Amor Mundi 1/17/16

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-upGlimpsing the Fascist Tendency

donald trumpElizabeth Drew argues in the NYRB that the successes thus far of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a revolutionary moment in American politics. “A revolution is taking place in our presidential campaign. Though no one has voted yet and the polls–especially nationwide ones–shouldn’t be taken too literally, there’s every indication in both parties that what’s termed the political establishment is being rejected. We’re some distance from the end of the nomination contests, though perhaps not in the Republican race: if Donald Trump were to sweep Iowa and New Hampshire it’s hard to see how he can be stopped. So far, the talk of a savior entering the race is only that, and to make such a challenge would be daunting. Those who’ve ventured to predict the outcome and gone by past patterns haven’t had it right. Politically, this country is in a new place. It’s best to ignore suggestions of historic parallels. As of now, the anti-establishment candidates in both parties–Trump and Ted Cruz for the Republicans, and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats–are either well ahead of or giving close chase to the rest of their respective fields. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The public mood has been building toward this situation. Leaders in both parties are seen as having failed various tests and are being rejected. The complaints against the status quo are similar among Democratic and Republican voters. In fact, so alike is the dissatisfaction that there are indications of a possible large crossover vote; in a recent survey, nearly 20 percent of Democratic voters say they would vote for Trump in a general election. Some of the complaints are familiar, but a striking one is new. The most familiar–and bipartisan–grievances are that the middle class has been squeezed; that wages haven’t kept up; that the divide between the very rich and poor continues to grow. These are deeply felt issues, despite the fact that, in recent months jobs have been coming back and unemployment, at just 5 percent (among those who’ve remained in the job market), is half of what it was when Obama took office, an achievement that virtually no one expected. A sleeper issue, however, has also finally come to the fore: the corruption that infects our political system. It had long been said that the public doesn’t care about this matter, but upset over the gradual loss of control of our political system to those who can buy it is now palpable. For very different reasons, both Trump and Bernie Sanders are seen as incorruptible.”

Drew is right. Trump, Cruz, and Sanders are succeeding not only because of their policies but at least in part because they are perceived by their followers as authentic and incorruptible. Trump is famously vague about policy, simply asserting he and American will win. Sanders, while more politically practiced and less reality-challenged than Trump, too has lean policy prescriptions. Sanders promises that he is mobilizing a movement that will break through decades of gridlock and remake the nation. As do Trump and Cruz, Sanders places great importance on his ability to inspire and lead a mass mobilization. The seduction of Sanders, Trump, and Cruz is that they actually believe what they say, that they do want to mobilize a wave of supporters who will weed out the crooks and revitalize the American dream. There is a real possibility that for the first time in my political life, we might have a presidential election between major-party candidates who actually speak from conviction. That is something new, possibly revolutionary.

On another level, however, Drew is too quick to baptize our present moment with revolutionary credentials. Our representative institutions have been corrupted. There is anger and frustration on the left and the right. But what is the answer? Trump channels anger against immigrants, minorities, and even Wall Street. Sanders channels anger against Wall Street but also against the political and business establishments, not to mention what he calls the “billionaire class.” What Trump, Cruz, and Sanders offer is an ideological politics perfectly calibrated to our angry era.  There is some chance Trump, Cruz, or Sanders will be our next president. If one of them wins, there will be joyful redemption on one side and resentful anger on the other. Trump and Sanders know that the legitimacy of our American institutions is compromised. They have mobilized masses with populist messages. They are not wrong. This is a first step toward real change.

What is missing, however, is what Hannah Arendt once referred to as a “real analysis of the existing situation,” a recognition of the uniqueness of our current situation and a new way forward. The candidates can’t be faulted for the fact that they don’t have solutions. Nobody seems to. But a politics of anger rarely blooms into a rose. A revolutionary situation, Arendt writes, “need not lead to revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, it can end in total anticlimax; it need not lead to anything.” With the candidacies of Trump, Cruz, and Sanders, justifiable anger is raising the stakes in a dangerous game. Which is why Drew rightly concludes her essay with a warning: “The anger, fear, resentment, racism, and frustration that are playing into the current political climate make for a turbulent situation. This is a situation prone to undermining our democratic system. It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”–RB

Campus Consent

campus sexual assaultJessica Bennett reports about how students and college campuses are trying to fix the problem of sexual assaults on campus by changing how they educate about what consent is–a task which is harder even than it sounds: “Campuses like Trinity’s have thick handbooks full of sexual assault resources, filled with pages upon pages of legal definitions and situational scenarios. But that doesn’t mean that students necessarily understand the new policies. Yes, ‘consent’ is now emblazoned on T-shirts and posters–it was the subject of a recent public service initiative at Columbia, ‘Consent is BAE,’ that was criticized by students–but even that does not ensure that students can define it. ‘I think it’s when two people agree to have sex, yeah?’ a young woman, a junior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said when approached on a recent day in Manhattan and asked if she could define ‘affirmative consent.’ ‘Isn’t that when only yes means yes? But not really?’ said another woman, a dance and fashion major at N.Y.U. ‘I know what consent is; is this different?’ said a young man, a sports management major, also at N.Y.U. And there is a whole new vocabulary to memorize, with terms like ‘enthusiastic consent,’ ‘implied consent,’ ‘spectrum of consent,’ ‘reluctant permission,’ ‘coercion’ and ‘unintentional rape.’ Even ‘yes means yes,’ the slogan of the anti-rape movement is sort of confusing. ‘It should be “Only yes means yes,”‘ said Dr. Brod, the sociologist. (And if you still can’t tell, then ask.)” As any first year law student knows, consent is one of the trickiest concepts in our moral universe. Can silence signal consent? Can actions or behavior mean consent? When is consent rescinded? What is knowing versus impaired consent? Can one consent to be enslaved? Is it permissible to consent to be violated? The effort to make sex consensual is laudable. But the demand for consent is hardly a silver bullet that will prevent unwanted and non-consensual sex. This is above all the case because so often we, and especially young people, don’t know for sure what we want.–RB

Knowing the One Percent

paul singerMichael Massing has published a two-part story in the NYRB calling for a new form of journalism dedicated to covering the business, philanthropic, and political activities of the 1%. “Even amid the outpouring of coverage of rising income inequality, however, the richest Americans have remained largely hidden from view. On all sides, billionaires are shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes, polishing their images–and carefully shielding themselves from scrutiny. Journalists have largely let them get away with it. News organizations need to find new ways to lift the veil off the superrich and lay bare their power and influence. Digital technology, with its flexibility, speed, boundless capacity, and ease of interactivity, seems ideally suited to this task, but only if it’s used more creatively than it has been to date.” Massing offers a number of preliminary examples of what he has in mind. One concerns Paul Singer, CEO of the hedge fund Elliott Management. “Looking more closely at these individuals, I became fascinated with Singer. He seems to typify the ability of today’s ultrarich to amass tremendous power while remaining out of the limelight. Singer did receive a flurry of attention in late October when news broke of his decision to back Marco Rubio’s presidential bid, but it quickly faded, and he moved back into the shadows. Going online, I found out (from Forbes) that Singer is worth about $2 billion. He is the single largest donor to the Republican Party, with his money going overwhelmingly to candidates who support free enterprise and oppose regulation. (A major exception is his support for groups promoting gay rights and same-sex marriage; his son is gay.) From the Times I learned that the fund-raisers Singer hosts in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side can net more than $1 million a session, and I read in The Wall Street Journal that he was instrumental in the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012. In a detailed profile of Singer in Mother Jones, Peter Stone noted that Elliott Management has frequently been called a ‘”vulture fund” because a chunk of its profits comes from buying distressed companies’ or countries’ debt at a steep discount.’ In 2012 a subsidiary of the firm, seeking to extract full payment from Argentina for some bonds on which it had defaulted, had an Argentine naval vessel impounded in a Ghanaian port. In 2004, Singer contributed $5,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked John Kerry’s war record, badly damaging his presidential bid. Since then, he has given generously to American Crossroads and the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has backed many Tea Party candidates. Singer’s influence, though, extends far beyond that. He is chairman of the board of the Manhattan Institute, a member of the board of Commentary magazine, and a major donor to the American Enterprise Institute. He has given to and/or sat on the boards of several organizations dedicated to a strong Israel, including the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs; the Republican Jewish Coalition; the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that sponsors trips to Israel by members of Congress; and the Israel Project, a group dedicated to boosting Israel’s image. From 2008 to 2011, Singer gave $3.6 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has worked tirelessly to isolate and sanction Iran. All of these groups were active in the campaign to kill the nuclear deal with Iran. As I examined their interlocking boards and overlapping missions, I became aware of the enormous political, financial, and lobbying infrastructure behind that campaign. From Paul Blumenthal at The Huffington Post I learned that four hawkish-on-Israel billionaires–Singer, Sheldon Adelson, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, and Seth Klarman, the head of the private investment house Baupost–gave a combined $11.5 million to anti-Iran groups from 2011 through 2013 (while also giving $115 million to Republican Party Super PACs in the 2012 and 2014 elections). A parallel array of groups (led by J Street and the Ploughshares Fund) worked to support the deal, but as Eli Clifton pointed out at LobeLog, the anti-Iran groups opposing it had operating budgets nearly five times as large as those in support. Despite the nonstop coverage of the debate over the nuclear agreement, this network remained largely hidden.”

Click Away

readingPaul La Farge believes that we shouldn’t be so worried about what the Internet is doing to reading: “A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called ‘the shallows,’ a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the ‘endless, mesmerizing buzz’ of the Internet imperils our very being: ‘One of the greatest dangers we face,’ he writes, ‘as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.’ There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips… The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades–little jumps–and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.”


hitler mein kampfAfter being illegal for over 60 years, Mein Kampf may once again be published in Germany. Adam Gopnik wonders whether Mein Kampf remains a dangerous book: “the striking thing about the text as a text is that it is not so much diabolical or sinister as creepy. It is the last book in the world that you would expect a nascent Fascist dictator to write. Most of us–and most politicians in particular, even those who belong to extremist movements–try to draw a reasonably charismatic picture of our histories and ourselves. We want to look appealing. An evil force may emerge and temporarily defeat the narrator, but that force is usually placed against a childhood of a purer folk existence, now defiled. That’s the way most politicians’ campaign memoirs still work, for instance. Hitler, whom we suspect of being an embittered, envious, traumatized loser, presents himself as . . . an embittered, envious, traumatized loser. The weirdness of this is especially evident in the earlier autobiographical chapters. His resentments are ever-present. His father was dense, mean, unforgiving, and opaque. (‘My father forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art. I went one step further and declared that if that was the case I would stop studying altogether. As a result of such “pronouncements,” of course, I drew the short end; the old man began the relentless enforcement of his authority.’) His schoolmates were combative, his schoolmasters unappreciative. The petty rancor and unassuaged disappointments of a resentment-filled life burn on every page, in ways one would think might be more demoralizing than inspiring to potential followers…. ‘Mein Kampf’ is a miserable book, but should it be banned? I could certainly sympathize with any German who would like to see it kept illegitimate; some speech should, in fact, be off-limits. But is it a dangerous book? Does it circulate sinister ideas best kept silent? Putting aside the book’s singularly creepy tone, it contains little argumentation that wasn’t already commonplace in other, still-circulating anti-Semitic and extreme-right literature. Hitler’s character remains bewildering, in the obvious mismatch between the extent of his miserableness and the capacity of his will to power, although perhaps it should not be–many other personal stories suggest that miserable people have the will to power in the greatest intensity. But his themes are part of the inheritance of modernity, ones that he merely adapted with a peculiar, self-pitying edge and then took to their nightmarish conclusion: the glory of war over peace; disgust with the messy bargaining and limited successes of reformist, parliamentary democracy and, with that disgust, contempt for the political class as permanently compromised; the certainty that all military setbacks are the results of civilian sabotage and a lack of will; the faith in a strong man; the love of the exceptional character of one nation above all others; the selection of a helpless group to be hated, who can be blamed for feelings of national humiliation. He didn’t invent these arguments. He adapted them, and then later showed where in the real world they led, if taken to their logical outcome by someone possessed, for a time, of absolute power. Resisting those arguments is still our struggle, and so they are, however unsettling, still worth reading, even in their creepiest form.”

Leave No Test Behind

testingIn a previously unpublished essay, Aaron Swartz considers the history of complaints about American education and the way that the testing regime we’ve recently emerged from affected students: “The single-minded goal of maximizing test scores has been a blessing for the textbook market, which forces schools to buy expensive ‘evidence-based curricula’ which has been ‘proven’ to maximize test scores. The packages include not only textbooks and workbooks but also scripts for the teachers to read verbatim–deviating from them hasn’t been proven to raise test scores, and is thus prohibited. The package also comes with trained supervisors who drop in on teachers to make sure they’re actually sticking to the script. The effect on the students is almost heartbreaking. Taught that reading is simply about searching contrived stories for particular ‘text features,’ they learn to hate reading. Taught that answering questions is simply about cycling through the multiple choice answers to find the most plausible ones, they begin to stop thinking altogether and just spout random combinations of test buzzwords whenever they’re asked a question. ‘The joy of finding things out’ is banished from the classroom. Testing is in session.” Swartz stops at high school, but the way that standardized testing teaches students to learn has stunning effects after they’ve graduated and gone away to college. As a graduate student teaching assistant at a major public research institution, I’m always amazed at the kind of questions students ask about their tests: they’re much more concerned with the way the test will be structured and the point breakdown of each section than with the material they need to know to do well on the test, almost as if they believe that all they need to be prepared for the test is to be good at taking tests. If testing were the answer to a problem with education in America, it would almost certainly be the wrong one; in her essay “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes that such a crisis “becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices. Such an attitude not only sharpens the crisis but makes us forfeit the experience of reality and the opportunity for reflection it provides.” From a naive point of view, these tests are designed to address gaps in knowledge (the crisis). But if testing suggests anything, it’s that the answer to the question, in Arendt’s phrasing, “of why Johnny can’t read” isn’t to teach more things and then test them on it. Instead of bemoaning what students don’t know, we should be enticing students to figure out what they don’t know and then give them the writing, research, and critical thinking skills that enable them to go explore on their own, that is, the facility to make their own judgments. Among the myriad ways that American public education fails its students, this one is among the most serious. No test is going to give them the curiosity they need to face the world they were born into.–JK


leytonstone stationIan Storey writes about the twitter hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, a recorded response from an unidentified bystander to the terrorist attack in London at Leytonstone Station in which two were severely injured in a knife attack by an individual claiming his acts were in the name of “Syria”. The bystander is heard saying, “You ain’t no muslim, bruv. You’re an embarrassment”. Storey writes: “The temptation would be to think that the unidentified bystander is simply denying the attacker his religiousness. Certainly, the figure seems to self-identify as Muslim himself. But there is something much deeper in his statement, which was hurled in anger for a minority population already under social siege. Indeed, there is a denial that violence terrorismus–in Kant’s terms, violence that justifies itself only in terms of the descent and not the positive possibility of humanity–is itself justifiable under the terms of a religion. Yes, in this case, the speaker speaks of Islam. But again, an underlying claim made the quote resonant on social media. That claim is one that resonates with Arendt’s account of action and her critique of Pericles: that justification and action can be claimed but not claimed authoritatively or in permanency and never at the expense of another, for action is only ever action in the world of others. For the speaker, if one believed in Adonai, or G-d, or Allah, the very definition of the name denies terrorismus, the belief that human life can only decline into violence, and that one can be an agent of it. Whoever said ‘You ain’t no Muslim Bruv’ was not suggesting that the attacker did not believe in Allah; he was suggesting ‘you’re an embarrassment’, that if it were truly religiosity motivating the attack at Leytonstone, it would never have happened in the first place.”


david bowieGlenn Hendler in the LARB appreciates David Bowie’s song “Kooks.” “‘Kooks’ is written entirely in the form of a direct address. However, the addressee is a newborn infant–indeed, a very specific, personal one, the child he’d just had with his wife Angela. Then known as Zowie Bowie, and referred to next to the song’s title on the handwritten back cover of Hunky Dory as ‘Little Z,’ he has grown up to be the film director Duncan Jones. The song’s conceit is that the singer is asking whether the child is willing to ‘stay in our lovers’ story’ even though its parents are ‘a couple of kooks/hung up on romancing.’ He confesses that the child will need ‘a book of rules/on what to say to people when they pick on you/because if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty kooky too.’ The only part I recall liking, each time it came around (skipping a song being played on vinyl did take some effort, after all) was the ‘school’s out’ bit at the end: ‘And if the homework brings you down/then we’ll throw it on the fire/and take the car downtown.’ As a child in public school in the Common Core era, who has lots of homework even in first grade, my son thinks that’s a hilarious idea…. But my point is that I heard–everyone heard–‘Kooks’ in a context that had very little to do with reproductive heteronormativity. What David and Angie Bowie projected at that moment was a radically alternative model for living. And the fact that they included in that model a song about having a baby accentuated the fact that this was a model for adult life. Plenty of rock stars produced images of perpetual youth, and especially of perpetual adolescence (including, by the 1970s already, rock stars who were no longer adolescent youths). But Bowie–in his public persona–taught that adulthood could be complicated, thrilling, unfixed. That he was sixteen years older than I was helped, of course. But so did the fact that he was self-consciously part of a younger generation than the already ‘classic rock’ stars of the 1960s. He knew exactly the demographic he was addressing when he wrote in ‘All the Young Dudes‘ from the perspective of someone whose brother was ‘back at home/ with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/What a drag/Too many snags.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

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

Friday, February 5, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that “Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on “A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

The Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

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 week on the Blog, Ellen Rigby discusses how the authority of teachers lies, at least in part, in their ability to set aside judging and to present the world as it is to their students in the Quote of the Week. David Bowie reflects on how judgment and negative thinking can stifle creativity in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. A supporter of the HAC discusses understanding and humanity as an initium in this week’s Library feature. Finally, Ian Storey reflects on the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv as a symbol of humankind’s ability to resist a kind of violence that is bound to doctrine.

Occupy Wall Street

Video Archives – Roundtable Discussion on Occupy Wall Street (2011)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011: Roundtable Discussion on Occupy Wall Street


— Roger Berkowitz, Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College.
— Paul Mariental, Director of the Bard TLS Program.
— Jennifer Derr, a former professor in the History and Middle Eastern Studies programs at Bard College.
— Steven Maslow, a banker on Wall Street and an avid supporter of the Hannah Arendt Center.
— Two Bard Students who have been involved in the OWS demonstrations.

On October 12th, 2011, the Arendt Center hosted a roundtable discussion on the Occupy Wall Street movement with Bard faculty, Bard students who participated in the protests, and representatives of Wall Street. Continue reading

Birthing New Leaders

Asked in July if Occupy Wall Street has been successful, Todd Gitlin—renowned social historian, former President of Students for a Democratic Society, and author most recently of Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Streetresponds:

“OWS has been successful because we are talking about it. You now see bumper stickers that say 99%. I was just in upstate NY and I saw a candidate running for office with a sign that says: The candidate of the 99%. It is now legitimate to talk about inequality and the domination of American by a plutocracy, by an oligarchy of the super wealthy. No it is not successful in the sense that it has not delivered concrete results.”

As the election has heated up OWS has faded even further from consciousness. At a time when we are about to pick our next leader, the leaderless rhetoric of OWS is out of step.

That said, Gitlin is right that many of the pressing issues underlying the OWS movement have insinuated themselves into public discourse. It is unlikely that without OWS President Obama would be focusing so clearly on raising taxes on those he calls the wealthy (by which he means those who earn over $250,000 per year). Indeed, if there is one core issue that seems to demarcate President Obama and Governor Romney it is the question of their differing attitudes towards wealth and taxes.

Gitlin, who is speaking next week at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Does The President Matter?“, is clear-headed about the movement’s failures but remains optimistic about its future. Gitlin’s optimism, his hope for a movement that many other see as dead, is heartening. There may also, surprisingly, be a grain of truth in his rosy scenario.

Gitlin understands that the future of OWS is not in what it has been, but in what it has not yet imagined. After a lull in the movement, OWS, he writes, may well birth “individual initiatives combined with community spirit, assisted by technical ingenuity and the ability to learn from experience,” to shift the values that caused the crisis in the first place.  If OWS is to bring about change, it will be because against its own anti-leadership rhetoric, it has and continues to produce new leaders.

“Leadership,” Gitlin writes in Occupy Nation,

“is not abolished when movements don’t designate spokespersons and leaders refuse the label, any more than prisons are abolished when they are designated as correctional facilities. In all social groups, leaders emerge. They emerge in the course of action when acts of leadership take place. Leaders prove themselves. Some are labeled leaders, some are not. Some accept the label, others reject it. Those who get the reputation for leadership get treated as leaders. It is as simple (and as complicated) as this: Leaders are persons whom others follow—admire, heed, recognize.”

In imagining the fecundity of Occupy Wall Street’s birthing of new leaders, Gitlin focuses on that aspect of OWS that was most surprising, new, and wonderful: Its determination to open up a space for being together, thinking, and talking in public. He quotes one OWS member as saying: “Something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed.”  There was, in the encampments, “a public place to go to, where attention could readily be paid, and individuals had faces and stories.”  Above all, Gitlin writes, the Occupiers were “creating a space where leaders and ideas could emerge.”

In 1970, Hannah Arendt reflected on the Student Protests of the 1960s and said:

“This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: ‘the principle of Hope’ (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries.”

The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the presence or lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.

What Gitlin’s account of Occupy Nation makes palpable is that amidst all the excesses and competing narratives, there are still some people who aspire to be real revolutionaries. Whether that small group will produce leaders of revolutionary potential is, of course, something we cannot know. But at a time of political paralysis amidst the political, economic, and ecological crises of our time, any movement that might give birth to new leaders is something to be welcomed.

So this weekend as we prepare for next week’s conference “Does the President Matter?” pick up Todd Gitlin’s Occupy Nation. You can also here him speak at Bard College on Friday, Sept. 21. And you can have him sign your book then.


Who Killed the Middle Class?

John Cassidy over at the New Yorker has an excellent article that clarifies some of the basics about the debate over inequality. In Inequality 101, Cassidy reproduces a chart “Who Killed the Middle Class?” an article he published in 1995. The chart is fairly clear. It shows how from 1947-1973, the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor in the United States all saw their incomes rise at about the same levels. From 1973-1993, however, this equality disappeared. While the poor saw incomes decrease, and the middle-class stayed the same, the wealthy saw incomes rise, although not as much as earlier.

This chart is similar to the one I described in my Friday Post, The Way Forward.  As I wrote there:

We see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy.

Since the 1990s, the rate of inequality in our society has skyrocketed, especially for the very highest earners in the 1% and even the .1%. Cassidy provides this chart as well to make this clear.

I will be speaking with John Cassidy on May 10 in New York City. The event is part of the Hannah Arendt Center NYC Lecture Series. You can learn more about the event and RSVP here, as seating is limited.


Economic Inequality

If inequality matters, is it rational? David Grusky writes that much of the economic inequality in our economy is irrational, the result of rules and practices that irrationally keep pay high for a small group of college graduates and CEOs.

While many argue that inequality needs to be addressed by higher taxes,  Grusky argues  that inequality has causes deeper than the system of taxation:

But the takeoff in inequality cannot be explained by tax policy alone. To the contrary, as economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have shown [see their response to Grusky], there has been a dramatic rise over the last 30 years in pre-tax income inequality. The share of pre-tax income flowing to the top 1 percent of households increased from less than 10 percent in 1975 to more than 20 percent now. This spectacular increase in market inequality is of course exacerbated by changes in after-market taxation. However, because the takeoff in inequality is mainly generated within the market, we should look to market institutions to understand its main causes.

Grusky shows that beyond tax raises, it might be better to focus on two other causes of inequality: unequal opportunities in education and unjustified CEO pay. Since there remains a premium paid for college education and especially for elite college educations, increasingly the educational opportunities and preparation of more people would be one way to address income inequality. And since CEO pay has skyrocketed beyond market justification through the use of toothless boards of directors and suspect compensation consultants, leading to economic rewards beyond market justification.

Read more.


Is Economic Inequality Becoming a Problem for Americans?

Is economic inequality becoming a problem for Americans? The common sense today is that OWS has put inequality on the agenda today in a way that is new in American politics. And today Eduardo Porter makes the argument that OWS is having some traction on the question of income inequality. While Americans traditionally are tolerant of inequality, that may be changing.

Our tolerance for a widening income gap may be ebbing, however. Since Occupy Wall Street and kindred movements highlighted the issue, the chasm between the rich and ordinary workers has become a crucial talking point in the Democratic Party’s arsenal. In a speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last December, President Obama underscored how “the rungs of the ladder of opportunity had grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”

There are signs that the political strategy has traction. Inequality isn’t quite the top priority of voters: only 17 percent of Americans think it is extremely important for the government to try to reduce income and wealth inequality, according to a Gallup survey last November. That is about half the share that said reigniting economic growth was crucial.

Seventeen percent seem a low number of citizens concerned about inequality, but looking deeper, Porter argues that attitudes are changing.

A slightly different question indicates views have changed: 29 percent said it was extremely important for the government to increase equality of opportunity. More significant, 41 percent said that there was not much opportunity in America, up from 17 percent in 1998.

Statistics on income mobility are notoriously hard to measure and contested, but the surveys indicate that optimistic Americans are losing that sense of mobility and possibility. Even if people can and do often earn more than their parents, the vast rifts opening up between rich and middle class means that increasingly Americans live in different worlds. These vast divisions are now seen as a problem not only by liberals, but also by conservatives like Charles Murray, whose book Coming Apart bemoans the loss of a common sense of American values. There is a way in which the truly extraordinary gaps in income are unraveling the social contract that holds the country together.

In other words, even for those who are accepting of inequality and who believe in a meritocracy, excessive inequality cannot be justified.  As Porter writes:

One doesn’t have to believe in equality to be concerned about these trends. Once inequality becomes very acute, it breeds resentment and political instability, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. It can produce political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system between haves and have-nots, making it more difficult for governments to address imbalances and respond to brewing crises. That too can undermine economic growth, let alone democracy.

Read more here.



What Has Happened to Occupy Wall Street?

A few hundred people gathered at the capitol today as part of Occupy Congress. Why so few?

Last Fall Occupy Wall Street movement sprouted 2,779 chapters around the nation and captured the attention of the 1% as well as much of the 99%. In some ways, the movement has had an impact. A number of young people and even some older people tasted the sweet nectar of political action, and there are individuals and groups still energized to take on the debilitating as well as embarrassing income inequality and political corruption that is endangering our system of government.

These issues are now on the agenda. Just today the New York Times ran a front-page story on Mitt Romney being one of the 1%. Romney, tone-deaf as usual, characterized his $374,327 income from speaking fees as “not very much” money; this was his way of justifying paying only 15% of his income in taxes because his earnings are primarily from investments.

And yet, it is undeniable that the movement has fizzled. One hears almost nothing about Occupy Wall Street these days. A long-planned day of action Occupying Congress drew barely a few hundred souls.

Democratic politicians—not to mention Republicans— around the country are resisting increasing taxes on the highest earners. Accountability on Wall Street and in Washington for the crisis is a fantasy. And serious talk of reforming our campaign finance system is barely audible. What happened? Why did a movement that enraptured the nation just a few months ago fade so quickly? What is the fate of the promise to rejuvenate politics and bring real change?

It cannot simply be the weather (unseasonably warm anyway) that has frustrated the protests. Could it be the glimmer of economic recovery that has changed the focus from protest to profits? Possibly. But still, the alacrity with which the energy and spiritedness of the protests fled from public consciousness is shocking.

I can’t but think the real reason for the disappearance is disillusionment and failure. A movement that swept the nation, changed the discourse, and empowered thousands has, in the end, accomplished almost nothing concrete. No laws changed. No new candidates or leaders emerged. And the major issues that galvanized the country—income inequality and political corruption—have seemingly faded from view. With few successes to point to, many of the protesters appear ready to move on. How could this be?

The Occupy Wall Street website still promises, “The Revolution Continues.” But the worry about the future is palpable on the forum page titled:

Forum Post: What the fu** has happened to occupy wall st.

There, you can find the following post by Thrasymaque that has generated enormous response.

OWS was based on an idea that was/is needed in many Arab countries: a revolution. Because of this, OWS categorically refused to make demands. They wanted to topple the government, not work with it. Because US doesn’t need a revolution and most people don’t want one, the energy faded away with the coming of winter. Anarchism and communism have never been very strong in America. Their protest was never expected to last very long. Anarchists always destroy there (sic) own selves.

Thrasymaque gets much of this right. Too many in the movement insisted on rejecting all goals or ends. Some of those had the fantastic goal of overthrowing the government. Others did not know what they wanted. And some really were swept up in the process of trying to figure out what they wanted. There was joy in public action and the thrill of debate and engagement. Much was beautiful and spontaneous. But the fact is that without a concrete goal and without leaders to mold and guide the passions of the people, the movement fizzled.

For those of us who hoped that Occupy Wall Street might rise to the moment and produce a leader or leaders to fill the dangerous vacuum in leadership in this country, the insistence on a leaderless revolution was a huge mistake; so too was the rejection of all issues or goals. The result is that we have seemingly squandered a movement of incredible power and promise.

The real problems we face as a country—the corruption of our political process, the decimation of the middle class, and the malaise of decline—persist. The establishment in Washington and Wall Street breathe a sigh of relief and seem more set in their ways then ever. Congress is paralyzed. Meanwhile, the wheels of finance are turning again. The failure of a popular movement that might have challenged the status quo has left those in power more secure in their privileges. From the winds of change, it seems we have settled into a desert of despair.

In my first post on Occupy Wall Street back on Oct. 5th, I quoted Hannah Arendt’s reflection on the Student Protests of the 1960s:

This situation need not lead to a revolution. For one thing, it can end in counterrevolution, the establishment of dictatorships, and, for another, it can end in total anticlimax: it need not lead to anything. No one alive today knows anything about a coming revolution: ‘the principle of Hope’ (Ernst Bloch) certainly gives no sort of guarantee. At the moment one prerequisite for a coming revolution is lacking: a group of real revolutionaries.

The reason that a revolutionary moment will succeed or fail to turn into a real transformation is the lack of real revolutionaries; revolutionaries, Arendt writes, are people who face the reality of the present and think deeply about meaningful responses and alternatives.

I asked then: “Is there a serious and thoughtful confrontation with reality that underlies Occupy Wall Street?”

I asked from a position of hope.  I fear that the answer, at least so far must be no. We are closer now to counterrevolution than revolution, but most plainly we face anticlimax. Most palpably, in the year of one of the most consequent elections in our nations history,  we are missing a leader, a voice, that offers a meaningful and powerful agenda for change, let alone a revolution.

We must ask ourselves: Why is it that this crisis, and this movement, failed to produced revolutionaries?



The Disenfranchisement of Democracy

Andrew Sullivan has an excellent essay in The Daily Beast about the undeniable allure of the Occupy Wall Street protests, in spite of what he calls “the hippie problem.” As much as there are elements of the protests and the protesters that sound naïve and even coarse, as much as they at times seem out of touch, there is a core truth to the Occupy Wall Street movements that is so profound that it cannot be denied. In short, we must agree with the basic idea: that our democracy and our political system are broken. Here is Sullivan:

The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a “democratic deficit” gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere, the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.

If you have any doubt that we have lost all trust in our democratic government (and who has such doubts), read this front-page article in today’s NY Times.

A healthy democracy needs at least two things.

First, a strong middle class. As thinkers from Aristotle to Arendt have emphasized, political life requires that the people share a common world. Those who are too rich or too poor are excluded from what the people share; they exist often on the fringes of that consensus of common sense.  It is the middle classes that determine a strong and meaningful sense of what the people are and give depth and sense to the public world. The best Constitution, Aristotle writes in his Politics, is one that encourages the largest middle class. The loss of our middle class has weakened that common sense and threatens our political system.

Second, a healthy democracy needs a shared factual world. As Hannah Arendt has argued, without a shared factual world, we cannot talk, argue, or disagree with others; we are left with nothing to do but talk to those with whom we already agree. In a world without facts, we risk undermining the venture of politics as Arendt understood it: to create together a common world, one as unruly, disorderly, and argumentative as such togetherness demands.

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College convenes a conference exploring the loss of fact and the attack on common sense that have corroded our political world and fed our unprecedented distrust of politics. The conference—Truthtellng: Democracy in an Age Without Facts—is this weekend, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28-29. You can watch the conference via live web simulcast by going to the Arendt Center website on Friday, beginning at 10:30 am.

To read more of Andrew Sullivan’s article, click here.



The Robin Hood Tax?

Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.

The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?

The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:

Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.

The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn’t address leverage, and it doesn’t target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.

What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade).  Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.

Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.

Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.

So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:

1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.

2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.

3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the “Uptick Rule,” a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.

4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.

While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument.  In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.

Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.

If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let’s use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let’s have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.