can give the mistaken impression that they’re getting nearer to understanding what consciousness is.
When physiologists address other parts of the body—the immune system, the kidneys, our blood circulation—they don’t feel the need to use anything but the language of biology. Read a paper on, say, the liver, and it will be talking about biochemical mechanisms—metabolites, ion homeostasis, acetaminophen poisoning, sepsis, infection, fibrosis, and the like, all terms that refer to actual physical circumstances. Yet, when dealing with the brain, we suddenly find that neurons are processing “information,” rather than chemicals…
When something physically exists and obeys the laws of thermodynamics, then you can find it, concretely. Electrons were predicted to exist and then found. Likewise the planet Neptune and a host of other things. But information, or data, is not a thing. It’s an idea we stipulated because it served a certain purpose, but it doesn’t exist physically, as an entity in its own right in the causal chain. Brutally, when we look inside a computer, or a brain, we don’t see or even detect information. Or data. We see physical stuff: voltage levels in a computer, chemicals in the brain.”
Ways of Seeing
John Berger, perhaps the world’s most famous art critic, died this week at the age of 90. Robert Minto reviews his most recent book:
“The most famous of Berger’s influences, Walter Benjamin, wrote the essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” from which came most of the ideas in Berger’s documentary, Ways of Seeing. But Landscapes reveals that his most important influence as a practicing art critic was Max Raphael.
Raphael, an undeservedly obscure theorist, located the value of art in the activity of the artist. According to him, an artist performs two operations. On the one hand, the artist turns raw material into artistic material by shaping it to represent an idea or an object; this is true both of Michelangelo shaping a block of marble into David and of Jackson Pollock embodying the rhythms of jazz in drip paintings. On the other, the artist turns his perception into something external and objective, a representation. The work of art is the result of these two transformations, of raw stuff and of subjective perception into an art object. For Raphael, the point of art is these two transformations: they are the artist’s way of “undoing the world of things” and constructing “the world of values.”
So Raphael’s answer to Marx’s problem — why is art enduringly moving even though it merely reflects its social context? — is to say that art doesn’t merely reflect its social context. It does reflect it, because the artist’s material, style, the things they want to represent, even the way they see, are historically conditioned; but it doesn’t merely reflect it, because the transformed material speaks of something deeper and more voluntary. It speaks of humanity’s ability to make its own world, to become the subject and not merely the victim of history. “The function of the work of art,” Berger sums up Raphael, “is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains.”
Anyone familiar with Berger’s own writing will sit up with a shock of recognition. Here is a theory of art directly correlated to his practice of criticism. Berger takes art out of the sanitizing temples where we store it and drops it firmly back onto the easel, in a messy studio, where a sweaty artist bites her lip and stores her way of looking in an object. Over and over again, he asks us to imagine the artist at work. Many have attributed this to his own training as a painter, which might have inspired his fascination with technique, as I, an amateur pianist, am fascinated by the technique of my favorite recording artists. But I think his admiring discussion of Raphael suggests a much deeper reason. If Berger believes that the most important meaning of art is what it shows us of our ability to create the world we want, it turns out that his criticism is connected to his Marxism much more fundamentally than through the borrowing of a few insights from Walter Benjamin.”