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.
Turn This Off, If Only For a Day
It is Sunday, January 1st‚—New Years Day. It is a holiday around the world. If you’re reading this on your phone (as about 35% of you are), what does that tell you? Young adults check their phones 85 times on average every day, for more than 5 hours. About 30% of our waking hours, we are checking our portable devices, and many of us use computers and tablets in addition to our phones. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends.” Sullivan was, arguably, the first true blogger. His blog “The Dish” was the first true blog combining personal reflections, politics, and commentary. I read it frequently. He updated it more frequently, at first every 30 minutes. Later, more often than that. As he writes in a recent essay in New York Magazine,
I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
Sullivan knows better than most what living in the web can do to you. And what he found was that it could kill you. Yes, the pace of being a full-time blogger made Sullivan sick and threatened his health. But the real threat only became apparent once he quit the internet and checked himself into a meditation center.
“I arrived at the meditation retreat center a few months after I’d quit the web, throwing my life and career up in the air. I figured it would be the ultimate detox. And I wasn’t wrong. After a few hours of silence, you tend to expect some kind of disturbance, some flurry to catch your interest. And then it never comes. The quiet deepens into an enveloping default. No one spoke; no one even looked another person in the eye — what some Buddhists call “noble silence.” The day was scheduled down to the minute, so that almost all our time was spent in silent meditation with our eyes closed, or in slow-walking meditation on the marked trails of the forest, or in communal, unspeaking meals. The only words I heard or read for ten days were in three counseling sessions, two guided meditations, and nightly talks on mindfulness.
I’d spent the previous nine months honing my meditation practice, but, in this crowd, I was a novice and a tourist. (Everyone around me was attending six-week or three-month sessions.) The silence, it became apparent, was an integral part of these people’s lives — and their simple manner of movement, the way they glided rather than walked, the open expressions on their faces, all fascinated me. What were they experiencing, if not insane levels of boredom?
And how did their calm somehow magnify itself when I was surrounded by them every day? Usually, when you add people to a room, the noise grows; here, it was the silence that seemed to compound itself. Attached to my phone, I had been accompanied for so long by verbal and visual noise, by an endless bombardment of words and images, and yet I felt curiously isolated. Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.
Things that usually escaped me began to intrigue me. On a meditative walk through the forest on my second day, I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.”
Facts and Tales
“Th[e] mismatch between Quixote’s perception and everyone else’s renders him something like delusional, but not quite. Those who witness his behavior regularly acknowledge his capacities for justice, rational thought, and reasoned speech. Thus, Quixote has a way of severing rationality from fact. He represents a failure of empiricism — an unreliability arising not from the absence of rationality, but from the stubborn complexity of perception. This, I would argue, is precisely how the 2016 election went down. Due largely to Trump’s loose relationship with the truth, fact-checking held an outsized presence in the 2016 campaign season, reducing political discourse to arguments about whose facts were more factual. Meanwhile, our most trusted polls and poll aggregators were putting the chances of a Hillary Clinton victory at 70 percent or higher.
Progressives — particularly the amorphously defined “elite” — puzzled at how so many people could support Trump, given the facts.
This only reinforced the impression of progressivism as synonymous with “point-and-laugh” elitism, as it presented the contest between Clinton and Trump as one with an empirically self-evident conclusion: the sure victory of Clinton’s command of facts and policy over Trump’s blustering nonsense. Then the unexpected results rolled in, and we figured Trump’s win was a real “brick through the window” moment: the revenge of the undereducated white working class, who felt ignored, economically disenfranchised, and alienated by snooty liberals and their facts. We’ve maintained that story in the face of fact. Exit polling shows that voters with incomes under $30,000 went for Clinton; voters with incomes under $49,999 went for Clinton; and voters who cited the economy as the most important issue to them in this election went for Clinton. What explains this explanatory failure of facts?”
Politics and Reconciliations
Azadeh Moaveni reports from the sessions of Tunisia’s recently convened Truth and Dignity Commission designed so that the post-Arab Spring democracy could reckon with its history of torture:
“For nearly sixty years, until the 2011 uprising that unseated President Ben Ali, the Tunisian government made torture and intimidation a systematic part of its rule. A police state that was also stridently secular, modelled after the French aversion to religiosity in public life, the dictatorship largely targeted Islamists or religious activists. Ajengui, who is now forty-seven, was one of eleven women and men who two weekends ago described the abuse that they had suffered, during the second hearing of the state’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which is the centerpiece of a transitional-justice law passed by the democratic government that emerged after the revolution. Broadcast live on prime-time television and widely watched, the hearings have been timed to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Jasmine Revolution, which spread to become the Arab Spring. The proceedings, unprecedented in the Arab world for their scope, are tasked with examining a wide variety of crimes, from extrajudicial killings to torture to corruption, and intended as a public reckoning that will help both state institutions and society recover.
They are also a refutation of Tunisia’s reputation as an Arab success story, which owes less to any significant progress than to the country having avoided civil war or a descent into even nastier autocracy and chaos. This bright view, garlanded with a Nobel Peace Prize that went to a coalition of Tunisian civil-society groups, in 2015, has mostly fallen away. As George Packer reported in March, a spate of terror attacks that took place months before the Nobel Prize was announced virtually ended European tourism and weakened the country’s long-ailing economy. Acts of violence by Tunisians abroad have changed the country’s image further. Earlier this December, a twenty-four-year-old Tunisian man named Anis Amri allegedly drove a truck through an outdoor Christmas market in Berlin, killing twelve people. Tunisia has also sent the highest numbers of recruits, both men and women, to fight with the Islamic State, and the prospect of fighters returning home from Syria has left Tunisians vulnerable to the notion that the old regime was better at providing security than the new. Following two political assassinations in 2013, a political party that includes former regime officials won parliamentary elections, putting a number of politicians associated with past abuses back in power.”
Past and Future
Masha Gessen considers the question of power from the Russian perspective, taking stock of the state of the Russian state and comparing the rhetorics of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump:
“The Cold War was fought by men who had different visions of the future—the ideologies of the two sides were battling for the right to define societies to come. This made the prospect of mutually assured destruction an effective deterrent. We now know that on several occasions one or the other side took a crucial step back from the brink.
Trump and Putin, on the other hand, lack a concept of the future. In Putin’s version of the clash of civilizations, we have only a threatening Western present versus an imaginary Eurasian past. In Trump’s case, the threatening present is global while the alluring past is American. Both men traffic in appeals to the local and the familiar from the past against the frighteningly strange future. They are also both short-tempered, thin-skinned, not very bright, and disinclined to listen to advisers—all major risk factors for escalation. But it is their shared inability to look ahead that poses the greatest danger to the world.
Putin’s inability to plan has been well documented. European Russia scholar Mark Galeotti has called it the “Putin Paradox”: Putin is great at seizing opportunities but can never think through consequences or next steps. Galeotti was writing about Putin’s wars and his interference in US elections (though he was assuming a Trump loss), but the Putin Paradox can be observed in the Russian president’s personal behavior as well. I once wrote about an extravagant palace Putin was building with a billion dollars’ worth of embezzled and fraudulently appropriated funds.
When I was reporting this story back in 2011, what struck me was that the palace—a private residence—was located in Russia. It seemed planned as a retirement residence, but Putin clearly hadn’t considered the impossibility of his retiring in Russia, in peace. Another example is Putin’s obliviousness to the political undercurrents of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Only in late December 2013 did he realize that Western leaders were declining his invitations to the Games—and pardoned political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the party. But it was six weeks before the Olympics, and it was too late.
Trump’s short attention span is legendary. He also has a track record of making impulsive lavish investments that fail over and over again. It appears that his ability to plan for the future is as severely limited as Putin’s.”