Amor Mundi 2/28/16

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-upCould It Happen Here?

donald trumpIn an essay in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen invokes Hannah Arendt to suggest that we must speak out about the danger Donald Trump poses to constitutional democracy. “Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country. To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as ‘just doing their job,’ yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called ‘Men in Dark Times.’ In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose ‘internal exile,’ or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.” Allen knows that Trump is not the same as Hitler. Hitler had written an ideological and racist book calling for the rise of an Aryan nation and the expulsion and murder of the Jews; Trump, on the other hand, is seemingly non-ideological. But Allen does rightly see that Trump is dangerous insofar as he seems to have no respect for limits to his power, whether those limits are civil or constitutional. “Donald Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of constitutional democracy, nor for the requirements of decency necessary to sustain democratic citizenship. Nor can any democracy survive without an expectation that the people require reasonable arguments that bring the truth to light, and Trump has nothing but contempt for our intelligence.” As first Chris Christie and now Maine Governor Paul LePage endorse Trump, it is clear that Trump is breaking down the resistance of the Republican establishment. While evangelical leaders are on record saying they will not support Trump if he is the nominee, establishment Republicans seem prepared to accept Trump as their standard-bearer.

Allen’s essay was met with a barrage of ugliness on social media. In an update Allen published, she reproduces dozens of tweets she received. Everyone should read these tweets simply to recognize the racist and anti-Semitic boorishness pulsing within Donald Trumps supporters–if not Trump himself. One tweet from DMT Trump Wizard goes “You cannot stop Donald Trump. White people are going to stop hating themselves and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” Another from War & Peace (an insult to Tolstoy) reads: “Jewish ancestry? 40%? 50%?” Another says, “You would be working a McDonalds if it wasn’t for affirmative action. What exactly are you bringing to the country?” The same person then attaches an anti-Semitic cartoon and writes, “I smell a jew.” Someone named Paul Harris asks, “why do third world people come to European ancestry countries to paracite of us? Why has the third world never created anything.” An exceedingly angry racist named Theodore Bundy sends multiple tweets including: “imagine, no more affirmative action. How will you get a job? This PC shit has destroyed a once great nation.” One writes, “My jewdar just went beep. Does the affirmative action negress have a bit of jew inside. No breaks on Trump train. Soz.” Aristides writes, “I can’t wait to see the look on your primitive monkey faces when the GOD-EMPEROR takes his throne. Go back to Africa posthaste.” And adds: “Wow, you are one butt-ugly n—er. Your face makes me sick to my stomach. Please gas yourself.” Ok, these tweets go on and on. Many are worse and call for Allen’s death. You should read them also to remind yourselves that speaking publicly takes courage.

Is Donald Trump racist and anti-Semitic? One can’t blame Trump or anyone for the opinions of his supporters. But when so many Trump supporters are so vocally racist and anti-Semitic, Trump owes it to himself and to the American people to publicly reject those vile opinions. That is a what someone must do if he aspires to be the leader of a multi-ethic and pluralistic democratic country. Not only has Trump not done so, but he has fanned the flames. Twice now he has retweeted tweets from members of white-supremacist groups, one of whose Twitter handle is @WhiteGenocideTM and whose profile tagline reads, “Get the f— out of my country.” Trump’s attacks on President Obama, his birther comments, his questioning of Ted Cruz’s citizenship, and his demonizing of Mexicans and Muslims have contributed to an atmosphere of hate that enables such racial attacks.

None of this means Trump himself is racist. He certainly does not pedal a consistent ideological racism of supremacy as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did. There is little to suggest that Trump would attack the laws guaranteeing equal voting rights or question the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Rather, Trump is responding at least in part to decades of repressed anger where many Americans have been told they can not speak their minds, express their feelings, or state their opinion. A dishonest and calculated political correctness has enabled Trump to appear as a liberator by unleashing a pent-up anger that is a result of a political culture that has prohibited people from saying what they believe. One real and meaningful attraction of Trump’s campaign is his refusal to self-censor and his embrace of an honest if also low-class and boorish racial anger. Trump as President would likely make the USA a less tolerant and more hateful and angry country. Such a cultural transformation very well could happen here, and it is, of course, dangerous.

But the real danger of a Trump presidency may lie elsewhere. After Trump’s victory in Nevada, he hammered home his main them: Grab as much as you can. “Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States we’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks we’re going to make America great again.” What Trump hates is politics, the collective striving after common ideals of democracy and justice. What he loves about America is simply its promise of abundance, not its tradition of self-government. Freedom for Trump is not the Arendtian freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter; it is the freedom to get rich and plaster one’s name on buildings and reality television shows.

Alongside Trump’s contempt for politics is his dismissal of the rule of law. He threatens to ban Muslims, to bring back water boarding, and to kill family members of the Islamic State, which are all violations of either international or U.S. Law. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the US military should and would refuse to carry out such illegal orders if Trump as Commander-in-Chief were to issue them. Trump’s contempt for the law and all political and civil limits is part and parcel of his disdain for politics and all limits on what works.

No doubt Trump’s pragmatic and greedy America is part of America. But it is not the whole or even the best of the American tradition, a tradition that has its roots in Alexander Hamilton’s expressed hope in the first of the Federalist Papers that the United States would stand not for economic liberty but for political freedom: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” As corrupt as our political system is, the answer cannot be to simply demean and dismiss the nobility of our democratic and constitutional traditions. The danger Trump truly poses is that he seems to care only about the idea of America as a land of milk and honey and to have forgotten or simply dismissed the idea of America as a land of political liberty. And he seems ready, able, and willing to tear down our corrupt political structures with no plan or idea of how they would be rebuilt or re-imagined. Creative destruction is a classic axiom of capitalist innovation, but it rarely works so well in democratic politics. –RB

Make ’em Laugh

trump protestersMark Steyn comes as close to anyone in understanding both the appeal and the danger Trump represents. In a long and rambling account of his experience attending a Trump rally in Burlington, Vermont, Steyn writes: “And then the announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the next President of the United States, Donald J Trump…’ ~THE SHOW: He’s very good at this. Very good. On the same day as Trump’s speech, Peter Shumlin, the colorless dullard serving as Vermont’s governor, came to the State House in Montpelier to deliver his ‘State of the State’ address. He required two prompters so he could do the Obama swivel-head like a guy with good seats at Wimbledon following the world’s slowest centre-court rally. Two prompters! In the Vermont legislature! And for the same old generic boilerplate you forget as soon as you’ve heard it. Trump has no prompters. He walks out, pulls a couple of pieces of folded paper from his pocket, and then starts talking. Somewhere in there is the germ of a stump speech, but it would bore him to do the same poll-tested focus-grouped thing night after night, so he basically riffs on whatever’s on his mind. This can lead to some odd juxtapositions: One minute he’s talking about the Iran deal, the next he detours into how Macy’s stock is in the toilet since they dumped Trump ties. But in a strange way it all hangs together: It’s both a political speech, and a simultaneous running commentary on his own campaign. It’s also hilarious. I’ve seen no end of really mediocre shows at the Flynn in the last quarter-century, and I would have to account this the best night’s entertainment I’ve had there with the exception of the great jazz singer Dianne Reeves a few years back. He’s way funnier than half the stand-up acts I’ve seen at the Juste pour rires comedy festival a couple of hours north in Montreal. And I can guarantee that he was funnier than any of the guys trying their hand at Trump Improv night at the Vermont Comedy Club a couple of blocks away. He has a natural comic timing. Just to be non-partisan about this, the other day I was listening to Obama’s gun-control photo-op at the White House, and he thanked Gabby Giffords, by explaining that her husband Mark’s brother is an astronaut in outer space and he’d called just before Mark’s last meeting at the White House but, not wishing to disturb the President, Mark didn’t pick up. ‘Which made me feel kind of bad,’ said the President. ‘That’s a long-distance call.’ As I was driving along, I remember thinking how brilliantly Obama delivered that line. He’s not usually generous to others and he’s too thin-skinned to be self-deprecating with respect to himself, but, when he wants to get laughs, he knows how to do it. Trump’s is a different style: He’s looser, and more freewheeling. He’s not like Jeb – he doesn’t need writers, and scripted lines; he has a natural instinct for where the comedy lies. He has a zest for the comedy of life. To be sure, some of the gags can be a little – what’s the word? – mean-spirited. The performance was interrupted by knots of protesters. ‘Throw ’em out!’ barked Trump, after the first chants broke out. The second time it happened, he watched one of the security guys carefully picking up the heckler’s coat. ‘Confiscate their coats,’ deadpanned Trump. ‘It’s ten below zero outside.’ Third time it happened, he extended his coat riff: ‘We’ll mail them back to them in a couple of weeks.’ On MSNBC, they apparently had a discussion on how Trump could be so outrageous as to demand the confiscation of private property. But in showbusiness this is what is known as a ‘joke’. And in the theatre it lands: everyone’s laughing and having a ball. That’s the point. I think it would help if every member of the pundit class had to attend a Trump rally before cranking out the usual shtick about how he’s tapping into what Jeb called ‘angst and anger’. Yes, Trump supporters are indignant (and right to be) about the bipartisan cartel’s erasure of the southern border and their preference for unskilled Third World labor over their own citizenry, but ‘anger’ is not the defining quality of a Trump night out. The candidate is clearly having the time of his life, and that’s infectious, which is why his supporters are having a good time, too. Had Mitt campaigned like this, he’d be president. But he had no ability to connect with voters. Nor does Jeb (‘I’ve been endorsed by another 27 has-beens’) Bush.”

Brace Yourselves, America. It’s Really Happening.

donald trumpMatt Taibbi sees the appeal and the danger in Trump and worries he may well win. “In Manchester, a protester barely even manages to say a word before disappearing under a blanket of angry boos: ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ It’s a scene straight out of Freaks. In a Trump presidency, there will be free tar and feathers provided at the executive’s every public address. It’s a few minutes after that when a woman in the crowd shouts that Ted Cruz is a p-ssy. She will later tell a journalist she supports Trump because his balls are the size of ‘watermelons,’ while his opponents’ balls are more like ‘grapes’ or ‘raisins.’ Trump’s balls are unaware of this, but he instinctively likes her comment and decides to go into headline-making mode. ‘I never expect to hear that from you again!’ he says, grinning. ‘She said he’s a p-ssy. That’s terrible.” Then, theatrically, he turns his back to the crowd. As the 500 or so reporters in attendance scramble to instantly make this the most important piece of news in the world–in less than a year Trump has succeeded in turning the USA into a massive high school–the candidate beams. What’s he got to be insecure about? The American electoral system is opening before him like a flower. In person, you can’t miss it: The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald on the stump can see his future. The pundits don’t want to admit it, but it’s sitting there in plain view, 12 moves ahead, like a chess game already won: President Donald Trump. A thousand ridiculous accidents needed to happen in the unlikeliest of sequences for it to be possible, but absent a dramatic turn of events–an early primary catastrophe, Mike Bloomberg ego-crashing the race, etc.–this boorish, monosyllabic TV tyrant with the attention span of an Xbox-playing 11-year-old really is set to lay waste to the most impenetrable oligarchy the Western world ever devised. It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go. And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average. His pitch is: He’s rich, he won’t owe anyone anything upon election, and therefore he won’t do what both Democratic and Republican politicians unfailingly do upon taking office, i.e., approve rotten/regressive policies that screw ordinary people. He talks, for instance, about the anti-trust exemption enjoyed by insurance companies, an atrocity dating back more than half a century, to the McCarran-Ferguson Act of 1945. This law, sponsored by one of the most notorious legislators in our history (Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran was thought to be the inspiration for the corrupt Sen. Pat Geary in The Godfather II), allows insurance companies to share information and collude to divvy up markets. Trump may travel to campaign stops on his own plane, but his speeches are increasingly populist as he rails against money in politics, big pharma and insurance companies. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats made a serious effort to overturn this indefensible loophole during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Trump pounds home this theme in his speeches, explaining things from his perspective as an employer. ‘The insurance companies,’ he says, ‘they’d rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding … It’s so hard for me to make deals … because I can’t get bids.’ He goes on to explain that prices would go down if the state-by-state insurance fiefdoms were eliminated, but that’s impossible because of the influence of the industry. ‘I’m the only one that’s self-funding … Everyone else is taking money from, I call them the bloodsuckers.’ Trump isn’t lying about any of this.”


croissantsAdam Gopnik mourns the crescent croissant: “Why is a croissant shaped that way, anyway? The first truth is that they are not, necessarily. As veteran visitors to Parisian bakeries know, the superior, all-butter croissants are already commonly articulated as straight pastries–or, at least, as gently sloping ones–while the inferior oil or margarine ones must, by law, be neatly turned in. This sometimes leads those who expect clarity and logic, rather than complexity and self-cancelling entrapment, from French laws to think that the straight croissants are all butter and the curved ones are reliably not. The truth is that a butter croissant can be any shape it chooses, on the general atavistic aristocratic principle that, butter being better, it creates its own realm of privilege. One only wishes that Umberto Eco, whom we sadly lost last week, was still around to parse this issue, because Eco, long before he was king of the airport bookstore, was an emperor of signs, one of the world’s leading linguists and semioticians. The underlying logic for the croissant being a crescent, one suspects he would have said, is ‘Saussurean,’ after the great early-twentieth-century linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who glimpsed the truth that linguistic signs are arbitrary and find their meaning only by being clearly distinguished from other opposing signs. We know ‘Monday’ only because it doesn’t sound or look like ‘Sunday.’ P. G. Wodehouse, not surprisingly, showed his grasp of this rule when he had one of the Drones, on holiday in France, point out that he had been given a Continental breakfast consisting of ‘a roll shaped like a crescent and a roll shaped like a roll.’ Without the standard accompanying brioche, there would be no need for the curve; a roll-shaped roll produces a curved one, as ‘Sunday’ makes ‘Monday.’ The croissant, in this view, is curved in order to make plain what it isn’t as much as what it is. Murkier depths of meaning surely reside here, too, which would have taken Eco’s eye to plumb. Doubtless some social historian, a century or so hence, will get a thesis out of examining how, on the very verge of the threatened ‘Brexit’–the exit of England, at least, from the European Community–the mass marketers of Britain ostentatiously rejected a form seen as so clearly French that it is a regular part of that ominously named ‘Continental’ breakfast. Adding an arbitrary national shape to an established one to attempt an entirely English croissant, that future scholar will argue, is an affirmation of refusing to be one with Europe. (The crescent, moreover, is the sign of the Islamic empire, and some damp, suspicious kinds will see meaning in that, too.)”

amor_mundi_sign-upBad Habits

habitsJennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen reads the contemporary literature on habituation–that is, self-help achieved by the ritualisation of certain kinds of virtuous praxis. The topic goes back to Aristotle, and perhaps even farther, but Ratner-Rosenhagen thinks it’s missing something these days: “Much of today’s habits literature has a contemporary feeling, with its focus on time management, individual productivity, and business success, but the genre has a long history. For millennia, there has been a tradition of august thinkers writing about how healthy habits promote–and unhealthy habits undermine–self-fashioning and moral improvement. The ancient Stoics, for example, sought to understand how perfecting one’s reason by making it a habit could be the path to virtue. The Enlightenment psychologist Maine de Biran had a harder time squaring rigorous intellect and habitual practices, contending that ‘all that happens exclusively under the sway of habit should lose its authority before the eyes of reason’. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, was fascinated with habits. He had his own übermenschliche work habits, while at the same time he felt grateful to every bit of ‘misery and… sickness’ that came his way because they gave him ‘a hundred backdoors through which I can escape from enduring habits’. Gertrude Stein couldn’t have disagreed more. For Stein, the habits of ‘daily island life’–those simple, unglamorous rituals of cleaning, eating, sleeping–were the means by which people who had lived through the savagery and chaos of two world wars could orient themselves with the simple and commonplace. As ever, the habits literature of today promises order in a disordered world, but it also comes with a subtle and significant difference. The most important difference is not the forgotten art of style, though the staccato prose, exclamation points, bland generalisations, and clichéd motivational quotations of today’s literature neither stimulate the imagination nor activate the will. Rather, it is the lost promise of habits literature as a form of ethical inquiry and social commentary. Individual improvement has always been the purpose of habits literature, but the genre used to require appraising the society in which the self, and the habits, formed. Historically, thinking about habits without social contexts or ethical consequences was unthinkable. Today it is axiomatic.”

Aristotelian Safe Spaces

teamworkCharles Duhigg writes about Google’s Project Aristotle seeking to understand why some corporate teams work better than others. The answer, it seems, has less to do with intelligence, leadership, or structure and more to do with psychological safety, or what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines as a ‘”shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.'” Psychological safety in the new corporate lingo “‘…describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’ When Rozovsky and her Google colleagues encountered the concept of psychological safety in academic papers, it was as if everything suddenly fell into place. One engineer, for instance, had told researchers that his team leader was ‘direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks.’ That team, researchers estimated, was among Google’s accomplished groups. By contrast, another engineer had told the researchers that his ‘team leader has poor emotional control.’ He added: ‘He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.’ That team, researchers presumed, did not perform well. Most of all, employees had talked about how various teams felt. ‘And that made a lot of sense to me, maybe because of my experiences at Yale,’ Rozovsky said. ‘I’d been on some teams that left me feeling totally exhausted and others where I got so much energy from the group.’ Rozovsky’s study group at Yale was draining because the norms–the fights over leadership, the tendency to critique–put her on guard. Whereas the norms of her case-competition team–enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, joking around and having fun–allowed everyone to feel relaxed and energized. For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well–like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work. ‘We had to get people to establish psychologically safe environments,’ Rozovsky told me. But it wasn’t clear how to do that. ‘People here are really busy,’ she said. ‘We needed clear guidelines.'” Duhigg writes that the rise of group work in Silicon Valley is driven by research showing that profitability and worker satisfaction increase when workers collaborate. What is unremarked is the confluence between the demand for safe spaces in universities and in corporations, which offers a whole new take on the corporatization of the university. –RB

Uncomfortable Learning

adam falkWilliams College has a student organization that sponsors an “Uncomfortable Learning” lecture series that brings speakers to campus whose views are out of step with the majority opinion on campus. The group made news back in October when it first invited and then–in response to campus opposition–disinvited Suzanne Venker–a conservative woman and author of The War Against Men. Now Robby Soave reports that the group has made news again after a speaker it invited was prohibited from giving his speech by Williams’ President Adam Falk. In a statement to campus, Falk writes: “‘Today I am taking the extraordinary step of canceling a speech by John Derbyshire, who was to have presented his views here on Monday night. The college didn’t invite Derbyshire, but I have made it clear to the students who did that the college will not provide a platform for him. Free speech is a value I hold in extremely high regard. The college has a very long history of encouraging the expression of a range of viewpoints and giving voice to widely differing opinions. We have said we wouldn’t cancel speakers or prevent the expression of views except in the most extreme circumstances. In other words: There’s a line somewhere, but in our history of hosting events and speeches of all kinds, we hadn’t yet found it. We’ve found the line. Derbyshire, in my opinion, is on the other side of it. Many of his expressions clearly constitute hate speech, and we will not promote such speech on this campus or in our community. We respect–and expect–our students’ exploration of ideas, including ones that are very challenging, and we encourage individual choice and decision-making by students. But at times it’s our role as educators and administrators to step in and make decisions that are in the best interest of students and our community. This is one of those times.'” Zach Wood, a Williams student who helps run the “Uncomfortable Learning” series, explained his disagreement with Falk: “‘I think that President Falk is an analytic and deliberative leader and I respect his decision; however, I sharply disagree with his decision and if I could challenge it, I certainly would. I think his decision to cancel the speaker not only does a disservice to the intellectual character of our institution, but is antithetical to the principles of free speech and intellectual freedom that he has previously claimed to endorse. This decision is evidence of the fact that President Falk has failed to show support for student efforts to instill and promote political tolerance at Williams. I radically disagree with John Derybshire. And he has said offensive, even hateful things about minorities, things that I have a problem with. That is precisely why I was looking forward to taking him to task. If every student does not desire that kind of intellectual challenge, that is perfectly okay. But for President Falk to deny Williams students that opportunity, I believe, is not merely injudicious, but undemocratic and irresponsible.'” As I write this, I am in Saratoga Springs at a two-day retreat on how to talk about difficult questions like race and sex on campus. The conversations here are inspiring. Students come from communities all over the world with meaningfully different values and traditions, and they arrive on campus and have to figure out how to live with and talk to people whose worldviews challenge them. The students I speak with are genuinely curious and want to hear what others have to say. In most cases, then, there is a false debate between hate speech and free speech. It is not the students at Yale or the students at Williams who shut down speech. When free speech is sacrificed, it is not done by students. Rather it is cowardly administrators who fear criticism and don’t trust their students. –RB

Our Devices, Our Selves

iphone 6Cypress Marrs takes a second to think about what Apple’s devices are: “This campaign, like so much of Apple’s marketing, attempts to render potential anxieties about new computing devices irrelevant. The customer has questions, gut level concerns–how will this device impact their privacy? Their political life? How they interact with other people? How they experience their life? Apple responds to these reservations with a nod and a wink. Its marketing campaigns show individuals using Apple’s technologies toward ends that stand in contrast to the reality that consumers fear the devices will bring into being. The devices are not marketed through a catalogue of their functions but rather by conflating their functions with what they may facilitate. To do this, Apple employs our shared symbolic language… As imprecise use of these symbols spreads, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to think acutely about the world around them. Likewise, Apple ads are attempts to radically reshape the ways–the symbolic tools–which individuals use to comprehend the world. As personal computing devices become increasingly intimate–as they move from the desk to the book bag, from the pants pocket to the wrist–the symbolic fun-house of Apple’s marketing continues to conflate what a device does with what it might do–the device becomes the time taken for a kiss, the appreciation of the skyline, and the revolutionary impulse in an authoritarian state. Such conflations in conjunction with the constant and intimate presence of telecommunication has shrunk the distance between the personal and the public–between an experience and the image of that experience. Taken together, all of this makes it difficult to conceive of ourselves–or even conceive of conceiving of ourselves–in relation to a large and symbolically complex whole.”

Setting the Bar Low

collegeStephen J. Rose defends residential colleges against the threat of MOOCs and online education. But in so doing, Rose makes an argument for what colleges do best that is hardly inspiring and that certainly abandons any notion that college education is about learning to think with and against a tradition of intellectual, scientific, artistic, and humanist inquiry. “Higher education essentially has two functions: First, for those who reside on or near campus, it provides a period of semi-independence and autonomy in a protected environment with many social interactions; and second, it develops the workplace skills of general cognition, ability to learn, task completion, group and organizational skills, and, for many students, a field-specific knowledge base. While Carey does show the limitations of the current system, he falls very short in showing how a MOOC-based system can be scaled up and produce better results in preparing young people to enter and succeed in the labor force…. [I]n virtually all modern, industrialized societies, higher education has become the main path for preparing workers for the new service economy based in offices, health care, and education. The costs of such education in dollars and time are indeed immense–but there is a large payoff for the economy as a whole.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC 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, March 4, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Joyce Dalsheim: Cultural Anthropologist Researching Nationalism, Religion, and the Israel/Palestine Conflict

joyce dalsheimOn Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty

In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the “abstract” human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt’s political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.

BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm – 3:00 pm

Celebrating the Complete Works of Primo Levi

primo leviToni Morrison described Primo Levi’s writing as a “triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction.” Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.

For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.

Primo Levi, (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 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 Epidemics

Learning 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 Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe 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 6, 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 CampusOn 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

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Dawn Herrera Helphand discusses why Bernie Sanders’ appeal illustrates how widespread the political sentiments that Hannah Arendt identified as the causes of revolution are in both parties in the Quote of the Week. Marshall McLuhan comments on the power of critical thinking against automatic movement in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the first issue of AJPA News, the official newsletter of the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA). Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws” in this week’s Library feature.


Arendt, Social Change, and History

On a trip last year to the Hannah Arendt Collection housed in Bard College’s Stevenson Library, we came across this copy of Robert A. Nisbet’s Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development:

Arendt, Social Change, and History 1

Arendt, Social Change, and History 2

In his book, Nisbet presents the essential sources of the Western idea of social development and according to some artfully challenges evolutionary theory on epistemological, methodological, and substantial grounds.

Arendt made several annotations to her copy of this book. For example, as is evident in the image below, she placed a vertical line in the margins adjacent to a passage found on page 78 that proceeds as follows:

“It is the union of all of these aspects in one single, great design that lights up the City of God and gives this book historical priority in the tradition I am referring to. The Gulf between the God-intoxicated Augustine and the materialism-driven Karl Marx is a broad one, to be sure, but not so broad that it cannot be bridged by the single doctrine of history conceived as working itself out through what Marx was to call iron necessity.

On the opposite page, she similarly marked another passage that reads:

“Nothing of this sort existed in Greek and Roman historiography.”

Here Nisbet refers back to the previous paragraph’s concluding sentence:

“We have an insistence that all that has actually happened, in the sense of all events and persons in time, has necessarily happened; that, not merely the development of forms and types, but the history of events, acts, and motives, has bee necessary.”

Arendt, Social Change, and History 3


Finally, some 20 pages later, she places a vertical line adjacent to the following paragraphs on page 92:

“There is nothing, Augustine tells us, ‘so social by nature, so unsocial by its corruption’ as mankind, and it is the conflict indeed between these two spheres of sociality and unsociality–what Kant was to call man’s ‘unsocial sociability’–that has supplied the motive force of mankind’s actual development.

“‘And human nature has nothing more appropriate, either for the prevention of discord, or for the healing of it, where it exists, than the remembrance of that first parent of us all, whom God was pleased to create alone, that all men might be derived from one, and that they might thus be admonished to preserve unity among their whole multitude.”

What follows next is this paragraph:

“Thus the beginning of that most Western of ideas: the unity of the human race, of mankind, of civilization. Thus the beginning too of the conflict between good and evil, concord and discord, justice and injustice that would, for long after Augustine, seem inherent, inalienable conflict in the human condition.”

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

Please send them to David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at, and we will feature them on our blog!

The Hannah Arendt Collection at Bard College is maintained by staff members at the Bard College Stevenson Library. To peruse the collection’s digital entries, please click here.

For more Library photos, please click here.


Amor Mundi 4/12/15

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-upA Poet of Ordinary Life

toni morrisonIn a long profile of Toni Morrison, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah tries to define the arc of the novelist’s career: “On one level, Morrison’s project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. This is the project most readily understood and accepted by even her least generous critics. But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, ‘You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.’ Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It is a project that, although ignored by many critics, evidences itself on the page. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes black life–regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn’t sell out concert halls or sports stadiums–complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation. It is both aphorism and beyond aphorism, and a result has been pure possibility.”

Offense Heard Everywhere

claudia rankineNick Laird in the New York Review of Books writes about the poetry and essays of Claudia Rankine. Rankine describes everyday slights that condition her experience of being black, what increasingly are called “microaggressions”–those daily and often unconscious and unintended slights that individuals perceive as burdensome and deadening. The dialogue around microaggressions can be helpful insofar as people of all races reach across divides and try to understand each other. But too often the discussion of microaggressions is itself an aggressive accusation. Then attention to microaggressions takes over one’s life. As Laird writes: “This is how racism works: it blocks the possibility of living an undefended life. For those who know ‘the urgency brought on by an overflow of compromises, deaths, and tempers specific to a profile woke to and gone to sleep to each day,’ every incident is a possible example of it. In an open letter discussing ‘The Change,’ a poem by her erstwhile colleague the poet Tony Hoagland (Rankine maintains that ‘some readers perceived [it] to be…racist’ and Hoagland maintains that it is ‘racially complex’), she writes that ‘when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.'”

The Woman in Pain

woman traumaThe corollary of microaggression in feminism today is trauma, something explored by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review. “Last May, after the Isla Vista shooter’s manifesto revealed a deep misogyny, women went online to talk about the violent retaliation of men they had rejected, to describe the feeling of being intimidated or harassed. These personal experiences soon took on a sense of universality. And so #yesallwomen was born–yes all women have been victims of male violence in one form or another. I was bothered by the hashtag campaign. Not by the male response, which ranged from outraged and cynical to condescending, nor the way the media dove in because the campaign was useful fodder. I recoiled from the gendering of pain, the installation of victimhood into the definition of femininity–and from the way pain became a polemic…. If you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach. If you are wounded, you get to say that any portrayal of a woman as lying or manipulative is harmful to the culture and all of the future wounded women. If you are wounded, you get to control what is said and thought about you, and you get to try to create a criticism-free world.”

amor_mundi_sign-upCan We Have an Intelligent Debate?

RFRAOver at Commonweal, Paul Horwitz has produced perhaps the most intelligent commentary yet on Indiana’s religious freedom law and its impact on gay and lesbian rights. Horwitz worries that the quality of debate is so poor as to make questionable our capacity to have public debates about difficult and important questions: “That the debate is playing out so publicly and with such fervor is understandable, even commendable. It speaks to how far our society has come in a short time on the question of the equal dignity of gays and lesbians. For those who have long yearned for such recognition, questioning the quality of this debate may seem like mere carping–like caviling over the proper placement of commas in the Declaration of Independence. But the quality of this discussion matters. Nothing, I think, will–or should–stop the basic recognition of gay rights, and the heat of the current debate in part reflects this inevitability. But the details are still in flux, especially regarding same-sex marriage, and the current debate will surely affect some of the particular details of our new social settlement. Moreover, this debate raises questions about our very capacity to engage in the kind of thoughtful, careful public discussion that serious issues like this demand. By that standard, there is good reason to be dispirited. The public furor over Indiana’s religious freedom law, or ‘RFRA,’ was long on heat and short on light. There is a difference between attempting to persuade by careful reasoning and simply trying to play on emotions or rely on rhetorical tropes. Public arguments needn’t observe the rules of the seminar room, of course. But it may be possible to offer a few tips to inoculate readers against some of the more questionable or manipulative arguments.” The rest of Horwitz’s essay considers three common misconceptions around the religious freedom debate. It is necessary reading for anyone who wants to think intelligently about the contest of religious freedom and full rights for gays and lesbians. As Horwitz concludes: “It is difficult for any one legal system to fully recognize both LGBT rights, broadly understood, and religious freedom–also broadly understood. No; it is impossible. It is important nevertheless that we try–and that, when the contest produces winners and losers, we are candid about it, rather than try to pretend that there was no real conflict to begin with because one side was wholly unreasonable. We should have high expectations about what our public discourse looks like, do our best to hold ourselves to those expectations, and treat with caution anyone whose arguments fall short. Contrary to the old saying, not all is fair in love or war. This is a culture war about love: the right to love one’s partner, and one’s God. The stakes are high. But even this war has rules.”

A Still Divided House

rfraEven though the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox was this week, David W. Blight thinks that the Civil War never ended: “Yet Appomattox was not the end of the war. Three more military surrenders occurred over the next month and a half. On April 26, at a farmhouse called Bennett Place between Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Further west in Alabama, on May 4, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops east of the Mississippi River. And finally, on May 26, in Arkansas, General Edmund Kirby Smith surrendered the remainder of a Confederate trans-Mississippi army. Formally, the hostilities were over; the affair of arms and exhausted soldiers, indeed the dying, seemed at an end. But these apparently conclusive and clean surrenders masked the difficult and conflicted post-war era that would follow. The war ended with revolutionary and lasting results that echo down to the present day–especially in the two broad questions of racial equality and federalism. A great deal of American political, constitutional, and social history can be read through these two broad, likely eternal challenges.”

Finding Time

time booksOliver Burkeman thinks he knows why it’s so hard to find time to read well: “In fact, ‘becoming more efficient’ is part of the problem. Thinking of time as a resource to be maximised means you approach it instrumentally, judging any given moment as well spent only in so far as it advances progress toward some goal. Immersive reading, by contrast, depends on being willing to risk inefficiency, goallessness, even time-wasting. Try to slot it in as a to-do list item and you’ll manage only goal-focused reading–useful, sometimes, but not the most fulfilling kind. ‘The future comes at us like empty bottles along an unstoppable and nearly infinite conveyor belt,’ writes Gary Eberle in his book Sacred Time, and ‘we feel a pressure to fill these different-sized bottles (days, hours, minutes) as they pass, for if they get by without being filled, we will have wasted them.’ No mind-set could be worse for losing yourself in a book.”

The World Beyond Your Head

matthew crawfordMichael S. Roth, in a thoughtful review of Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, asks what the world of distraction means for us as people and as educators. “The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. ‘Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to–that is, what to value,’ Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that ‘silence is now offered as a luxury good.’ That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: ‘Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.’ And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. ‘Distractibility,’ Crawford tells us, ‘might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.’ We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us. Against this tendency, Crawford argues for a situated self, one that is always linked to (not independent of) the environment, including other people. We may not be in a bike-repair shop, but we are always somewhere.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

joy connollyThe Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly

Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.

Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bard College, Aspinwall 302, 6:00 pm


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #7

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, April 24, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



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

Location TBA, 4:00 pm – 6:00 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, Anabella di Pego encourages us to see Arendt’s support of institutionalizing civil disobedience as a chance to evaluate our democratic institutions in the Quote of the Week. American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. And we reflect on how Hannah Arendt was a “who’s who” in 1974-5–just one year prior to her death at the age of 69–in this week’s Library feature.

John Dewey

John Dewey on Thinking

“Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving…conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”

— John Dewey

(Featured Image: John Dewey; Source:

eric garner protests

Violence, Art, and Our Crisis in Culture

“The common element connecting art and politics is that they are both phenomena of the public world. What mediates the conflict between the artist and the man of action is the cultura animi, that is, a mind so trained and cultivated that it can be trusted to tend and take care of the world of appearances whose criterion is beauty.”

“The Crisis in Culture,” in Between Past and Future (1993 [1961]) 218-219

The survival of culture is not assured. In her exploration of culture and crisis, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between objects that are produced for use and those that are produced as art in order to endure. Consumptive life is a part of leisure, a “necessity” of life, whereas art, as Arendt often discusses, partakes in the humanistic task of cultivating a world that doesn’t collapse all distinctions – among people, among realms of experiences, among spaces of collective encounter, and among the ways in which we see violence whether in the hands of fellow human beings or state authorities. This note about violence is not a theme in Arendt’s “The Crisis in Culture.” But it very well could be, and as I’ll assert here, it should be. This is part of our “crisis of culture,” after all, a dilemma for which art may offer some chance of cultivating a humanistic sensibility that is much needed in light of persistent violence within liberal democratic republics today. Continue reading


Isaiah Berlin and the Collision of Values

“Collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are…the world in which what we see as incompatible values are not in conflict is a world altogether beyond our ken; …it is on earth that we live, and it is here that we must believe and act.”

— Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Continue reading

Why the Jews?


Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”


The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”


The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.


Can We Survive Entertainment?


“The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. “

-Hannah Arendt, “Mass Culture and Mass Media”

I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to.  I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Mass Culture and Mass Media,” is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death.  Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties.  To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:

And this is where Arendt’s quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:

If we substitute the word “religion” for Hamlet, and the phrase “great religious traditions” for “great authors of the past,” this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an “authentic object of culture”? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?

In returning to Postman’s critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education.  In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.


A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching?  It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game.  These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented.  In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education.  Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?

Regarding Arendt’s comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism).  There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers?  It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.

The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible.  For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive.  The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content.  Of course, it’s possible to run counter to the medium’s bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.


The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism.  Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process.  Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action.  The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it’s to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground.  And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.

Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed “the most trusted man in American.” And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.  And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment.  But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?

Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect.  On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist.  And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.


Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse?  In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, “As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.'”  Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley’s final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:

Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom.  But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)

It’s not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment.  Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture.  For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance.  For Arendt, in “Mass Culture and Mass Media,” the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:

An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The “thingness” of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty.  Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.

Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called “la technique,” the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative.  The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment.  We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds.  She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts.  Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?

-Lance Strate



impartiality is obtained by taking the viewpoints of others into account; impartiality is not the result of some higher standpoint that would then actually settle the dispute by being altogether above the meleé.”

-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy

In Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, Arendt takes the surprising approach of drawing on Kant’s aesthetics to offer a distinct interpretation of political philosophy.  She does not just turn to the Critique of Judgment alone however, but draws a line of questioning from of a number of Kant’s later political writings that she then responds to with the Third Critique. Her explication of the term “impartiality” in this context is particularly striking since it offers a way between the models of objective judgment (from outside or above, so to speak) and subjective judgment (taking one’s own standpoint as the measure of right).


Arendt’s language marks a struggle of thinking in the middle. We’re far from the high point of Plato’s cave, where, even when looking down to a reflection, one wants to see the good as the sun above. Instead, the reference to “meleé” suggests that confusion and physical combat mark the scene of plural judgment. The goals is to get away from being “partial,” away from taking a side and becoming just a “part” of some greater already given whole. Yet the right way to do so is not by stepping away from these positions, but by moving through them. “Account” suggests a kind of calculation, of adding up, but Arendt clarifies that it is not a matter of getting to a place from which one can survey all positions. Still, let’s note that she says that one is not “altogether” above, which does retain a bit of vertical positioning.

Returning to the final word of the quote, the “meleé,” makes it clear that we have to stay at the level of others. The viewpoints that one has to consider do not exist independently of each other, but are instead in conflict. How does this affect one’s ability to “take them into account”? The traditional idea of detached reason would have to be modified to accept this idea of thinking in a tussle.

Later on the same page, Arendt uses a more peaceful metaphor for thinking: “To think with an enlarged mentality means to train one’s thought to go visiting” (43-44). The contrast between “visiting” and “meleé” is striking, since the former term suggests that one does stay clear of trouble and merely collects impressions from others. Between the two terms, we get a sense of judgment that is not “altogether” above.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Aftermath of the Arab Spring: Women, Activism, and Non-Interference

In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.

The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.

Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her”  After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.

The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.

One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”

Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.

Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country”. But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.

These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?

I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.

-Jeff Jurgens

Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.

Tripoli: Between Power and Violence

“Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”

The last few weeks have witnessed the return of scenarios of violence to North Lebanon around the city of Tripoli where clashes have disrupted the fragile and tense balance of peace. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising last March, fears mounted that the violence would spread quickly to Lebanon, whose very fragile balance of power is deeply intertwined with the fates of Syria and a complex network of sectarian alliances that spread into Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West.

It would require an entire encyclopedia of Lebanese politics and history – which by the way, has never been written – to define all the terms necessary to adequately discuss the complex scenarios of postwar Lebanon and the players involved, but suffice it for now to say that the current political system was not only born out of the unresolved sectarian struggle of the civil war but hearkens back to the French edict of 1936 that made it obligatory to declare belonging in one of the religious communities to be eligible for citizenship.

Often it is assumed that conflict in Lebanon is limited to the tripartite division between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians but the “communities” established by the French aren’t exactly equivalent to the broader sect and the Lebanese constitution (promulgated in 1926) acknowledges 18 different religious communities – though the presence of Jews is almost none – and still, the National Pact (1943) that truly laid the foundations of the Lebanese state was indeed negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites.

These three sects – with their respective alliances at home and elsewhere – dominate the political landscape in an overtly complex system of offices, distribution that fails to account for the diversity of the political spectrum within them (at least in the case of Sunnis and Christians) and that was once conceived as an interim measure that remains in place to this very day. Tensions between the different communities and sects can be traced back to the 1860’s when Lebanon was an Ottoman province and remain still unresolved.

Tripoli is an exceptional example of the role that sectarianism plays in Lebanese life: one of the most impoverished and neglected areas with a diverse population of Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Alawites. The city has a Sunni majority and sectarian distribution is also geographical; the dividing line between the northeastern neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) along the Syria Street has been the epicenter of gun fighting.

Already in November 2011 Lebanon’s Alawite minority – mostly based around Tripoli – expressed concern over the situation across the Syria-Lebanon border long before the Syrian crisis reached the tipping point in Homs. Syria’s besieged ruler Bashar Al-Assad, belongs also to the Alewite sect, and the long-time Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended only in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution included Sunnis being massacred by the Syrian army in Bab al-Tabbaneh (1986-1987).  The course of the Syrian uprising has paved the way for a renewal of old tensions going back to 1970’s.

In June 2011, seven people were killed and over fifty wounded in clashes between the rival neighborhoods following a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and then in February 2012, clashes erupted again that required the intervention of the often powerless Lebanese army. The situation worsened by May when a Sunni Islamist was arrested, and clashes erupted again between both neighborhoods. The fighting continued on a low scale throughout several days and over a dozen casualties were reported.

In the first days of June clashes erupted once again and with non-existing media coverage (different, for example, from the clashes spread from Tripoli to Beirut around Tareeq Jdeideh, another dividing line between Sunni and Shiite rivalries, even though this time clashes were between two rival Sunni factions, one of them being the Arab Democratic Party, with close ties to Hezbollah and to which many Alawites in Jabal Mohsen belong) citizens from Tripoli reported the clashes as the worst gun fighting since the end of the civil war.

The clashes resulted in at least 14 casualties and extensive material damage, in which civilian life was not only disrupted but there were also reports of non-combatants wounded, and as it was reported by pro-independence site NOW Lebanon, it is unlikely that Tripoli battles will end with the last shot fired. Following from the clashes, Alewite businesses were reportedly torched in the more affluent area of Azmi, closer to downtown, and the calm returned after the army intervened – with a spectacular delay – to impose a fragile and tense ceasefire.

The particulars of the unrest in Lebanon are too intricate to discuss here, but Emile Hokayem has provided all the historical background in his Foreign Policy piece “Lebanon’s Little Syria” , and Lebanese blogger Mustapha M. Hamoui has written an extensive analysis on what the arrest in May of a Sunni Islamist tells us about Tripoli, the state of affairs in Lebanese politics, and wider effect of the Arab Spring in Lebanon in his “A Phone Call That Shook a Nation”. Now, with all this in mind, we should turn our attention to some ideas on power and violence and the specific case of Lebanon.

In “On Violence”, Hannah Arendt established a crucial distinction between power and violence, and though her definition of violence itself comes only via negativa – by what it is not, she articulates a very clear notion of power as distinguished from force and strength. Whatever it is that we understand nowadays as power is the rough equivalent of force, that is, the uncontrollable forces of nature, and has little to do with power as a function of human relations: power as the ability to act in concert with others.

The meaningful distinctions between power, strength, force, violence, and authority have somehow evaporated in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and have been made roughly identical with each other.  The emphasis of the shift from power to force implies the operation of natural forces that render human capacity for decision irrelevant ,and the shift from force to strength confuses the irreparability of the natural cycle with a trait of character or personal quality. Conversely, authority is not power or strength or force, but specific sources of power.

Violence, on the other hand, bears an extremely complex relationship to action rather than to above described elements of government – as distinguished from politics and as such, from human plurality – and here action is roughly identified with the human capacity to begin something anew, as if miraculously. According to Arendt: “Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new”.

It should be said however, that violence cannot be disqualified as a form of action – and in this regard, the Arendtian canon and legacy is very ambiguous – and there is such a thing as violent action, but it is a tautology to speak of non-violent power: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”

“Non-Violence,” a sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reutersward

Lebanon’s relationship to both power and violence – which is nowhere better exemplified than in Tripoli’s violent history – emerged as it is, in jeopardy of power and excess of violence: born out of confessionalism and as a buffer zone of regional conflict in which every confessional faction sought to enter deals with players abroad to protect sectarian interests, the idea of power has been infinitely weakened as a birth defect. These particular aspects of Lebanese modern history have been discussed by former minister Charbel Nahas in his lecture “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, disorientation et dissension sociale” held on May 25th in Paris.

The criteria of religious affiliation have impaired participative democracy through a system in which the absence of violence is understood as an achievement in unity, but the immediate absence of violence – as exemplified by the National Pact in 1943 and the Taif Agreements in 1989 – does not immediately translate into consent to act (power) but simply into non-aggression.

The raison d’être of politics – and this is in a nutshell,  all of Hannah Arendt – is freedom and not sovereignty, that I understand – particularly in the political philosophy of Fichte -as bearing a relationship to freedom based on  free will and not on action. Accordingly, for as long as the terms of the debate are framed exclusively by territoriality – the sectarian geography of Lebanon comes to mind again – and the acceptable tension between national sovereignties (which in Lebanon means sect sovereignties and is far from any concept of federalism), the vacuum of power will remain. Consequently, every time that the terms for negotiation need to be laid, violence will be the only way to settle them.

In the absence of power, the government is permanently impaired to make political decisions – regardless of the coalition, whether March 8 or March 14 – and the powers of the state will continue to be handed to regional warlords, without whose consent, the army will remain forever incapable of restoring security,  and the idea of national unity will be always preceded by a confessional affiliation within an abstract figure of power whose pillars are everywhere but in Lebanon.

Power is a terrible and incalculable force, whereas violence is predictable and calculable, and that is why power grows in between men, while violence is possessed by one man alone – even if the many act upon it, it is still possessed individually – and cannot be the foundation of politics because it is a means to something else that ultimately becomes identical with the means it utilizes.

Violence cannot be overcome through force or violence, because both are incapable of spontaneity – the hallmark of human action and plurality – and for as long as power will remain absent from the political, weapons will always set the terms of negotiations for Tripoli. It cannot be denied that violence is a form of action and a very human one at that, but the writing on the wall is crystal clear in Hannah Arendt’s writings: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans