Amor Mundi 3/20/16

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.

Real Talk

safe space

Robert Boyers defends real talk and worries about the anti-intellectualism of safe spaces. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boyers echoes Hannah Arendt’s insistence that we insist on using words in ways that have distinct meanings. “[I]t is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked.” Consider the idea of “banality.” Find the rest of this piece here on Medium.

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A Future For You, A Future For Me

student protests at Downing StreetDavid Graeber ties the government of austerity in the UK to a feeling of hopelessness, and wonders if there isn’t a kind of despair fatigue setting in: “Meanwhile, on the streets and council estates, Britain is undergoing a sea change, a veritable efflorescence of resistance. It’s very hard to know the real scale of it because, unlike in generations past, the media largely refuses to report on it. Perhaps this is because when they do, the results are rarely what they expect. On May 9, 2015, the day after the Tory election victory was declared, before the inevitable new round of cuts could even be announced, there was a minor riot in front of the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street. Hundreds of student activists clashed with police; several of them, on being punched and kicked by uniformed officers, actually punched back; paint bombs were thrown, flares set off, and the Women of World War II memorial was daubed with the familiar slogan “Fuck Tory Scum.” The editors of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail decided that the public mood was such that it might even be possible to actually report this, and ran a huge spread with splashy pictures under the headline “Anarchist Mob Planning Summer of Thuggery.” Within twenty-four hours, they were horrified to discover that in the comments section, opinion among their own readers was running something like five to one in favor of anarchist thuggery. Even the “desecration” of the memorial didn’t raise much in the way of hackles. After all, most Britons are well aware that the first thing veterans did, on returning from the war, was oust Churchill’s sitting Tory government and vote in one that promised to preside over the creation of a modern welfare state. This is precisely the work the current inhabitants of Downing Street are trying to dismantle. The rioters were simply defending those veterans’ legacy and enunciating what they, if alive, would most likely be saying themselves. Between student occupations, housing occupations, street actions, and a revival of radical unionism, there has been an unprecedented upswell of resistance. But even more important, it has begun, however haltingly, to take on a very different spirit than the desperate, rear-guard actions of years past. After all, even the legendary poll-tax riots that dislodged Thatcher were either backward-looking or, alternately, bitter and nihilistic. Class War’s slogans (“The Royal Question: Hanging or Shooting?”) were perhaps charmingly provocative, but hardly utopian. This is where the notion of despair fatigue comes in….One might argue that its beginnings were already visible in popular culture. Witness the emergence of the Scottish socialist school of science fiction, which, after the relentless dystopianism of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led the way to a broader trend by toying with redemptive futures once again. Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over? And is this not a necessary moment of reset before trying to imagine what a genuinely revolutionary twenty-first century might actually be like?”


The Death and Life of Great American Infrastructure

infrastructureResponding to the 29-hour, repair related closure of Washington D.C.’s Metro system earlier this week, Phillip Kennicot thinks that we should be ashamed of ourselves: “Metro opened a decade after the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with the fruition of its Mission 66 program, another major investment in modernizing the country’s federal infrastructure. If Metro was to turn the capital into an efficient and modern city, Mission 66 would restore America’s neglected and overburdened national parks, with new visitor centers and better access for a more mobile population. Aesthetics played a major role in this plan, too, with architects such as Richard Neutra tasked with creating a more contemporary look for park buildings… There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment. But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too. Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.”


Republican Corruption

visual example of corruptionJim Sleeper rightly argues that the offense in Donald Trump’s campaign is not racism or fascism, but corruption. Trump is boorish, low class, narcissistic, and mean. He is uncurious and self-satisfied in his enormous ignorance. His promotion of violence at his rallies is childish. He is a demagogue. Yes, Trump is possessed of a certain genius in marketing. But how does that qualify him to be President? Only because of a fundamental corruption.

“The American republic’s founders wondered a lot about whether people could balance wealth-making with truth-seeking and public decision-making about the modes of wealth-making itself. As soon as King George III was gone, they took a hard look at the people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hot off the press in the mid-1770s, they saw that people can lose their freedom not to a violent coup but to a smile and friendly swagger if they’ve tired of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied into servitude—or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough.

“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. Even as Benjamin Franklin voted for the Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other…”

The more that impulse-buying and escapism become the measures of our well-being, the more we’re like flies trapped in the spider’s web of the 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines with which lenders, insurers, pharmaceutical producers are dissolving our freedoms, not out of malevolence or conspiracy but out of mindless, routinized greed. We resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes, elaborate home-security systems, and vapid spectacles punctuated by mob-like cries for an American Augustus who’ll make our nation great again. American founders believed that, as the historian Gordon Wood puts it,

“It was not force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people… The obsessive term was luxury, both a cause and a symptom of social sickness. This… love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them… unfit and undesiring to serve the state.”

Now a purveyor of illusions of luxury in his palace hotels and casinos has persuaded millions of Americans to serve him as the head of their state. But a liberal capitalist republic needs citizens who voluntarily uphold and impart to one another sturdy public virtues and beliefs such as reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests.”

Hannah Arendt also saw that the danger to the American republic was the corruption of the people and not the corruption of government.

“Corruption and perversion are more pernicious, and at the same time more likely to occur, in an egalitarian republic than in any other form of government. Schematically speaking, they come to pass when private interests invade the public domain, that is, they spring from below and not from above…. [U]nder conditions, not of prosperity as such, but of a rapid and constant economic growth, that is, of a constantly increasing expansion of the private realm—and these were of course the conditions of the modern age—the dangers of corruption and perversion were much more likely to arise from private interests than from public power.”

Beyond his boorishness and immaturity, Trumps’ popularity rests on his unabashed embrace of winning, wealth, and wish fulfillment as opposed to publicly-oriented citizenship as the quintessence of life. —RB

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Who Wouldn’t Be Angry?

laborCharles Murray has as good an understanding of the Trump phenomenon as anyone: “White working-class males were the archetypal “Reagan Democrats” in the early 1980s and are often described as the core of support for Mr. Trump. But the grievances of this group are often misunderstood. It is a mistake to suggest that they are lashing out irrationally against people who don’t look like themselves. There are certainly elements of racism and xenophobia in Trumpism, as I myself have discovered on Twitter and Facebook after writing critically about Mr. Trump. But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s. During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males. During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015. Economists still argue about the net effect of these events on the American job market. But for someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational. Add to this the fact that white working-class men are looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses—and that life in their communities is falling apart. To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is nothing conservative about how they want to fix things. They want a now indifferent government to act on their behalf, big time. If Bernie Sanders were passionate about immigration, the rest of his ideology would have a lot more in common with Trumpism than conservatism does. As a political matter, it is not a problem that Mr. Sanders doesn’t share the traditional American meanings of liberty and individualism. Neither does Mr. Trump. Neither, any longer, do many in the white working class. They have joined the other defectors from the American creed.” What Murray doesn’t say, but should, is that Trump is mean, narcissistic, and violent in ways that Sanders is not.


Truths, Facts, Lies

trial by combatJill Lepore muses about the nature of truth: “Historians don’t rely on thought experiments to explain their ideas, but they do like little stories. When I was eight or nine years old, a rotten kid down the street stole my baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger that I’d bought with money I’d earned delivering newspapers, and on whose barrel I’d painted my last name with my mother’s nail polish, peach-plum pink. “Give it back,” I told that kid when I stomped over to his house, where I found him practicing his swing in the back yard. “Nope,” he said. “It’s mine.” Ha, I scoffed. “Oh, yeah? Then why does it have my name on it?” Here he got wily. He said that my last name was also the name of his baseball team in the town in Italy that he was from, and that everyone there had bats like this. It was a dumb story. “You’re a liar,” I pointed out. “It’s mine.” “Prove it,” he said, poking me in the chest with the bat. The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof. Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts…I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.”


Arendt And America

early americaBenjamin Aldes Wurgaft has a review of Richard King’s new Arendt and America. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wurgaft argues that life as an immigrant in America had an important impact on Arendt’s thinking.   “IN 1975, AT THE FUNERAL of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hans Jonas asked a counterfactual question. Jonas, a friend of Arendt’s since their days as students of Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, before they both took flight from the rise of fascism in Europe and came to North America, noted that she first took an interest in politics during a sojourn in Paris. But, he asked, “[W]hat would have become of that, had she not come to these [American] shores — who knows? It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought. America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.” Arendt and America, Richard King’s ambitious and illuminating new book, is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt, and its central question is related to Jonas’s. How did America change Arendt? If Jonas was correct that the uncategorizable Arendt had found, in American political history and thought, a new way beyond the impasse of left and right, what exactly was that path? And what might Arendt have written in the book on the United States she and her husband Heinrich Blücher dreamed of writing but never wrote?”


Stranger Than Non-Fiction

ta-nehisi coatesPreviewing his take on the superhero Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing how reading comic books influenced his journalism: “Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more…But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.”


Amor Mundi 1/31/16

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-upPardon Me

eichmann letterIsabel Kershner in the New York Times reports that a pardon request by Adolf Eichmann was recently discovered–along with other original documents from his 1961 trial. “After he was convicted and sentenced to death in Israel for his role in the annihilation of millions of Jews by Nazi Germany, Adolf Eichmann pleaded for his own life. ‘There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders,’ pleaded Eichmann–the Nazi war criminal who oversaw the lethal logistics of the Holocaust–in a letter dated May 29, 1962, the day that Israel’s Supreme Court rejected his appeal. Eichmann asked the Israeli president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, for a pardon, arguing, ‘I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.'” Eichmann’s attempt to deny responsibility mirrors his arguments at his trial. But Kershner goes further and wrongly suggests that Arendt agreed with Eichmann’s appraisal. Kershner writes: “Eichmann’s role and influence in the Nazi machine has been the subject of historical debate. David Cesarani, a historian of 20th-century Jewish life who died last year, wrote a biography of Eichmann that cast him as a committed subscriber to Nazi ideology, rebutting the author Hannah Arendt’s famous appraisal of him as a banal bureaucrat who simply followed orders.”

Kershner’s suggestion that Arendt thought Eichmann was a bureaucrat who simply followed orders is a common misunderstanding. Over and again in Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt says that the defense that he was following orders was Eichmann’s own argument, and she rejects it. While Eichmann was a bureaucrat, Arendt emphasizes that he also disobeyed orders when those orders contradicted what he took to be Hitler’s commands or his understanding of Nazi policy. Eichmann was not simply a follower of orders; he also took initiative and sought to innovate in carrying out his genocidal tasks. Quite simply, what Arendt means by calling Eichmann’s banal is not the banality of a bureaucrat who simply follows orders. That mistaken interpretation of Eichmann was made famous by Stanley Milgram. Arendt rejects Milgram’s conclusion that all of us have a bit of Eichmann in ourselves and that normal people obey orders they don’t support. On the contrary, Arendt argues that “obedience and support are the same.”

The claim that Arendt saw Eichmann as a banal bureaucrat mistakes Arendt’s argument about banality. To be banal is not to follow orders; it is to be thoughtless. Eichmann was banal because he could not think from the perspective of others. As I write in the latest volume of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, “Locked in the logical coherence of his own simplified view of the world, Eichmann held fast to the truths that gave meaning to his fantastic version of the world. In short, Eichmann was a dedicated Nazi. He sought and worked for a Nazi victory, and he was willing to do anything and everything within his power to contribute to the cause. He did not think hard or at all about that cause; Arendt wonders if he really understood it. But Arendt understands that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness names his willingness to do anything for a cause. What drove Eichmann to become a dedicated mass murderer was less hatred than a deep need to serve the Nazi movement that gave his life weight and importance.” Bureaucrats can be thoughtless, of course. but Arendt saw that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness was not the thoughtlessness of a bureaucrat so much as it was driven by a deep need to find meaning and worth in belonging to the Nazi movement. She does not see him as simply following orders. The reason he must be hung, as she argues he must, is not that he obeyed orders but that he supported those orders. Eichmann claimed–and there is evidence to support him–that he personally disagreed with some of the orders. But the facts are that he overcame his objections and fully and enthusiastically carried out those orders. Eichmann took pride in the fact that he suppressed his personal and subjective revulsion and acted heroically for the good of a cause larger than himself. He did so, as Arendt saw, because he found his self worth in belonging to a world-historical movement. Read more here.–RB

Occupying a Partisan Fragment

ammon bundyJedediah Purdy, at the end of the armed standoff over public lands in Oregon, considers Ammon Bundy and the other occupiers: “Finicum had told reporters that he would rather die in the occupation than go to jail. He seems to have regarded this as the proper and lawful attitude of a citizen. The Malheur occupation, which was triggered by disputes over ranchers’ use of public lands, has also been a theatrical public argument about the scope of legal violence in America. For nearly four weeks after the Bundys and their allies occupied Malheur, on January 2nd, it was the federal government that stood down as armed men (and a few women) defied its authority, used its buildings as a staging ground for a thoroughly improbable scheme to bring public lands under state and local control, and promised to meet force with force. As LaVoy Finicum must have known, a person facing arrest is not entitled to meet force with force, but really the occupiers were promising to meet law with counter-law. In their constitutional cosmology, a localist version of rock-ribbed originalism, they were the law in Malheur, and the federal agents the usurpers. Federal agents tolerated this secessionist theatre, allowing the occupiers to leave the refuge for groceries, permitting supporters to join the occupation, and even keeping electricity flowing to Malheur headquarters. But this indulgent attitude, presumably intended to avoid repeating the disastrous nineteen-nineties confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, could not last indefinitely. There could not be two governments in Malheur. The federal stance, which looked from the outside like diplomacy, turned out to be police strategy instead. When Ammon Bundy and other leaders left the refuge, they were done…. It is not a coincidence that only white men have filled this role, nor that the Ku Klux Klan is the major example of such vigilantism in the hundred and fifty years since the Civil War. That the Bundys imagined that their gathering could speak for ‘the people’ of the Western states, let alone of the country, revealed how anachronistic and narrow their vision of the country was. All ‘occupy’ movements, whatever they call themselves, have the problem that they claim to represent the people while being, in fact, a partisan fragment.”

Ideology Critique

bernie sandersJonathan Chait goes beyond the silly complaint that Bernie Sanders is an idealist or that he won’t be able to get all of his proposed policies passed. Idealism is hardly a sin. Indeed it is a requirement for leadership. But Chait finds a deeper worry in Sanders’s candidacy. “Note that Sanders, asked about Republican opposition to his proposals, defined that opposition as ‘protecting the interest of the wealthy and the powerful.’ It is certainly true that fealty to the interests of the rich heavily colors Republican policy. But Sanders is not merely presenting corruption as one factor. It is the entirety of it. Likewise, Sanders has difficulty imagining any reason other than corruption to explain disagreements by fellow Democrats, which he relentlessly attributes to the nefarious influence of corporate wealth. One does not have to dismiss the political power of massed wealth to acknowledge that other things influence the conclusions drawn by Americans who don’t share Sanders’s full diagnosis. In reality, people have organic reasons to vote Republican. Some of them care more about social issues or foreign policy than economics. Sanders would embrace many concepts–‘socialism,’ big government in the abstract, and middle-class tax increases–that register badly with the public. People are very reluctant to give up their health insurance, even if it is true that Sanders could give them something better. What’s more, the interests of the wealthy do not cut as cleanly as Sanders indicates. It’s true that business and the rich tend to oppose parts of his program like higher taxes on the rich, more generous social insurance, and tougher regulation of finance. But the Obama administration’s stimulus encountered intense Republican opposition even though it did not pose a threat to any business interests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce even endorsed the stimulus, which profited business both directly (by pumping billions into contracts for projects like infrastructure) and indirectly (by goosing public demand for its members’ products). That did not stop 100 percent of House Republicans from opposing it. Nor did the unified opposition of the business lobby dissuade Republicans from holding the debt ceiling hostage in 2011, or persuade them to pass immigration reform in 2013. Sanders currently proposes a massive infrastructure program, which would make lots of money for the construction industry. Clearly, subservience to big business only goes so far in explaining Republican behavior. The depiction of conservatism as a mere cover for greed is a habit Sanders indulges over and over.”

In short, Chait worries that there is a bit too much of the ideological true believer in Sanders, that he is someone who sees the entire world and all the problems of the world through one single lens: the evils of wealthy people and capitalism. Hannah Arendt argues that “an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.” We are all subject to the charm of ideology now and then. But ideologies become problematic, and dangerous, when they are believed. Arendt writes: “Ideologies are harmless, uncritical and arbitrary opinions only as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoics, everything follows as comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted…. The curious logicality of all isms, their simpleminded trust in the salvation of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.” There is, no doubt, some truth behind Sanders’s relentless focus on income inequality and political corruption. The question Chait raises is whether focusing so sharply on one explanation for our political dysfunction purports to reveal a common truth but actually expresses a partisan fragment.–RB

amor_mundi_sign-upA Muslim in the West

laila lalamiWyatt Mason in the NYRB discusses Laila Lalami’s writing about being a Muslim in the West. “Shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, an essay by the Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami appeared in The New York Times Magazine. In ‘My Life as a Muslim in the West’s “Gray Zone,”‘ Lalami, whose Ph.D. is in linguistics and who regularly produces opinion pieces, criticism, and essays on a range of cultural and human rights subjects, discussed some of the challenges she has faced during her quarter-century as a Muslim immigrant to the United States: ‘Some months ago, I gave a reading from my most recent novel in Scottsdale, Ariz. During the discussion that followed, a woman asked me to talk about my upbringing in Morocco. It’s natural for readers to be curious about a writer they’ve come to hear, I told myself. I continued to tell myself this even after the conversation drifted to Islam, and then to ISIS. Eventually, another woman raised her hand and said that the only Muslims she saw when she turned on the television were extremists. “Why aren’t we hearing more from people like you?” she asked me. “You are,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Right now.” I wanted to tell her that there were plenty of ordinary Muslims in this country. We come in all races and ethnicities. Some of us are more visible by virtue of beards or head scarves. Others are less conspicuous, unless they give book talks and it becomes clear that they, too, identify as Muslims.'” Mason continues, at the end of his essay: “As I write this, Donald Trump has spent the past few weeks hinting at and then saying explicitly that were he elected president, he would establish a database to track Muslims in the United States. That the outcry against such stupidity has been swift comes as no less a relief than his continued and increasing lead over his fellow Republican candidates remains a harbinger of a profound civic disorder. But such clearly unacceptable ideas–historically unacceptable; morally unacceptable; intellectually unacceptable; constitutionally unacceptable–have been muddled further by reactions to the horrendous news that a Muslim couple in San Bernardino (the wife swore her allegiance to ISIS on Facebook) slaughtered fourteen people at an event for employees of the county Public Health Department where the husband worked. ‘Our nation is under siege,’ Chris Christie said, campaigning in Iowa, after hearing of the shooting. ‘What I believe we’re facing is the next world war. This is what we’re in right now, already.’ And Jeb Bush broadsided that ‘they have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.’ That the prior week’s shooting at a Planned Parenthood by a devout Christian gunman did not produce a similar rhetorical outcry by the same candidates is, unambiguously, a difference based in race–in racism. It is a clear call to people of conscience that to be Muslim in America right now is to be enduring a period of terror in the land of the free. As Lalami wrote in The New York Times Magazine: ‘Terrorist attacks affect all of us in the same way: We experience sorrow and anger at the loss of life. For Muslims, however, there is an additional layer of grief as we become subjects of suspicion. Muslims are called upon to condemn terrorism, but no matter how often or how loud or how clear the condemnations, the calls remain. Imagine if, after every mass shooting in a school or a movie theater in the United States, young white men in this country were told that they must publicly denounce gun violence. The reason this is not the case is that we presume each young white man to be solely responsible for his actions, whereas Muslims are held collectively responsible. To be a Muslim in the West is to be constantly on trial.'”

What If the World Were…

flat earthLizzie Wade thinks there’s something to admire in those who think the world is flat: “Take a look especially at the tweet that started it all: ‘The cities in the background are approx. 16 miles apart … where is the curve? please explain this.’ There’s something touchingly genuine about this to me, some deep seated desire to work through confusion and toward truth. This isn’t a man who never learned science, or who has some fundamentalist objection to examining empirical evidence about the world. This is a man who has looked at the world around him and decided that mainstream science isn’t doing a good job at explaining what he sees. So he’s collecting evidence, seeking out literature by well-versed ‘experts,’ and working out a better theory on his own. This is the hallmark of people I’ve come to think of as outsider physicists. You might know them by other names: loons, kooks, crackpots. Most scientists and science writers consider them a nuisance, as they often clog up our inboxes and even (shudder) voicemails with their wacky theories, desperate for validation. I occasionally get those emails, and I almost always ignore them. But years ago, the physicist-turned-science-writer Margaret Wertheim decided to pay attention to the fringe theories that came her way. ‘The Big Bang theory accepted by a majority of scientists constitutes the greatest blunder and misinterpretation in the history of cosmology.’ The universe is a ’12 lobed Raspberry in a dodecahedral configuration.’ And oh so many more. Some had an internal logic she could follow. Others made no sense at all. But as she wrote in her 2011 book Physics on the Fringe, their architects all shared a sense that physics had veered woefully off-track somewhere around the time it started relying on differential equations to describe invisible phenomenon, from magnetic fields to Higgs bosons. In the last 150 years or so, physics has taken a turn away from the intuitive and toward the abstract. It’s not rolling balls and falling apples anymore; it’s quantum states and curved spacetime. (And let’s not even get into string theory, which might as well be an outsider theory itself for all the experimental evidence it has backing it up–i.e., none so far.) That turn has left some people–perhaps B.o.B included–extremely unsettled. Physics is supposed to be about understanding the world I live in, they think. But I don’t see any time dilation/entangled quarks/curvature of the Earth when I look around me. Why should I trust this math I can’t understand over what I see with my own eyes?” The parting of science and common sense is one of the starting points of Arendt’s The Human Condition. The true world of science is one increasingly inaccessible to human understanding and human speech–even leading scientists know an increasingly partial and specialized bit of truth and cannot understand and explain what their colleagues in other fields know. One result is what Arendt calls world alienation, a skepticism about common sense. This loss of a faith in the common world is the root of our increasing inability to distinguish truth from lies.

A Private Public Life

hillary clintonAn anonymous blogger (apparently scared of recrimination) writes on Blue Nation Review about her experience reading all of the emails Hillary Clinton wrote that were released during the month of August. The blogger, who had been a Clinton hater, fell for the former Secretary of State while reading her immense paper trail. “Her tenure as Secretary of State, of course, led to the bogus email scandal, which in turn led to the slow-drip release of the emails on her home server. I decided I was going to read them. In those emails, I discovered a Hillary Clinton I didn’t even know existed. I found a woman who cared about employees who lost loved ones. I found a woman who, without exception, took time to write notes of condolence and notes of congratulations, no matter how busy she was. I found a woman who could be a tough negotiator and firm in her expectations, but still had a moment to write a friend with encouragement in tough times. She worried over people she didn’t know, and she worried over those she did. And everywhere she went, her concern for women and children was clearly the first and foremost thing on her mind. In those emails, I also found a woman who seemed to understand power and how to use it wisely. A woman of formidable intellect who actually understood the nuances of a thing, and how to strike a tough bargain. I read every single one of the emails released in August, and what I found was someone who actually gave a damn about the country, the Democratic party, and all of our futures. She watched along with all of us as the Affordable Care Act made its way through Congress, with the same anxiety and aggravation many of us felt, and she rejoiced when it finally passed. She knew the Democrats who voted against it in the House, and she knew the ones who put their political careers on the line in support of it. The Hillary caricature you see in the press is not the Hillary Clinton I came to know by reading those emails. Yes, she had powerful friends in powerful places–though I didn’t actually see any emails from Goldman Sachs. And yes, she approached those friends the very same way she approached people on her staff, or people she met in the course of being Secretary of State. She rejoiced in their joys and shared their sorrows. They weren’t just ticks on a political scoreboard. They were friends. You could tell there were some squabbles internally with other members of the Obama administration, but there was also unflagging, utmost respect for the man who occupied the White House–the office she fought so valiantly to attain.” Clinton has been tone deaf to the email scandal. At the same time, the assumption behind the email scandal is that public employees have no right to private communication. Such an assumption will inevitably lead public figures to avoid exactly the kind of passionate and honest emails that the anonymous blogger finds in the cache of Clinton’s correspondence. If public figures can’t expect some privacy, how will they ever engage in the kind of risky, spontaneous, and honest conversation that is the soil of all thinking?–RB

Can We Be Heroes?

superheroesRamzi Fawaz considers the utopian potential of the comic book superhero and contrasts it with an approach derived from identity politics: “If one were to try and explain this question by turning to recent public debates about superhero comics, we might put forward the answer: ‘diversity.’ Yet this term and its shifting meanings–variety, difference, or representational equality–would have rung false to my thirteen year old ears. It was not simply the fact of Storm’s ‘diverse’ background as Kenyan, immigrant, woman, or mutant that drew me to her, but rather her ethical orientation towards those around her, her response to human and mutant differences, and her familial bond with her fellow X-Men. These were qualities significantly shaped by her distinct differences, but not identical to them. This was not any traditional idea of diversity then, understood as the mere fact that different kinds of people exist. Rather what Storm and the X-Men embodied was true heterogeneity: not merely the fact of many kinds of people but what those people do in relation to their differences. As I became a dedicated comic book fan, I realized that every issue of the X-Men was both an extended meditation on the fact that people are different from one another, and that this reality requires each and every person to forge substantive, meaningful, intelligent responses to those differences. As a teenage reader, I simply took this fact for granted as part of the pleasures of reading superhero comics. As a scholar years later, I came to realize that the ability to respond to differences and forge meaningful relationships across them was a capacity, a super-power if you will, that comics could train their readers to exercise, an imaginative skill fit for a truly heterogeneous world…. Recent public dialogue about the rapidly diversifying ranks of superhero comic books have overwhelmingly celebrated the increased racial, gender, sexual, and religious variety of America’s greatest fictional heroes. Yet every time a news outlet lauds the major comics companies for introducing a gay superhero, or a Pakistani superhero, or a classically male superhero replaced by a powerful woman, the historian in me thinks, ‘but comics were doing that in 1972, so what’s the big deal now?’ Certainly, one potentially distinct element of today’s push for diversity is the range of ‘real-world’ or identifiable differences comics are willing to name and represent on the comic book page. But in writing The New Mutants, I came to the conclusion that without an underlying democratic ethos or worldview, such real-world differences have little meaning.”

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

What Is Political Theory?

political theorySheldon S. Wolin (August 4, 1922 – October 21, 2015) was one of the most important American political theorists of the 20th century. Wolin authored critical works such as Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory, Presence of the Past: Essays on State and the Constitution, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, and Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, Wolin was the founding editor of the influential journal democracy (1981-1983), with the help Nicholas Xenos. In memory of Wolin, we discuss the work of political theory with Nicholas Xenos.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidtJana V. Schmidt’s research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including “continental” philosophy and critical theory), and literature’s relation to violence. One nodal point for these inquiries has been the problem of reconciliation in the aftermath of the Holocaust. How to constitute a “world” after 1945 and how to integrate the victims’ memories into such world-making are crucial questions for her work. Hannah Arendt’s thought on conciliation, her literary writings, and her notion of world have shaped her answers to these questions in her dissertation, “An Aesthetics of Reconciliation – Intersubjectivity after the End of Community, 1945-1970.” Jana’s next project will investigate the figure of the survivor in postwar American literature and public Holocaust discourses. Other interests include Jewish studies, psychoanalysis, phenomenology, memory and memorialization, and the study of exile. An essay on the American painter Philip Guston and Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the figure is forthcoming with Bloomsbury. Jana holds an MA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is looking forward to teaching the First Year Seminar at Bard.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through at: with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

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, Hans Teerds discusses how action and interaction both relate to the public space but how they differ significantly in where and how they occur in the world in the Quote of the Week. Horace reflects on how we can all live life to its fullest in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we realize the types of affairs conducted in the intimate kitchens of communist systems in this week’s Library feature.

busy nobody

Busy Nobody

By Charles Snyder

“The reality is that ‘the Nazis are men like ourselves’: the nightmare is that they have shown, have proven beyond doubt what man is capable of.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and Flight” in Essays in Understanding 1930-1954

It was Aristotle who first developed the idea that human beings have a capacity for the greatest good and the most terrible acts of wickedness. On this view, humans represent both the best and worst of animal life (Politics). Human wickedness emerges out of the very same capacity for excellence. The spontaneity that causes human beings to create and preserve through the ages the communal space of the polis, and exercise freely therein the capacity for the political excellence of phronēsis (practical wisdom), is “open to being used for contrary ends.” In view of the atrocities of the previous century, in particular, the murderous momentum of totalitarian governments, we certainly don’t require today a logical demonstration that humans are capable of becoming an unprecedented sort of beast. We know that we beasts have the strange capacity to maintain perverse relations with the polis, relations which facilitate new forms of terror and criminality that animals other than human will surely remain forever incapable. Continue reading


Amor Mundi 5/3/15

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-upOur Daily Routine

nazi trialAnna Sauerbrey has an op-ed in the NY Times about the ongoing trial of Oskar Gröning, what will likely be the last trial of a German Nazi for crimes against humanity. One captivating aspect of the trial is that Gröning has long admitted to his role in the genocide and expressed regret for it. For Sauerbrey, the core of the trial is Gröning’s uncanny banality. “At the trial, Mr. Gröning said that from his perspective, the killing of the Hungarian Jews, which had been meticulously planned and for which several new gas chambers had been built in Auschwitz, was ‘routine.’ What shocked him were merely individual outbursts of violence, like an SS man beating a crying infant to death. The killings in the gas chambers, he said, were ‘orderly’ and ‘clean.’ He rarely said the word ‘murder.’ ‘In 24 hours you could take care of 5,000 people,’ he said. ‘After all, that’s how things went in a concentration camp.’ Mr. Gröning’s language naturally makes one think of Adolf Eichmann, and how his detached explanation of his role as a bureaucrat, at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, led Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase ‘the banality of evil.’ Ms. Arendt was, some say, fooled by the defendant, and that Eichmann had embraced the hatred fueling the killing machine. But if Ms. Arendt was wrong about Eichmann, she was on to something, something we now see in what Mr. Gröning is saying. It is the horrifying, mind-wrecking banality of evil condensed in a sentence like ‘that’s how things went in a concentration camp’ that has sustained the German self-narrative of guilt, much more than compassion ever could have. Mr. Gröning makes us question ourselves. I, too, am afraid I wouldn’t have resisted. The victims tell us: We must never forget. The perpetrators say: We might do it again.” Arendt did not accept Eichmann’s claim that he was a mere bureaucrat; she insisted that he chose to participate in genocide and should be killed for his acts. More importantly, she agreed with Sauerbrey that the key question of the Eichmann trial was why some Germans chose to resist Nazi evil while others participated thoughtlessly. The question was, and remains, thus: why could people like Gröning conclude that the orderly planned killing of Jews was routine even as they were shocked by disorderly outbursts of violence? After a semester teaching a course on moral and political courage, it is now clear that what separates those who resist from those who cooperate is simple: it is character. The people who resist simply have an idea of themselves that disallows them from doing certain things. They have a sense of self and the courage to be who they are no matter the costs. They have depth, which is the opposite of banality.

Psycho Babble

psychologyWe live in an age of social science. Everywhere we turn, and in every newspaper we read, we are bombarded with statistics about human behavior. Policy wonks from Cass Sunstein to David Brooks want to use social science research to nudge people to behave in more rational and more responsible ways. But not everyone is an advocate of such research. In her lifetime, Hannah Arendt was eternally suspicious of social science data. First, because she insists that human freedom means that we are never as predictable as data would have us believe. And second, because the admitted success of data as a predictor of mass behavior leads to a loss of faith in the freedom and thus greatness of human action, thus an acceptance of the machine-like behavior of humans. It is thus helpful to remember that many of the seemingly endless studies about human psychological behavior are total bunk, as Kas Thomas writes (in admittedly colorful language). “An effort to replicate 100 research findings in psychology turned up the disturbing fact that key findings from only 39 of the published studies could be reproduced. From the 30 April 2015 article in Nature: ‘The results should convince everyone that psychology has a replicability problem,’ says Hal Pashler, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of one of the papers whose findings were successfully repeated. ‘A lot of working scientists assume that if it’s published, it’s right,’ he says. ‘This makes it hard to dismiss that there are still a lot of false positives in the literature.’ But Daniele Fanelli, who studies bias and scientific misconduct at Stanford University in California, says the results suggest that the reproducibility of findings in psychology does not necessarily lag behind that in other sciences. There is plenty of room for improvement, he adds, but earlier studies have suggested that reproducibility rates in cancer biology and drug discovery could be even lower. ‘From my expectations, these are not bad at all,’ Fanelli says. ‘Though I have spoken to psychologists who are quite disappointed.’ In other words, these results aren’t that bad, really, because they’re just as shitty as in other, ‘harder’ sciences!”

Order and Violence

baltimore protestsViolence can be useful. In response to injustice, it can even be justifiable on a utilitarian scale if violence brings attention to injustice and thus serves the doing of justice. But usually, violence does not lead to justice but rather to more violence. That is the danger of political uses of violence, as Hannah Arendt understood it in her essay On Violence. Responding to the protests following the unexplained brutal beating and subsequent death of Freddie Gray while he was held in police custody in Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates says that calls for ‘nonviolence’ are being made in bad faith, although that does not in turn justify violence: “When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is ‘correct’ or ‘wise,’ any more than a forest fire can be ‘correct’ or ‘wise.’ Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.” The violent protests in Baltimore shed light on the injustice of police violence. There is a question of whether the violent protests were necessary in that aim. But so far, it is hard to deny that the violent protests have yielded what they sought and that they may prove to be one of those rare instances when violence proves itself in the service of justice.

Civility and Truth

salaitaThe American Association of University Professors has released a report on the firing of Steven Salaita. As the report concludes, “At the heart of this case is the question of Professor Salaita’s employment status at the University of Illinois when Chancellor Wise informed him that she would not forward his appointment to the board of trustees.” Since the AAUP finds, correctly, that Salaita had indeed been hired, his irregular firing without procedural safeguards was a violation of his protected status. A larger question in the report concerns the claim by the University of Illinois that the firing was justified because of the uncivil nature of Professor Salaita’s comments. On this point, the AAUP’s report takes a strong stand against civility: “Statements by Chancellor Wise and the trustees insisted that ‘civility’ was a standard by which the fitness of a scholar and teacher could be judged. They used synonyms such as courtesy and respect, and they maintained that incivility threatened the comfort and security of students. The trustees claimed that disrespectful speech ‘is not an acceptable form of civil argument’ and ‘has no place . . . in our democracy.’ There are three objections to these claims. The first is that ‘civility’ is vague and ill-defined…. The second objection is that, inevitably, the standard of civility conflates the tone of an enunciation with its content…. The third objection is that, even if the tone of one’s expression is highly charged, it does not constitute grounds for punishment. Whether it is a matter of First Amendment rights or of the principles of academic freedom, there is concurrence on the dangers to democracy of attempting to outlaw emotionally provocative speech. The CAFT report cites a 1971 Supreme Court case that struck down punishment because of a speaker’s use of an offensive expletive-‘an expletive Dr. Salaita’s tweets are much given to.’ The Court ruled, ‘We cannot sanction the view that the Constitution, while solicitous of the cognitive content of individual speech, has little or no regard for that emotive function which practically speaking may often be the more important element of the overall message sought to be communicated.’ In the Davis case at UCLA, one of the dissenting regents put it similarly: ‘In this day and age when the decibel level of political debate . . . has reached the heights it has, it is unrealistic and disingenuous to demand as a condition of employment that the professor address political rallies in the muted cadences of scholarly exchanges. Professors are products of their times even as the rest of us.'” One problem with such reasoning, however, is that the AAUP wants to insist that professors are different from the rest of us and that professors deserve extra protection of academic freedom because they are engaged in the pursuit of truth that may and often is unconventional and controversial. If that is true, and it should be, then it may well require that professors act professorial in order to claim their academic freedom. In other words, the civility that often is out of place in political arguments is a structuring condition of academic inquiry.

amor_mundi_sign-upAn Ideologue and a Meddlesome Egoist

pope francisPope Francis is on a mission, and the measure of his potential success is the fear he is causing. Garry Wills asks the right question: who is scared of Pope Francis? It turns out some very wealthy and powerful people are. “Those who profit from what harms the earth have to keep the poor out of sight. They have trouble enough fighting off the scientific, economic, and political arguments against bastioned privilege. Bringing basic morality to the fore could be fatal to them. That is why they are mounting such a public pre-emptive strike against the encyclical before it even appears. They must not only discredit the pope’s words (whatever they turn out to be), they must block them, ridicule them, destroy them. The measure of their fear is demonstrated by an article in First Things, the Catholic journal that defended the donations to bishops of the pederast religious founder Marcial Maciel. The First Things writer Maureen Mullarkey calls the pope ‘an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist,’ and continues: ‘Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.'” At a time of incredible inaction around the world on all issues from climate change and inequality to corruption and terrorism, the one world leader who seems able and willing to take bold action informed by common sense moral intuitions is the Catholic Pope. One hopes some other leaders follow his example.

Consider the Paragraph

paragraphElisa Gabbert wonders after prose’s forgotten unit of organization: “Reading a book, I always glance ahead to see where the section or chapter ends, so I know when I can stop reading if I want or need to. Stopping mid-paragraph is deeply unsatisfying–no sense of closure, no easy way to remember where I left off when I next pick it up. Claustrophobic tendencies aside, of late I am actively interested in paragraphs, their formal possibilities. Sentences are taken to be the basic unit of prose, and we use them metonymically–we say ‘She writes wonderful sentences’ when we mean to praise the author’s prose. James Salter is so well-known for his sentences that it rises to the level (or sinks, I suppose) of critical cliché. In a 2013 profile in the New Yorker, Salter is quoted, in a letter to a friend: ‘I wanted to get past the great-writer-of-sentences thing. I don’t care about that, at this stage.’ But why is it, I wonder, we rarely talk about a writer’s way with paragraphs? It may be because there is a lot more you can do with a sentence to vary it; syntax and diction, all those micro-choices that add up to the macro-style of (say) a novel, happen at the level of the sentence. There are pretty much only two ways to vary your paragraphs. The first is length. Some writers work in short paragraphs, some in fluctuating lengths, others in long, multi-page-spanning paragraphs, like our incantatory friend above. Some writers work at both ends, depending on the book–compare As I Lay Dying to Absalom, Absalom! It’s no coincidence that the former, with its many breaks, is easier to read; it could almost pass for YA. Bestsellers keep paragraphs and chapters short as a tactic–they make for more addictive, snack-like reading, so the reader repeatedly thinks I’ll just read one more.”

Not Just Clowning Around

Bernie SandersMatt Taibbi thinks Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s run for the presidency could invigorate our moribund political culture, and he is infuriated that some people don’t think that the Senator is being serious: “this whole question of ‘seriousness’–which will dominate coverage of the Sanders campaign–should really be read as a profound indictment of our political system, which is now so openly an oligarchy that any politician who doesn’t have the blessing of the bosses is marginalized before he or she steps into the ring.”

Forgetting to Forget

warMichelle Garcia offers a haunting tale of memory and time that somehow unite her father’s death and her decision to go and work in refugee camps in the Sahara: “No longer do I organize time chronologically. Keeping time reminds me of where I went wrong. Saturday afternoon: I call my father and promise to call back on Sunday. The conversation was difficult, we talked about my brother. Sunday: I prepare for bed and remember to call my father, but my boyfriend says, The last conversation upset you and it’s late. Call tomorrow first thing. I remember the moment vividly. Monday morning: I walk into the office, sit down at my desk, and lift the phone to call my father. My cellphone rings. It’s my brother and he’s crying. Time, in that moment, was like a record player needle on a scratched album, unable to advance. But I was just about to call, the phone was in my hand…. Neat divisions of time are largely obliterated in the war of forgetting. The past and present co-mingle, speak to, and inform each other. Anyone who has ever lived through war, with its echoes of regret, knows that a war of forgetting endures after the bodies are buried, the peace accords are signed, and the soldiers remove their uniforms. The war of forgetting is the undocumented legacy of war, often relegated to the psycho-analytic bins of trauma, nostalgia, and remorse. For the next seven years, the war of forgetting would dominate my travels and my attention, but after each experience, I hesitated to write about what I had seen until I could give shape and words to the absence, the missing.”

The Courage to Not Be Busy

from the heartOmid Safi diagnoses the modern disease of business, or busyness. “This disease of being ‘busy’ (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave…. It doesn’t have to be this way. In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal? What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, ‘How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?’ When I ask, ‘How are you?’ that is really what I want to know. I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence. Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #8

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, May 15, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference,Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how Arendt’s use of the “Archimedean point” in Chapter 5 of The Human Condition helps us understand the Anthropocene in the Quote of the Week. Ray Bradbury provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate a photo of a personal Arendt library that includes, among other things, a thinking cap that is used to aid the reader in the battle of ideas in this week’s Library feature.


On Mark Lilla on Hannah Arendt

**This post was originally published on November 15, 2013**

It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer? Continue reading

Dr. Strangelove and the Banality of Evil


Indeed my opinion now is that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus over the surface. It is ‘thought-defying,’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing.

-Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem

Recent commentators have marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr. Strangelove, by noting that the film contained quite a bit more reality than we had thought. While national security and military officials at the time scoffed at the film’s farfetched depictions of a nuclear holocaust set off by a crazed general, we now know that such an unthinkable event would have been, at least theoretically, entirely possible. Yet there is another, deeper sense in which Kubrick’s satire puts us in touch with a reality that could not be readily depicted through other means.

The film tells the story of a rogue general who, at the height of the Cold War arms race, launches a nuclear attack that cannot be recalled, which leads to the destruction of most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust. These are events that we would conventionally describe as “tragic,” but the film is no tragedy. Why not? One answer, of course, is the comic, satirical touch with which Kubrick treated the material, his use of Peter Sellers to play three different characters, and his method of actually tricking his actors into playing their roles more ridiculously than they would have otherwise. But in a deeper sense, Stranglove is about the loss of a capacity for the tragic. The characters, absorbed in utter banalities as they hurtle toward collective catastrophe, display no real grasp of the moral reality of their actions, because they’ve lost contact with the moral reality of the world they share. Dr. Strangelove, then, is a satire about the impossibility of tragedy.


Still from “Dr. Strangelove”

In order to think about what this might mean, it’s helpful to turn to the idea, famously invoked by Hannah Arendt at the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the banality of evil. As Arendt stressed in a later essay, the banality of evil is not a theory or a doctrine “but something quite factual, the phenomenon of evil deeds, committed on a gigantic scale, which could not be traced to any particularity of wickedness, pathology, or ideological conviction in the doer, whose only personal distinction was perhaps extraordinary shallowness.” Eichmann was no villainous monster or demon; rather, he was “terrifyingly normal,” and his chief characteristic was “not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” The inability to think has nothing to do with the capacity of strategizing, performing instrumental calculations, or “reckoning with consequences,” as Hobbes put it. Rather, thinking has to do with awakening the inner dialogue involved in all consciousness, the questioning of the self by the self, which Arendt says dissolves all certainties and examines anew all accepted dogmas and values.

According to Arendt, the socially recognized function of “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct” is to “protect us against reality”; their function is to protect us against the claim that reality makes on our thinking.  This claim, which awakens the dissolving powers of thought, can be so destabilizing that we all must inure ourselves to some degree against it, so that ordinary life can go on at all. What characterized Eichmann is that “he clearly knew of no such claim at all.” Eichmann’s absorption in instrumental and strategic problem solving, on the one hand, and clichés and empty platitudes on the other, was total. The absence of thought, and with it the absence of judgment, ensured a total lack of contact with the moral reality of his actions. Hence the “banality” of his evil resides not in the enormity of the consequences of his actions, but in the depthless opacity of the perpetrator.

The characters in Dr. Strangelove are banal in precisely this sense. All of them—from the affable, hapless president, the red-blooded general, the vodka-swilling diplomat, the self-interested advisors and Dr. Strangelove himself—are silly cardboard cutouts, superficial stereotypes of characters that any lack depth, self-reflection or the capacity for communicating anything other than empty clichés. They are missing what Arendt called “the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining and reflecting upon whatever happens to come to pass, regardless of specific content and quite independent of results…” They also lack any contact with the moral reality of their activity. All of their actions takes place in an increasingly claustrophobic series of confined spaces carefully sealed off by design: the war room, the military base, the bomber cockpit. The world—Arendt’s common world of appearances that constitutes the possibility of narrative and story telling—never appears at all; reality cannot break through.

The presence of some of Arendt’s core themes in Kubrick’s film should not come as a surprise. Although she dedicated very little attention in her published works to the problem of nuclear war, in an early draft of a text that would later become The Human Condition, Arendt claimed that two experiences of the 20th century, “totalitarianism and the atomic bomb – ignite the question about the meaning of politics in our time. They are fundamental experiences of our age, and if we ignore them it is as if we never lived in the world that is our world.” Moreover, the culmination of strategic statecraft in social scientific doctrines mandating the nuclear arms race reflects on some of the core themes Arendt identified with political modernity: the emergence of a conception of politics as a strategic use of violence for the purposes of protecting society.

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Celebrating Nuclear War: The 1946 “Atom Bomb Cake”

Niccolò Machiavelli, a thinker for whom Arendt had a lot of admiration, helped inaugurate this modern adventure of strategic statecraft by reframing politics as l’arte della stato – the art of the state, which unlike the internal civic space of the republic, always finds itself intervening within an instrumental economy of violence. For Machiavelli the prince, shedding the persona of Ciceronian humanism, must be willing to become beastly, animal-like, to discover the virtues of the vir virtutis in the animal nature of the lion and the fox. If political modernity is inaugurated by Machiavelli’s image of the centaur, the Prince-becoming-beastly, Strangelove closes with a suitable 20th century corollary to the career of modern statecraft. It is the image of the amiable, good-natured “pilot” who never steers the machines he occupies but is himself steered by them, finally straddling and literally transforming himself into the Bomb. It is an image that, in our own age of remote drone warfare and the possible dawning of a new, not yet fully conceivable epoch of post-human violence, has not lost its power to provoke reflection.

-Ian Zuckerman

The Irony of the Elite


Peggy 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?

“I don’t understand why members of Congress, the White House and the media become cooperators in videos that sort of show that deep down they all see themselves as … actors. And good ones! In a phony drama. Meant I suppose to fool the rubes. It’s all supposed to be amusing, supposed to show you’re an insider who sees right through this town.”


Why do elites join in the laughter of a popular TV serial that grills them and shows them to be callow, avaricious, and without public spirit? Why do they delight in demonstrating their ability to view their failings with irony?

““House of Cards” very famously does nothing to enhance Washington’s reputation. It reinforces the idea that the capital has no room for clean people. The earnest, the diligent, the idealistic, they have no place there. Why would powerful members of Congress align themselves with this message? Why do they become part of it? I guess they think they’re showing they’re in on the joke and hip to the culture. I guess they think they’re impressing people with their surprising groovelocity.”

Noonan is right to see this elite reaction of wanting to be in on the joke as meaningful and worrisome. She finds it decadent:

“They are America’s putative great business leaders. They are laughing, singing, drinking, posing in drag and acting out skits. The skits make fun of their greed and cynicism. In doing this they declare and make clear, just in case you had any doubts, that they are greedy and cynical. All of this is supposed to be merry, high-jinksy, unpretentious, wickedly self-spoofing. But it seems more self-exposing, doesn’t it? And all of it feels so decadent.”

It is insufficient, however, to watch the videos on both these sites and conclude the obvious that they offer damning evidence of corruption and decadence.

What is more important than the decadence on display is the self-satisfied irony.  The elites in Washington and Wall Street seem not to care about their decadence and even take joy in the revealing of their decadence. It is as if a burden has been lifted, that we all in the outside world can now know what they have borne in secret. With the secret out, they can enjoy themselves without guilt.

This embrace of the revelation of decadence recalls the cultural milieu of Weimar Germany, and especially the reception of Berthold Brecht’s classic satire the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play:

“The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.”

Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence; but the effect of “Threepenny Opera” was exactly the opposite, since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion.

Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt “genuine delight” in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob “destroy respectability.” As Arendt explained, the “members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.” Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.


There is no greater thinker of decadence than Friedrich Nietzsche. This is how Nietzsche defines decadence in The Case of Wagner as a “question of style”:

“I dwell this time only on the question of style–What is the sign of every literary decadence? That life no longer dwells in the whole. Word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole–the whole is no longer a whole. But this is the simile of every style of decadence: every time, the anarchy of atoms, the disgregation of the will, “freedom of the individual,” to use moral terms–expanded into a political theory, “equal rights for all.” Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, hardship, torpidity, or hostility, and chaos: both more and more obvious the higher one ascends in forms of organization. The whole no longer lives at all: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact.”

As Andrew Huddleston has recently written, Nietzsche understands that “decadence is literally a kind of disorder – that is, a lack of cohesive order – within the individual or the culture.” It is a sickness by which individuals and groups think only of themselves and lose sight of their belonging to a common world or a meaningful order.

The disordering forces of decadence are not always disadvantageous. Throughout American history centripetal forces have allowed an understanding of power that permits different states and plural groups that pursue their own interests to, nevertheless, hold fast to the common idea of constitutional republican democracy and government by the people. What we see in the irony of the elites—let alone the decadence of the bourgeoisie and the power brokers—is the superior feeling of freedom that proceeds from the belief in the comic dissolution of the moral, political and economic values that have for two centuries animated the American imagination of itself as a exceptional experiment in free and democratic self-government.

Noonan is right to call out this ironic pose of the elite. She is right to worry that “No one wants to be the earnest outsider now, no one wants to play the sober steward, no one wants to be the grind, the guy carrying around a cross of dignity. No one wants to be accused of being staid. No one wants to say, “This isn’t good for the country, and it isn’t good for our profession.”” Her essay is your weekend read. Don’t forget to watch the videos. See if you catch yourself smiling.


Thinking and Moral Considerations


“There exists in our society widespread fear of judging…[B]ehind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done…Who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it?”

-Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship”

It’s difficult to know where to begin to counter the errors, misreadings, and plain obfuscations of Arendt’s point of view in this essay by Richard Brody that appeared a few days ago in The New Yorker online. But perhaps the most glaring mistake Brody makes is to confuse what Arendt wrote about “thinking” with some form of “intellectualism.” To begin with, when, in her interview with Gunther Gaus, she makes the point that it was the betrayal by “friends” that she found most shocking this is not because she thought only intellectuals could think or were the only ones to have “ideas” but that they “believed”—without thinking!—the very “ideas” they had fabricated, without considering where these “ideas” might take them. They were “trapped” in their ideas, which is why Arendt, in the same interview, refused to call herself a philosopher, cut off from the world, and insisted she was a political theorist.

Thinking depends on letting the imagination go visiting, and Arendt argued it was Eichmann’s inability to think from the standpoint of anyone else that made him “thoughtless” and hence become unable to distinguish right from wrong. But the same could be said, for different reasons, of the “intellectuals” Arendt referred to and said she’d found so grotesque in the interview with Gaus. And, whether you like where it took her or not, thinking from the standpoint of others was exactly what she practiced in the case of her judgment of the leaders of the Jewish Councils. She imagined they might not have cooperated. Yes, they faced “fear and despair,” as Brody notes, but Arendt imagined it was still possible not to comply even in the face of significant threats and consequences. And the historical evidence indicates this to be the case: not everyone complied.

Yet nowhere does Arendt claim the ability to judge a situation means I myself (or she) necessarily would have done anything differently. The most chilling conclusion she reached from her reflections on the trial is that there are no guarantees “when the chips are down” that I will know the right thing to do, and just do it. And it was her confrontation with Eichmann’s banality—not what he did, but who he showed he was, and “how many were like him” during this time—that led Arendt to warn near the end of the book that once such crimes had entered the human experience it is entirely possible that “similar crimes may be committed in the future.”

In an interview with Roger Errera, from which Brody also quotes, Arendt remarked that her intention was in writing about Eichmann as she did was to “destroy the legend of the greatness of evil. As she was thinking about this issue she said she’d “found in Brecht the following remark: ‘The great political criminals must be exposed and exposed especially to laughter.’ ” And her “tone” in Eichmann in Jerusalem was an attempt to do just that: expose the criminals to derision.

It was the banality of the criminals—not the crimes they committed—that gave Arendt such a shock she responded with laughter. And it’s a shame Brody doesn’t understand what this signifies: the humanization of perpetrators actually serves to humanize victims as well. She did not equate the responsibility of “persecutors and persecuted” for crimes committed by the Nazi state, as Brody claims. But not to allow victims and perpetrators to occupy the same moral universe is to traffic in the dangerous idea that guilt and innocence are not the result of human behavior but exist somehow independent of what people do.


Let me close with an excerpt from my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt:

Many people still find abhorrent Arendt’s claim that Eichmann, the man, was no monster. Everyone knows murder is wrong; certainly, then, murdering millions without a guilty conscience must be the classic example of monstrous behavior. Or madness. Surely only a monster or a madman could commit such heinous deeds. And that’s an understandable reaction. Most of us hold fast to a well-guarded belief that rules and standards used to tell right from wrong, rules we assume to be universal, cannot be easily discarded. Not I, we believers in our own inherent goodness insist; I would never comply with such an order. But Arendt wouldn’t let anyone rest on such a convenient way to avoid having to think for herself.

“The trouble with Eichmann,” she wrote, “was precisely so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied…that this new type of criminal…commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

The idea that “an average, ‘normal’ person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical, could be perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong” defies any ordinary understanding of good and evil. And yet, Arendt observed, “without much notice, all [these rules governing right and wrong] collapsed almost overnight…What happened? Did we finally awake from a dream?” How had it become so easy for so many to behave like Eichmann and participate in carrying out these atrocities?

Arendt explained it this way: the Nazi state had generated a “totality of…moral collapse…in respectable European society—not only in Germany but in almost all countries, not only among the persecutors but also among the victims.” And at that sentence, many people throw her book across the room in disgust, perhaps missing the other point she made: not everyone complied with the system.

But Arendt’s writing has made me wonder why we need to believe a solid wall separates the performers of horrible acts from the rest of us? And what holds that wall in place?

“When I think back to the last two decades since the end of the last war,” she wrote in the mid-1960s, “I have the feeling that this moral issue has lain dormant because it was concealed by something about which it is indeed much more difficult to speak and with which it is almost impossible to come to terms—the horror itself in its naked monstrosity.” Trying to think the unthinkable—the horror of state-ordered, socially coordinated manufacturing of corpses in the twentieth century, or of other genocides in previous centuries and in this one—can take one’s breath away. Not even time’s healing power seems to bring relief.

[T]his past has grown worse as the years have gone by so that we are sometimes tempted to think, this will never be over as long as we are not all dead…This past has turned out to be ‘unmastered’ by everybody, not only the German nation.

Yet Arendt insisted on confronting those concealed moral issues even though they looked like “side issues…compared with the horror.” She pushed past the speechless horror to grapple with the moral implications of the “ubiquitous complicity” surrounding the Holocaust. Because not grappling with those implications would allow Eichmann to gain what the monk Thomas Merton, deeply influenced by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, would have considered a “posthumous long life,” making us all, like it or not, as Karl Plank observed in his essay about Merton, “vulnerable to complicity in deeds of destruction.”

-Kathleen B. Jones

On Mark Lilla on Hannah Arendt


It is now more than 50 years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is neither her best nor her most important book, yet it does contain essential and important insights. Above all, it offers us the example of a man who, as Arendt saw and understood him, moved fairly seamlessly from being an anti-Semite to a genocidal murderer. Arendt asked: How is it that Eichmann and others like him morphed so easily from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer?


Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.

What amazes me is how the centrality of her insight is still clouded over by an exaggerated and misplaced anger and contempt. How is it that 50 years after her book appeared and 75 years after Kristallnacht, some American intellectuals still have little better to do than attack Arendt for the tone of her book, the offense of certain phrases, and her use of the word “banal”? Aren’t there more important questions than the ultimately unknowable question of whether Eichmann—the example Arendt used—was or was not truly thoughtless? There must be more important things for intellectuals to be indignant about.

A case in point is the two-part series of essays published by Mark Lilla in the last two issues of the New York Review of Books. Lilla, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, begins the second of his essays, “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” with these reflections:

A half-century has passed since Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was first published. Yet somehow we can’t escape it. Even today historians of the Final Solution do battle with her misguided thesis that Adolf Eichmann, the cold-blooded engineer of the Nazi killing machine, was himself but a cog in it, a self-deceived simpleton who made evil seem banal.

If Lilla is so upset that so much attention is lavished on Arendt’s book, why does he once again begin with it? Moreover, why does he insist on criticizing Arendt for things she never said? Let’s consider Lilla’s characterizations of Arendt’s arguments—characterizations that are tossed off, repeated by many, and quite simply are false.

Lilla first accuses Arendt of calling Eichmann “a cog” in the Nazi killing machine. This is a common complaint, one made famous by Deborah Lipstadt, whom Lilla cites approvingly. But where does Arendt say this? The simple answer is nowhere.

The “cog theory” comes up sparingly in Eichmann in Jerusalem, but wherever it does, Arendt decidedly rejects it. Consider this paragraph from section IV of her report, where she discusses what she calls “Eichmann’s muddled general outlook and ideology with respect to “the Jewish question.”” She writes:

Eichmann admitted, as he had in the Sassen interview, that he “did not greet his assignment with the apathy of an ox being led to his stall,” that he had been very different from those colleagues “who had never read a basic book [i.e., Herzl’s Judenstaat], worked through it, absorbed it, absorbed it with interest,” and who therefore lacked “inner rapport with their work.” They were “nothing but office drudges,” for whom everything was decided “by paragraphs, by orders, who were interested in nothing else,” who were, in short, precisely such “small cogs” as, according to the defense, Eichmann himself had been. If this meant no more than giving unquestioning obedience to the Führer’s orders, then they had all been small cogs – even Himmler, we are told by his masseur, Felix Kersten, had not greeted the Final Solution with great enthusiasm, and Eichmann assured the police examiner that his own boss, Heinrich Müller, would never have proposed anything so “crude” as “physical extermination.” Obviously, in Eichmann’s eyes the small-cog theory was quite beside the point. Certainly he had not been as big as Mr. Hausner tried to make him; after all, he was not Hitler, nor, for that matter, could he compare himself in importance, as far as the “solution” of the Jewish question was concerned, with Müller, or Heydrich, or Himmler; he was no megalomaniac. But neither was he as small as the defense wished him to be.

Arendt revisits the “cog theory in her postscript. Here is what she writes there:

We heard the protestations of the defense that Eichmann was after all only a “tiny cog” in the machinery of the Final Solution, and of the prosecution, which believed it had discovered in Eichmann the actual motor. I myself attributed no more importance to both theories than did the Jerusalem court, since the whole cog theory is legally pointless and therefore it does not matter at all what order of magnitude is assigned to the “cog” named Eichmann. In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But insofar as it remains a crime – and that, of course, is the premise for a trial – all the cogs in the machinery, no matter how insignificant, are in court forthwith transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say, into human beings. (italics added)

In the only mentions of the “cog theory” in her book, Arendt dismisses it as untrue and shows how even Eichmann rejected the cog theory and took pride in seeing himself as someone driven by conviction rather than by mere obedience. What Eichmann believed in is difficult to discern, which is why Arendt calls his thinking on the Jewish Question “muddled.” By this she means, it is unclear what were Eichmann’s real motivations. At times Eichmann spoke of helping the Jews emigrate (his first job from 1933-1939). At other times he said he “regarded the Jews as opponents with respect to whom a mutually acceptable, a mutually fair solution had to be found.” Arendt assumed he was an anti-Semite as well and discredited his claims of philo-Semitism. In the end, she found his thinking muddled. What was clear, is that Eichmann supported the Nazis enthusiastically. He was hardly a mere cog.

I hope we can put the “cog theory” to rest once and for all. It is repeated ad nauseum. But nowhere does Arendt embrace it. On the contrary, she rejects it.

Lilla also writes that Arendt “made evil seem banal.” One wonders what he means by such a statement. In fact, Arendt contrasts the horrific evil of the Holocaust with Eichmann’s inability to think from the perspective of others—banality not of what he did (evil), but of his person. When Arendt comes to actually offer her own opinion on what should happen to Eichmann—that he must be killed—she argues the true reason he needs to be executed is simply because of the extraordinary evil he has done.

That “evil violates a natural harmony” is, Arendt writes, the non-banal and “supreme justification” for why Eichmann must be executed. Against modern criminal law theories that see punishment as a response to the intent of the wrongdoer, Arendt argues the opposite: that Eichmann must be punished—regardless of his intent—because of the evil he has done. Here is what she says:

Foremost among the larger issues at stake in the Eichmann trial was the assumption current in all modern legal systems that intent to do wrong is necessary for the commission of a crime. On nothing, perhaps, has civilized jurisprudence prided itself more than on this taking into account of the subjective factor. Where this intent is absent, where, for whatever reasons, even reasons of moral insanity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong is impaired, we feel no crime has been committed. We refuse, and consider as barbaric, the propositions “that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal” (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that they were, in fact, the supreme justification for the death penalty. Because he had been implicated and had played a central role in an enterprise whose open purpose was to eliminate forever certain “races” from the surface of the earth, he had to be eliminated.

The evil of the Holocaust was barbaric. It violated the order of the universe. To say that Arendt saw evil as banal is simply a willful misreading of her book.

The word “banality” appears once in a book of 250 pages that is filled with expressions of shock and horror at Nazi doings of evil. When Arendt does speaks not simply of the “banality of evil,” but of the “fearsome, word-and-thought defying banality of evil,” she refers to Eichmann and people like him who are able to justify their participation in truly evil acts by justifying themselves according to clichés, rationalizations, and deceptions. To do so, she argues, requires a lack of thinking, where thinking is understood as thinking from the perspectives of others. That is the kind of shallow banality that enables ordinary men to do evil. It is hardly to describe evil itself as banal.


Finally, in Lilla’s first essay on Arendt (thinly disguised as a review of the new film by Margarethe von Trotta), Lilla trades in the lately popular fallacy that newly discovered interviews of Eichmann by Dutch Nazi Willem Sassen prove Arendt mistaken about Eichmann. Lilla claims that a quotation full of ellipses offers such glaring proof of Eichmann’s thoughtful monstrousness that, had Arendt known this “new” information, she “would have to concede” she was wrong.

Here is the chilling quotation from the Sassen papers that Lilla offers.

The cautious bureaucrat, yeah, that was me…. But joined to this cautious bureaucrat was a fanatical fighter for the freedom of the Blut I descend from…. What’s good for my Volk is for me a holy command and holy law…. I must honestly tell you that had we…killed 10.3 million Jews I would be satisfied and would say, good, we’ve exterminated the enemy…. We would have completed the task for our Blut and our Volk and the freedom of nations had we exterminated the most cunning people in the world…. I’m also to blame that…the idea of a real, total elimination could not be fulfilled…. I was an inadequate man put in a position where, really, I could have and should have done more.

This quotation shows the ferocity of Eichmann’s character. It shows him to be fully committed to carrying out the Final Solution, which, of course, was one of Arendt’s main arguments—that Eichmann did not simply obey, but supported the Nazi regime. It shows Eichmann was not simply a cog, again a point made by Arendt. It shows that Eichmann put himself under his “Volk,” the German word for Nation or People. He repeats this point often in the Sassen papers, that he was prepared to sacrifice himself, his conscience, his morality, and his life for the good of the German Volk as articulated by Adolf Hitler. And it shows that Eichmann refused to ask for forgiveness for what he had done. He shows no remorse and even feels guilty that he did not accomplish the task eventually assigned to him after 1941, to help exterminate the entirety of the 10.3 million Jews in Europe. In short, these citations show Eichmann to be a god awful man.

Lilla offers this citation to make a different point, however, namely, to accuse Arendt, not simply Eichmann. It is intended to prove that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. Because of this quote, “we now know [Arendt’s argument] to be utterly indefensible.” What is more, in an astounding act of ventriloquism, Lilla writes: “Arendt, [if] were she alive, would have to concede.”

The problem with Lilla’s assertion is that Arendt was aware of the material he quotes. Partial transcriptions of the interviews—including the quotes Lilla cites—were published in two volumes of Life Magazine in 1960. Arendt read those interviews; she suspected they were not fully reliable, but understood them to give a sense of Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, his boastfulness and stupidity—all congruent with the 70 pages of Eichmann’s 1956 memoir written in Argentina that she also read. In short, Arendt had seen many of the damning quotes from the Sassen interviews and concluded that, if anything, they supported her interpretation. If Lilla wants to argue that Arendt got Eichmann wrong, fine: he should make his case on its merits, not on assertions of her ignorance of essentials of which she was not ignorant.

Arendt saw Eichmann as an anti-Semite. Might she have underestimated the extent of his hatred? Perhaps. Having read as much of Eichmann’s writings as I have been able to get my hands on, I am convinced that Eichmann was a virulent anti-Semite. So much so that it is clear to me that his hatred of Jews must have played some significant role in his willingness to participate in the Final Solution. But none of that in any way contradicts Arendt’s argument.

There is a difference between virulent anti-Semitism and genocidal mass murder. Both in Jerusalem and Argentina, Eichmann describes pangs of conscience—not about killing Jews, but about killing. The fact is that from 1933-1940 Eichmann’s anti-Semitism led him to enthusiastically support and carry out first the policy of helping Jews to leave Germany and second the policy of deporting them from Germany. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Eichmann expressed reservations about it in both Argentina and in Jerusalem. He made it very clear that he was against killing and that he never personally killed anyone. This point—as irrelevant as it was to the trial—was important to him. What shocked Arendt was how he so quickly overcame his conscientious resistance to killing. His anti-Semitism—clearly part of the explanation—cannot alone explain how, or why, he so easily overcame his initial resistance to the physical extermination of the Final Solution.

Arendt saw that Eichmann’s original reservations at being involved in mass murder dissipated quickly as he justified mass murder, consoling himself with clichés, and hoping others would understand and forgive him. This dumb shallowness is what Arendt called Eichmann’s banality. Arendt’s point was that Eichmann—beyond being an anti-Semite—thrived upon the power and meaning he got from being a Nazi. There is simply no reason to think that the quotations from the Sassen Papers that Lilla offers—quotations Arendt had read—would make her change her mind. To say they would is to free oneself from the obligation of understanding her argument.


Arendt asked how Eichmann morphed from an anti-Semite to a mass murderer. Her critics owe her the courtesy of engaging the depth of her argument, something Lilla’s false claims of superior knowledge free him from having to do. Fifty years on, it is time to get beyond “gotcha” accounts that dismiss the seriousness of her work and, instead, take Arendt’s arguments seriously.

When all this is said, there is much to recommend in Lilla’s two essays. Especially in his consideration of Claude Lanzmann’s film The Last of the Unjust—a spirited defense of one of the worst of the Judenräte Benjamin Murmelstein. Lilla displays good sense in questioning Lanzmann’s defense of Murmelstein’s rationalizations for his collaboration. Further, in his first essay, Lilla rightly considers and rejects the most slanderous and pernicious arguments that Arendt blamed the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. His discussion of Arendt’s account of the Judenräte is balanced and informative. He rightly sees that the anger over her characterization of the Jewish leaders was largely overblown, based on taking offending phrases out of context.

In the end, it is important to read essays like Lilla’s, if only to understand the liveliness of the sadly-continuing controversy around Eichmann in Jerusalem. Mark Lilla’s “Arendt and Eichmann: The New Truth” and his “The Defense of a Jewish Collaborator,” are your weekend reads.


Corruption Takes Root

What is the essence of corruption? This is a question raised by the recent Supreme Court jurisprudence around Citizens United v. FEC. For Justice Kennedy and the Court has concluded, as a matter of law, that only quid pro quo corruption is corruption. An out and out bribe is corrupting, but throwing a congressman a $100,000 party or treating them to fancy meals and trendy restaurants, that is just exercising the right to freely speak with one’s elected representatives. That such lavish expenditures come with expectations is, the Court insists, improvable and simply part and parcel of our democratic system.

In Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig explores fully the impact of such “soft” corruption. He writes that the enemy we face today is not a Hitler or even the good Germans who would enable a Hitler. “Our enemy,” Lessig writes, “is the good Germans (us) who would enable a harm infinitely less profound, yet economically and politically catastrophic nonetheless. A harm caused by a kind of corruption. But not the corruption engineered by evil souls. Indeed, strange as this might sound, a corruption crafted by good souls. By decent men. And women.” Such a crime, he insists, is banal, but “not the banal in the now-overused sense of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil—of ordinary people enabling unmatched evil (Hitler’s Germany). Our banality is one step more, well, banal.”

Lessig is right to worry that Arendt’s phrase is overused, but what is more banal in the banality he so penetratingly describes in his book? In any case, his book better describes the kind of endemic corruption that infects our political system than any other. It should be read.

It is also important to remember that real corruption still exists in our world. It may be more a rarity at a time when one can accomplish so much corruption through legal means, but examples of bold and brazen corruption remain.

Lance Armstrong’s web of corruption that silenced and intimidated dozens of his colleagues for over a decade is one example of how corruption can succeed, against all odds, but only for a time.  Rumors of Armstrong’s drug use floated around for a decade, and yet he still denies it. It took years for the web of deceit to break. As the NY Daily News wrote in an excellent review of the scandal:

The Armstrong myth was so lucrative that suppressing the truth came to require an endless behind-the-scenes campaign to bully and intimidate people into silence. Some of it bordered on gangsterism. Some of it was dressed up in the respectable wardrobe of elite law firms. But mostly it was just hot air – a fact that by 2010 had become clear enough to Floyd Landis that he stepped up and burst the bubble, blowing the whistle on the whole big fraud.

We tend to ignore corruption because it seems so inconceivable in our age of transparency. Corruption requires that the truth be kept hidden. This is extremely difficult and possible only through force and violence and even terror. But eventually, the truth comes out. As Hannah Arendt wrote in another context, “holes of oblivion do not exist.” Eventually, the truth will emerge, no matter how many interests and how much money and violence is spent in the futile effort to prevent that from happening.

What brings to mind these brief reflections on the continued efficacy of corruption as well as its eventual failure is an article recently published in The Nation on the Hershey Trust. The author of the story is Ric Fouad, who is also a member of the Arendt Center’s Board of Advisors. He is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School and together with a handful of other activists has been fighting a lonely battle against what he sees as the corruption of the Hershey Trust’s Board, a fight that for him is inspired by Hannah Arendt’s insistence on both truth, courage, and public action.

A little background. Milton Hershey was not just a brilliant chocolatier who had a radical vision of making chocolate—previously marketed only to the wealthy—available to the masses. He was also profoundly philanthropic.  Unable to have children, Hershey left his entire personal fortune to the Hershey Trust, whose mission was to administer The Milton Hershey School, a school that Hershey founded to help and educate orphaned boys—the school is now coed and serves children with living parents. That fortune is now worth nearly $8 billion.

By his own account, Milton Hershey’s life work would be to help orphaned children, whose plight touched him deeply. Hershey wanted his school to bring orphans into a revolutionary new kind of school, free from industrial buildings common to orphanages. The children were to live in beautiful homes in a bucolic paradise on 12,000 acres of land. They were to work on farms to learn character and attend a school that includes a vocational curriculum as well and have great teachers. It had all the potential to be  an extraordinary facility set in truly magnificent settings.

So what is not to like? Well, for one thing, the Hershey Trust has been under investigation for six years, with no resolution and amidst plenty of accusations and charges about misspent funds and broken trust. The bucolic community-wide children’s home was telescoped into a crowded centralized campus; the farms were all closed; the vocational program barely survives; and the poorest children, wards of the court, and foster care children came to be rejected in favor of what the administrators deemed a “better” class of child. Local developers made tens of millions in the process.

Tasked with administering the Milton Hershey School, the Trust’s incredible resources enabled it to do much else besides. This could be an amazing opportunity to do good. It could also and become a magnet for powerful and connected people who finagled their ways onto the Hershey Trust board in order to access and control the vast wealth the Hershey Trust possessed. And that is what the article in The Nation, as well as numerous investigative articles here, here, and here, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, have alleged. You can also watch Ric Fouad’s Harvard Law School lecture “Hershey’s Broken Trust” here.

In Republic, Lost, Lessig writes:

The great threat to our republic today comes not from the hidden bribery of the Gilded Age, when cash was secreted among members of Congress to buy privilege and secure wealth. The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.

As true as that is about government, it is also true for cycling legends and political clubs. When corruption of all kinds pervades institutions throughout our society, it is only natural that cynicism abounds and we lose faith in the process of government as well as in the integrity of business. It is time to take corruption seriously in this country, and not explain it away as something that happens elsewhere in less civilized and less democratic countries.

You can read an excerpt of Lessig’s Republic, Lost…  here, at, where you can also buy his book.


To Think What We Are Doing, Again…

Today marks the six month anniversary of our “Quote” of the week feature. We’ve had many wonderful scholars participate, and the contributing group continues to grow. However, this week we thought we would pause and look back at our very first “Quote” of the week from September 19, 2011. Aptly, Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, provided our first submission and chose a quote seminal to the Center and what we try to do. Enjoy.

What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.

No theme, no word, no action better captures the passion of Hannah Arendt than her insistence that we think what we are doing. The need to think was, as Alfred Kazin has written, an incessant refrain in Arendt’s conversations with friends. It was also the force that breathes life into every one of her books.

The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt’s first published book, locates the roots of totalitarian government in loneliness, rootlessness, and thoughtlessness. What is needed, she writes, is not to understand totalitarianism, but to comprehend it, by which she means “the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of reality—whatever it may be.”  Only once we admit that in our time “everything is possible,” can we confront ourselves and see ourselves honestly for whom we are. And only then can we resist the dangerous reality that is our world.

In 1961, Arendt published a series of essays Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. The theme of these essays is, again, the activity of thinking, the activity that happens in the “gap between past and future.”

“Only insofar as [man] thinks… does man in the full actuality of his concrete being live in this gap of time between past and future.”

The trouble, Arendt writes, is that few people at any time in history have been equipped to and practiced in the art of thinking. For most of history, the widespread absence of thought was not a problem since the “gap was bridged over by what, since the Romans, we have called tradition.” Because tradition, religion, and authority told us how to behave and defined our moral notions of right and wrong, the mass of humanity did not need to think for themselves; and the fact that most people at most times do not think was not a tragedy.

We are the first people in the history of the world who live without tradition and thus without well-worn guideposts that bridge the chasm separating man from his living together with others in a shared world. If tradition is that which hands down a common world into which we are born and educated, the loss of tradition means that we live increasingly without the bannisters that orient us in our living with one another.

Shorn of tradition and deprived of its authority that covers over the gap, the modern age faces the distinctive challenge that “the activity of thought”—once “restricted as an experience to those few who made thinking their primary business”—must now now become “a tangible reality and perplexity for all.” In other words,

“[Thinking] has become a fact of political relevance.”

Arendt pursued the political relevance of thinking everywhere in her work, but nowhere more doggedly than in her account of Adolf Eichmann. In her engagement with what she saw as Eichmann’s thoughtlessness—his banality, his reliance on clichés, and his bureaucratic mentality—she understood that it was his inability to think that enabled his inhuman crimes. It was thus her experience of Eichmann that led Arendt to ask:

“Could the activity of thinking as such be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it.”

What Arendt demands is that we think; we must, in other words, reconcile ourselves to the fact that in our world we can no longer rely on tradition, morality, or religion to chart our course or guide our actions. Adrift in a world in which everything and anything is possible, thinking is the only activity standing between ourselves and the most heinous of evils.

In The Human Condition, Arendt insisted that we must think what we are doing, by which she meant the thoughtless way that humanity was embracing science, technology, and automation to an extent that threatened the basic conditions of human life. If automation replaces labor, consumption displaces work, and scientific rationality replaces action, thought, and judgment, then the primary activities of human life will, she argues, be sacrificed to the desire for certainty, security, and happiness. Arendt never condemns this tradeoff, but she does insist that we think about what we are doing.