“The Irony of the Elite” – Roger Berkowitz      February 21, 2014

houseofcardsPeggy Noonan is worried about the decadence of elite American culture. While the folks over at DailyKos are foaming about the irony of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter complaining about the excesses of the power elites, Noonan makes an important point about the corrosive effects that irony has on elites and on culture more generally.

The two targets of Noonan’s scorn are a “Now This News” video compilation of real congressmen quoting their favorite lines from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” and the recent publication of an excerpt from Kevin Roose’s new book Young Money. The “House of Cards” is about the scheming, power hungry, and luxurious life of our political elite in Washington. Roose’s excerpt provides audios, videos, and a description of a recent Kappa Beta Phi meeting, in which Wall Street titans binge on alcohol and engage in skits and speeches making fun of anyone who would question their inalienable right to easy money at the expense of rubes in government and on main street.

Noonan’s response to these sets of recordings is bafflement and disappointment. Why is it, she asks, that elites would join in on the jokes made at their expense?

Read the full essay here.


“Are We One of Them?” – Roger Berkowitz           March 29, 2013

eyeIn an essay in the Wall Street Journal, Frans de Waal—C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University—offers a fascinating review of recent scientific studies that upend long-held expectations about the intelligence of animals. De Waal rehearses a catalogue of fantastic studies in which animals do things that scientists have long thought they could not do. Here are a few examples:

Ayumu, a male chimpanzee, excels at memory; just as the IBM computer Watson can beat human champions at Jeopardy, Ayumu can easily best the human memory champion in games of memory.

Similarly, Kandula, a young elephant bull, was able to reach some fragrant fruit hung out of reach by moving a stool over to the tree, standing on it, and reaching for the fruit with his trunk. I’ll admit this doesn’t seem like much of a feat to me, but for the researchers de Waal talks with, it is surprising proof that elephants can use tools.

Read the full essay here.


“The Progeny of Teachers” – Roger Berkowitz             January 16, 2013

progenySan Jose State University is experimenting with a program where students pay a reduced fee for online courses run by the private firm Udacity. Teachers and their unions are in retreat across the nation. And groups like Uncollege insist that schools and universities are unnecessary. At a time when teachers are everywhere on the defensive, it is great to read this opening salvo from Leon Wieseltier: “When I look back at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. I am the progeny of teachers; I swoon over teachers. Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant.”

Read the full essay here.


“Infinitely Intoxicating” – Roger Berkowitz                   January 11, 2013

intoxLouis Pasteur once wrote:

I see everywhere in the world, the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity…. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether it be called Bramah, Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus…. The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequethed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word ‘enthusiasm’—En Theos—“A God Within.” The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who hears a god within, and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

To bear a god within is not an easy task for us mortals. The god within—even more so than the god without—demands to be obeyed. Having a god inside us—or Socrates like a daimon on our shoulder—is no recipe for happiness.

Read the full essay here.


“The ‘E’ Word” – Part One – Roger Berkowitz                   December 5, 2012

collThe New York Times tells the story of Benjamin Goering. Goering is 22. Until recently he studied computer science and philosophy at the University of Kansas. He felt “frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.” So Goering dropped out of college and went to San Francisco, where he got a job as a software engineer.

I applaud Goering for making a risky decision. College was not for him. This does not mean he wasn’t smart or couldn’t cut it. He clearly has talent and it was being wasted in courses he was not interested in that were costing him and his family many tens of thousands of dollars every year. In leaving, Goering made the right decision for him. Indeed, many more college students should make the same decision he did.

Read the full essay here


“The ‘E’ Word – Part Two – Roger Berkowitz                 January 4, 2013

uncolPeter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie Good Will HuntingYou wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.

The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating.

Read the full essay here


“Arendt and Gun Control” – Roger Berkowitz               December 18, 2012

sandyIn The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.

The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:

Read the full essay here.


“What is a Fact” – Roger Berkowitz                               December 7, 2012

objectWhat is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”

But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?

Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered:  ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.

Read the full essay here

Does the President Matter? – Roger Berkowitz          September 25, 2012

does“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Does the President Matter?”, we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

Read the full essay here

Watch Roger’s  opening talk from the conference, “Does the President Matter?” here.


“The Humanities and Common Sense” – Roger Berkowitz      August 10, 2012

headIn this post, academics and university faculty will be criticized. Railing against college professors has become a common pastime, one practiced almost exclusively by those who have been taught and mentored by those whom are now being criticized. It is thus only fair to say upfront that the college education in the United States is, in spite of its myriad flaws, still of incredible value and meaning to tens if not hundreds of thousands of students every year.

That said, too much of what our faculties teach is neither interesting nor wanted by our students.

Read the full essay here.


“Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts” – Roger Berkowitz        November 2, 2011

carvIt is well known that Iraqis participated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States; that global warming is a myth; that childhood vaccines cause Autism; that President Obama is not an American; that a cabal of American Jews collaborated with the U.S. government to carry out the attacks on 9/11; and that the United States does not torture. These are acknowledged facts for millions of educated, indeed often highly educated, people.

Of course, I hope you will agree, these acknowledged facts are open to debate.

We face today a crisis of fact. Facts, as Hannah Arendt saw, are all around us being reduced to opinions; and opinions masquerade as facts. As fact and opinion blur together, the very idea of factual truth falls away. And increasingly the belief in and aspiration for factual truth is being expunged from political argument.

Even before technologists have made good on their promises to provide virtual realities, we have created multiple realities using nothing more than the internet, cable news, and human nature.

So what?  Does all this lying, this blurring of fact and opinion, this creating of and defending of alternative and opposing realities –does it really matter? Isn’t that what politics has always been about?

The answer, as Hannah Arendt argues, is that the loss of factual truth in the political realm is an existential threat to politics and also to human life in general. Arendt rejects the classical maxim fiat justitia, et pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish); instead she endorses the reformulation: Fiat veritas, et pereat mundus.   Let Truth be done, though the world may perish.

Read the full essay here


Don’t Be Afraid to Say, ‘Revolution’?” – Roger Berkowitz     October 5, 2011

revolCornell West was one of the first celebrity academics to arrive at Occupy Wall Street last week. Because amplified sound is prohibited in Zuccotti Park—the protesters have never applied for a protest permit—the speaker’s words are repeated by the audience to make them audible for larger groups. Thus West’s refrain issued repeatedly in the dark and across Wall Street. The protests, still small on the ground, are growing wings in cyberspace. New protests are springing up in cities across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston and from Seattle to Toronto. Seven hundred people were arrested Sunday during a peaceful crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge (including at least 20 Bard College Students). Seven hundred United/Continental airline pilots joined the demonstration over the weekend, as did 15 U.S. Marines. Unions are pledging their support, suggesting that the protests may get a real boost from traditional organizing. Clearly, “Something is happening here, Mr. Jones.”  “Don’t be Afraid to Say Revolution.

Read the full essay here

“The Wisdom of Rhadamanthus: Why We Must Judge” – Roger Berkowitz

rathIn 2004, The New York Times reported that numerous captured Iraqi military officers had been beaten by American interrogators, and that Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush had been killed by suffocation. The Times has also published the stories of the so-called “ice man” of Abu Ghraib, Manadel al-Jamadi, who was beaten and killed while in U.S. custody, his body wrapped in ice to hide evidence of the beatings; of Walid bin Attash, forced to stand on his one leg (he lost the other fighting in Afghanistan) with his hands shackled above his head for two weeks; and of Gul Rahman, who died of hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down in a cold cell in a secret CIA prison outside Kabul. And the paper has documented the fate of Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan, questioned in black sites and waterboarded at least 83 times, before being brought to Guantanamo, as well as the story of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times.

What was missing from these stories, published in the newspaper of record? A simple word: torture.

Read the full essay here.


Art, Science, and Anti-Humanism – Roger Berkowitz              July 21, 2010

tableI stopped in at the “Systematic” exhibit now on at the Project 176 in London and received a tour by two of the gallery assistants, David Angus and Chloe Cooper. The exhibit, curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter, confronts the question of the place of the human being and the role of the artist at a time when individuals and humans are being subsumed by rational, social, and scientific systems. Featuring 18 works by 8 artists, the exhibit raises the fundamental question of our time: what does it mean to be human in an increasingly inhuman age?

The works on display in “Systematic” provoke principally because they enthusiastically embrace the utopian optimism that underlies the thinking of prophets of singularity from Ray Kurzweil to Sergey Brin. The premise of the exhibit is the power of systems over individuals. As De Wachter writes in her essay that accompanies the exhibit, the system today represents the emergent properties ‘of the combination as a whole—which are more than the sum of its individual parts.’

Read the full essay here.


Kasparov on the Human and the Machine – Roger Berkowitz      July 5, 2010

kaspKasparov respects the power of computers and knows that there already exist computer programs that play Checkers in a way that is unbeatable. Chess is another story, and although IBM’s Deep Blue bested him in 1997, the challenge of an unbeatable Chess program is extreme, if simply because there are over 10 to the 120th possible chess games, and most computers simply are not yet so powerful as to be able to master every game. That said, most store-bought computer chess machines will regularly beat grandmasters.

The real question the smart machines raise is not who will win, but how the intelligent machines change our human being and our human world. Kasparov has three fascinating observations on that question.

Read the full essay here.


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