reichstag burning

Thinking in and through “Emergency”

By Jeffrey Jurgens

“None of the various ‘language rules,’ carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for ‘murder’ was replaced by the phrase ‘to grant a mercy death.’”

— Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Among its many accomplishments, Eichmann in Jerusalem reflects insightfully on the close relation between language and thinking, especially in moments when previously established structures of ethical and political life have been disrupted. Arendt dwells at some length on the idioms the Nazis employed to insulate the regime’s functionaries, and German society at large, from the tangible realities and moral implications of mass killing. In her estimation, high-level officials like Hitler and Himmler possessed a particular gift for slogans—”winged words,” in Eichmann’s phrasing–that soothed the conscience of those who carried out the program of extermination. Continue reading


Amor Mundi 12/27/15

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-upMay I Buy Your Groceries?

walmart holidaysFor the holidays, Catherine Wilkinson, aka Bosscook, offers an inspiring idea for gift-giving: “Rather than buy ourselves and our young adult children gifts this Christmas, we decided to walk the walk. You know. That walk where you stop indulging yourself with increasingly frivolous items and actually reach out to help others not as fortunate. We bought several Walmart gift cards with funds we would have used to buy our gifts for one another and our kids. Then our daughter and daughter-in-law (who is pregnant with twins, our 10th and 11th grandchildren, so yes, we have more than enough blessings in our life), Mr. Wilkinson and I went to our local Walmart yesterday, a beautiful Sunday morning. Not quite knowing how to do what we wanted to do, just praying we’d get it right and not embarrass anyone or get arrested. Our girls decided on an approach, took the gift cards, and my husband and I stood at a distance, ready to help if needed. The girls walked along and watched the check-out lines, and when they felt a tug at their kind hearts, they went up to people ready to check out and asked, ‘May I buy your groceries?‘ The initial responses were ones of shock and disbelief. No one was rude, or dismissive. They just wanted to know why. The girls answered that they were part of a family who decided this was the way they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Then a few asked if they were with a church or an organization. No, the girls said, we are just a regular family and this is our gift to you! No strings attached! From us! Then the miracles came. The first one, a young Mom, with a cart of food and just a couple of tiny presents for her little son, broke down in sobs, confiding that she ‘didn’t know how I could afford any of this’. Her hugs and her tears washed away all the nervousness our girls felt at first. They helped her bag her groceries and they all held one another for a long time, before this young woman left the store, trying hard not to sob.” There are more miracles here that will warm your heart. h/t WRM. –RB

Unmasking America

braddock streetAziz Rana writing in n+1 takes on the American Creed, which he argues is simply inconsistent with racial equality. “The intensity of this paradox–of superficial equality amid widespread deprivation–has sustained a year of protest. It has drawn activists’ attention toward questions not of intentional bias–the Bull Connors of the 1960s, the Donald Trumps of today–but of structural racism. This turn to structure is evident everywhere. Where Ta-Nehisi Coates once presented Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights movement, completing the legacies of Martin and Malcolm, he now calls for reparations for slavery and presents white supremacy as constitutive of the republic. For Coates and countless others, racism is now about deep-rooted hierarchies, the living legacies of centuries of economic exploitation and state-sanctioned violence that have endured despite the end of legal discrimination. The emphasis on structure speaks to a remarkable development in American public discourse. Today, the ‘creedal’ story of national identity–according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea–finds itself in profound crisis. This story has been unmasked, not for the first time, by the problem of race. So has the vision for reform with which it is associated–the steady opening of equal opportunity to all. The creed is so central to American identity that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative, similarly grounded in a strong political tradition. Finding and defending such a tradition is the difficulty of the present moment, but also its promise.” Rana’s claim that racism demands we abandon the liberal American creed and attack the liberal structures of American society is one widely heard amidst the protests over police violence and college racism. It is, in the words of Shelby Steele in his new book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, part of a fundamental fallacy that sees America as an inherently evil country that was never actually a good or fair nation. Steele calls this argument “characterological evil:” namely, that the country’s past sins have made all attempts at reform futile. It is also analogous to an ad hominem argument, one against the person or nation itself absent an argument. Such characterological arguments make “anti-Americanism a precondition for the nation’s redemption from its past.”  

Rana’s worry that America itself is fundamentally oppressive is, as he writes, based on the rhetorical strategy of ‘unmasking.’ Unmasking, as Peter Baehr writes in the latest issue of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, “refers to a mode of exposure that accuses a person, argument or way of life of being fundamentally defective. It may be claimed, for instance, that a person is an imposter.” For Rana, America has been unmasked as such a fake. It is not a country of freedom, equality, and justice but a nation built on the hypocrisies of racism, sexism, and economic oppression. Unmaskers argue that they see through illusions to a stark truth. As Baehr writes, “Unmaskers do not simply claim to see what others have missed; they claim to see through–a person or object. ‘Things are not what they seem. They reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated–at which point they make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme.'” Baehr traces unmasking back to the terror of the French Revolution: “Traitors,” Robespierre urged, “must be unmasked and struck without pity.” What unmaskers forget, he writes, is that the word ‘person’ is from the Latin ‘persona’ which is that which sounds through a mask. To be a person is always to wear a mask, to present oneself in public as a citizen or in a chosen role. All of us are hypocrites if we lay bare the hidden vices of our hearts. To demand that we strip off our mask and appear in public as naked selves is as impossible as it is totalitarian. It is a search for authenticity that can never be achieved except by a constant ratcheting up of the charge of hypocrisy so that today’s radical unmasker is tomorrow’s unmasked hypocrite. Once the process of unmasking asserts itself, there is no place for refuge. Which is why the demand that the American Creed be unmasked leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that America itself is evil and needs to be undone. That is the logic of Rana’s argument that the American Creed has been unmasked. And it is the reason that Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated that once hypocrisy is unmasked, rage replaces virtue as the spirit of the people. –RB

A Public Voice for the World

snowy hac 2The Hannah Arendt Center is now preparing our Fall 2016 conference, “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” While college is a safe space for difficult questions, free and collegiate inquiry rests on rules of civility. We raise our hands to speak, listen to those who disagree, and make sacred the space of collective inquiry. Asking difficult questions in a respectful way structures our search for truths and prepares us for the activity of democratic citizenship. The emergence of the seemingly unbridgeable divides separating republican and democratic truths, black and white truths, male and female truths, secular and religious truths is that nearly all of us are increasingly so committed to the absolute truth of our partial story of reality that we find opposing truth and opposing stories existentially threatening. At a moment when difficult questions are evacuated from public spaces, we must strive to maintain the idea of college and university life as a safe space for difficult and contested thinking. Bringing together academics, business people, artists, and intellectuals, we ask the following: how can we protect the spirit of the university while honoring our unshakable commitment to justice and equality? Talking about hard questions of race, sex, and religion takes courage today. When Arendt writes, “Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world,” she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning than our individual lives. And when she continues, “Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake,” she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt’s writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt’s bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work. –RB

Whither the Annotation?

annotationS. Brent Plate considers what the role of marginalia is in a digital world: “The margins are sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and, to stretch it tenuously further, between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive–alive because they’ve been read and responded to. Modern democratic society itself, which arguably would have been impossible without books and print, is based on interactions that both produce, and are produced by, a collapsing of power. This occurs not just through the mass production and consumption of literature, pamphlets, and the news of the world–making knowledge accessible to more people–but engagement with the production of knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility’ exalts the rise of the Letters to the Editor section of newspapers so that ‘at any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.’ Marginalia operates in a similar matter, turning readers into writers, and upsetting the hierarchy of the author as authority. How New Media alter and resituate these power dynamics is part of what is at stake in the current debate…. What we find in marginalia is not simply a place of intellectual disputation, two minds duking it out, but a site for the body to awaken from its long sleep and dispute the mind. In reality, reading is sensual: we read with our eyes, or in the case of braille and other practices, with our fingers. But the rational page (carefully kerned and serifed typeface, fully justified blocks of text) cuts off the sensate body, channeling our mindful intentions into its rectilinear prison, making us feel we have direct communication, jacked in. The rigid text has its uses, though messy bodies need not apply.”

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Things on the Outskirts

knausgaardIn an interview, author Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses the importance of objects to his thinking: “When I wrote my last novel, I discovered how much goes on outside the narrative, or just on the outskirts of the story–objects and actions that aren’t really stories but are still a part of everyday life. When I write, I’m just as concerned with creating some kind of presence as I am with narrating a story. It’s not a stylistic trait, but a longing of some kind, and it’s that presence I seek when I write and when I read. I’m not really present in the real world, obviously. I’m closed off inside myself. Ironically, the only way I can feel present, feel that I belong, is through writing, which is really about turning away from the world. In these texts I’m not directing attention to my own presence but to the presence of objects. I’ve wanted to look at everything in the same manner, whether it’s high or low, ugly, bad, good, beautiful. A beer bottle receives the same attention as the concept of love–as much space and as much care. I’m interested in the idea of looking at things without hierarchy, in the world as it is before we start categorizing it.”

The Entitlement of Victims

victimArthur C. Brooks writes in the NY Times that we are becoming a culture of victimization and that this trend matters. “So who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We all should. To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take–the very concept of good-faith disagreement–turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them). Consider a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which examined why opposing groups, including Democrats and Republicans, found compromise so difficult. The researchers concluded that there was a widespread political ‘motive attribution asymmetry,’ in which both sides attributed their own group’s aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side’s to hatred. Today, millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them. Second, victimhood culture makes for worse citizens–people who are less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish. In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled ‘Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups. Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other to write about ‘a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone.’ After writing the essay, the participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task. The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers, and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 percent more entitled. In a separate experiment, the researchers found that members of the unfairness group were 11 percent more likely to express selfish attitudes. In a comical and telling aside, the researchers noted that the victims were more likely than the nonvictims to leave trash behind on the desks and to steal the experimenters’ pens. Does this mean that we should reject all claims that people are victims? Of course not. Some people are indeed victims in America–of crime, discrimination or deprivation. They deserve our empathy and require justice. The problem is that the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture. Where does the former stop and the latter start? I offer two signposts for your consideration.”


rock-paper-scissorsKatharine Schwab cuts into the history of rock-paper-scissors: “The earliest known references to finger-flashing games are a tomb-wall painting at the Beni Hasan burial site in Middle Egypt (dated to around 2000 B.C.E.) and centuries later on a scroll from Japan. Versions of rock-paper-scissors can be found in cultures around the world, but outside of North America it remains most ubiquitous in Asia. In Japan, the game is called jan-ken or jankenpon, and uses the same rock-paper-scissors finger positions, though a variation features a tiger, a village chief, and the village chief’s mother (who beats the chief). In Indonesia, the game is earwig-man-elephant, where the earwig overcomes the elephant by crawling up his trunk and eating his brain. But whatever the interpretation, the game is pervasive, combining everyday utility with basic human psychology. People tend to think that it’s a random (and thus fair) way of making trivial decisions, but the game’s simple structure still allows for an element of strategy, making it an unlikely but fitting subject for a worldwide competition. While your best chance of winning would be to choose your moves completely at random, humans are naturally terrible at behaving randomly. Well-trained players who think of the game as a psychologically driven battle can use this fact and other influencers to increase their chances of winning. Ironically, children are actually the most difficult to play against because they’re the most random in their choices, while adults who are inclined to overthink their moves tend to be more predictable, Simmons says. More skilled players use gambits, which are pre-decided sets of three throws that help reduce the chance that you give away your next move. The Great Eight Gambits, the most common strategies employed, have names like ‘Bureaucrat’ (for three papers used in a row) and ‘Fistful o’ Dollars’ (for rock, paper, paper). ‘It’s about choice and the power of suggestion,’ Simmons says. ‘The game itself almost disappears and it becomes this rarified force of will between two competitors when they both know what they’re doing.'” Best two out of three?

Levinas’ Absent God

levinas absent godOn the 20th anniversary of Emmanuel Levinas’s death, the Levinas Society is making available for one week the new documentary film “Absent God – Emmanuel Levinas and Humanism of the Other.” What better way is there to spend your holiday?





Santa Also Rises

christmas treeFinally, The New Yorker reaches way back into its archives to find James Thurber doing his best Ernest Hemingway impression: “It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them. The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.”





amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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, January 8, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

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

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This holiday week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch explains how rage may authorize momentary violence as a legitimate, if for Arendt, antipolitical response to injustice in the Quote of the Week. Also, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno reflects on what it means to think anymore in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.

year-end contribution

Please Support the HAC with a Year-End Contribution!


I hope you were able to join us to hear Edward Snowden and others talk about Why Privacy Matters at the Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference. If you missed it-or if you want to revisit any of the talks, you can watch the conference here. We will also be posting edited footage to our Vimeo account soon.

snowy hac 2We are now preparing our Fall 2016 conference, “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus“. While college is a safe space for difficult questions, free and collegiate inquiry rests on rules of civility. We raise our hands to speak, listen to those who disagree, and make sacred the space of collective inquiry. Asking difficult questions in a respectful way structures our search for truths and prepares us for the activity of democratic citizenship. The emergence of the seemingly unbridgeable divides separating republican and democratic truths, black and white truths, male and female truths, secular and religious truths is that nearly all of us are increasingly so committed to the absolute truth of our partial story of reality that we find opposing truth and opposing stories existentially threatening. At a moment when difficult questions are evacuated from public spaces, we must strive to maintain the idea of college and university life as a safe space for difficult and contested thinking. Bringing together academics, business people, artists, and intellectuals, we ask, how can we do so while honoring our unshakable commitment to justice and equality?

Allow me to thank you for your continued support of the Hannah Arendt Center! As the year comes to a close, I’m excited to update you on our work this year as well as our plans for 2016. All of these initiatives serve the HAC’s central mission: to promote passionate, uncensored, and non-partisan thinking that reframes and deepens the fundamental questions facing our world.

Your support is crucial to our ability to continue to further Hannah Arendt’s legacy of bold and provocative thinking. Please consider making a year-end contribution to the Center or renewing your membership by clicking the button below.

year-end contributionTo learn more about all that we have done this year and all that we have planned for 2016, please read my letter in full here.

— RB

Featured image sourced from


Amor Mundi 10/18/15

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-upMaking Violence Violent

steve mcqueenWyatt Mason interviews filmmaker Steve McQueen in the T Magazine: “Consider the opening of McQueen’s ‘Hunger,’ in which we see a man’s hands as he removes his wedding ring and then soaks his bruised, scraped knuckles in an ice-cold sink of water. We watch the man have breakfast, those same hands tidily brushing crumbs from his cloth-napkined lap, and later see him standing outside, in winter, in a prison guard’s uniform, smoking, his gaze empty, snowflakes falling, the shirt of his uniform sweated through, and his hands now bruised and bloodied further, flakes of snow falling onto and dissolving into them. He looks utterly destroyed. Only later in the film will we see him doing the work that has wounded those hands: Repeatedly, we watch him savagely beat I.R.A. prisoners nearly to death. By then, it’s not so much that the viewer sympathizes with the villain as that we are made to feel how the guard, no less than the prisoner, is being destroyed by the violence he is made to be a part of. All of McQueen’s feature films document brutality with unflinching power, whether in a prison in Northern Ireland, the figurative jail of sexual addiction or the serial tortures of slavery. In an entertainment culture that has only grown increasingly hospitable to violent diversions, McQueen’s preoccupation with the reality of violence in our lives would be meaningless had he not found forms of depicting it that were meaningfully new. As his short films, though shorn of narrative, made clear to me, McQueen has a cunning range of means to make us feel what we have been habituated to barely notice.”

All In The Families

political contributions monopolyNicholas Confessore, Sarah Cohen, and Karen Yourish describe in the New York Times how 158 families have contributed about one-half of all political contributions so far in this 2016 presidential election cycle. The families “are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy. Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, a New York Times investigation found. Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.”

But What To Do With It All?

nsa data centerWriting on the same theme as our just concluded annual conference, Walter Kirn looks at the devices and algorithims that are collecting data on him and wonders aloud about what it’s doing to him and what it’s doing to us: “I wanted to behold up close, in person, one of the citadels of modern surveillance: the National Security Agency’s recently constructed Utah Data Center. I wasn’t sure what I was after, exactly–perhaps just a concrete impression of a process that seemed elusive and phantasmagoric, even after Snowden disclosed its workings. The records that the NSA blandly rendered as mere ‘data’ and invisibly, silently collected–the phone logs, e-mails, browsing histories, and digital photo libraries generated by a population engaged in the treasonous business of daily life–required a tangible, physical depository. And this was it: a multibillion-dollar facility clearly designed to unscramble, analyze, and store imponderable masses of information whose ultimate uses were unknowable. Google’s data mines, presumably, exist merely to sell us products, but the government’s models of our inner selves might be deployed to sell us stranger items. Policies. Programs. Maybe even wars. Such concerns didn’t strike me as farfetched, but I was reluctant to air them in mixed company. I knew that many of my fellow citizens took comfort in their own banality: You live a boring life and feel you have nothing to fear from those on high. But how could you anticipate the ways in which insights bred of spying might prove handy to some future regime? New tools have a way of breeding new abuses. Detailed logs of behaviors that I found tame–my Amazon purchases, my online comments, and even my meanderings through the physical world, collected by biometric scanners, say, or license-plate readers on police cars–might someday be read in a hundred different ways by powers whose purposes I couldn’t fathom now. They say you can quote the Bible to support almost any conceivable proposition, and I could only imagine the range of charges that selective looks at my data might render plausible.”

amor_mundi_sign-upDemocracy and Others

marilynne robinson barack obama“Marilynne, it’s wonderful to see you.” So starts one of the most unusual interviews in recent memory, an interview conducted by, of all people, President Obama, with the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. Robinson suggests that one of the keys to a democratic society is that “You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with–you know?… Because [of] the idea of the ‘sinister other.’ And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.”

Passing The Time

metsOn Thursday evening, following Day One of the Hannah Arendt Center Conference and at the end of the dinner for the event’s participants, whispers started flying around the room–the Mets first tied and then went ahead of the Dodgers. The next day, we went to our source. Roger Angell’s been writing about this year’s MLB playoffs, and it’s a delight. Here’s a sample on Thursday’s NLDS finale between the Mets and the Dodgers: “The Mets scored a run in the first, on an opening infield single by Curtis Granderson and Murphy’s double, but quickly fell behind when Jacob deGrom gave up four successive singles (the last a bloop) and the tying and go-ahead runs to the Dodgers in the home half. He steadied, fanning the last two batters of the inning, but the damage felt dire, because of the swiftness of response and because deGrom wasn’t himself, running up pitch counts and going wild with his upper fastballs. He was matched against Zack Greinke, who went 19-3 this year and had not lost a game when given a Dodger lead all year, so the early and middle innings felt ominous, even after Murphy’s stroll and tying run. My wife, a chronic ‘Oh-my-Godder’ in taut games, did not lift the mood chez nous, and who can blame her? DeGrom, giving up a few walks and a couple of doubles, allowed base runners in each of the next four innings, all to no avail. How you assess this comes down to the old eschatological dilemma. Were the Dodger hitters terrible, stranding four runners in scoring position (or ‘R.I.S.P.,’ in the parlance), or was deGrom magnificent on an off day? Always in the soup, he struck out a final batter four times in his six innings, and two last batters twice. ‘DeGrom has vanished!’ I wrote in my notebook in the second, Oh-my-Godding on my own–only he hadn’t.”

A Perfect Record

why privacy mattersThursday and Friday were thrilling days at Bard College, where we hosted our eighth annual conference “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?” We will be posting edited video of the conference shortly. For now, you can watch unedited footage here. Or, make your way through the highlights of the conference via Twitter. For example, Emiljana Ulaj tweeted these words from Edward Snowden: “We all instinctively understand that the private realm is where we can act, think, speak, write, experiment, and choose how to be, away from the judgmental eyes of others. Privacy is a core condition of being a free person.” Snowden also said at the conference, “I wanted a fair trial and to speak to the jury, but I wasn’t allowed to.” They said, “We won’t torture you.” You can read more tweets from this year’s conference by looking back on our event’s official hashtag, #ArendtCon2015.

The Drone Whistleblower

drone the interceptWidely referenced at the Arendt Center conference was a new series of articles published by The Intercept that is based on the U.S. drone and assassination program. “The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars–between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides. The Intercept granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. The stories in this series will refer to the source as ‘the source.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.

The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt’s poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt’s political and philosophical works.

Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm

david brinDoes Literature Become More Relevant When We Incorporate History, Science, and Other Elements of Change?

National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?

Free and Open to the Public

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, 4:30 pm

albert knollAlbert Knoll, of the Dachau Archives, Will Be Honored as Archivist of the Year

The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.

Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world – including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service’s first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.

Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #14

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, November 6, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens discusses how Arendt’s comparison of the criminal and the stateless person draws our attention to the multiple exceptions that sovereign states create in the Quote of the Week. Also, Ester Buchholz reflects on the value of solitude with respect to coming up with our own answers in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.

arendt con privacy 2015 1

Thank You!

This year’s annual fall conference was a huge success, so we would like to take a moment to thank all of those who attended, viewed, and participated in our event, as well as those whose help made our conference possible. We extend a special thanks to the following:

Student Fellows & Volunteersarendt con privacy 2015 2
Bard Audio Visual Department
Environmental Services
Buildings & Grounds
Bard Transportation
Bard Publications
Bard Security
Bard College Debate Team
Fisher Centerarendt con privacy 2015 3
Bard PR Department
Bard Central Services
President’s Office
Center for Civic Engagement
Bard Admissions
Office of Development & Alumni/ae Affairs
Theresa Desmondarendt con privacy 2015 4
Brian Mateo
All of the BHSECS
All of the vendors
Hotel Tivoli
Red Hook Country Inn
Total Webcasting
Gerard V.
All of our speakers, moderators, and discussants

From all of us at the Hannah Arendt Center, thank you! We look forward to seeing everyone again at our 2016 fall conference, “How To Talk About Difficult Questions: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus,” which will be held on October 20-21, 2016.


Amor Mundi 9/27/15

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.


Taking Antisemitism Seriously

nazi antisemitismJonathan Derbyshire interviews Timothy Snyder about his new book Black Earth, in which Snyder makes the decidedly Arendtian claim that Nazi antisemitism was not simply the most recent version of traditional hatred against the Jews. Derbyshire notes that many critics have argued that Snyder downplays the connection to traditional anti-Semitism. “‘We can’t pretend,’ [Adam] Gopnik argues, ‘that the Hitlerian crimes can be released from an anti-Semitism rooted in European Christianity.’ When I met Snyder in London last week, I began by asking him what he made of that charge. TS: Anti-Semitism becomes a way in which one short-circuits an argument about why the Holocaust actually happened. If it were just anti-Semitism–for example, just popular anti-Semitism–then we’re left trying to understand why it happened then rather than at some other time. Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not just a more radical hatred of the Jews than other people had. His anti-Semitism was a way of making the whole world make sense. It was a response to globalisation. Hitler was saying that in a world of finite resources what really should be happening is that races should be competing for land and therefore for food; and that this is our natural condition, this is a law of nature. And if we’re not doing that, or if we’re prevented from doing that, it’s the fault of Jews.” Arendt writes “antisemitism” instead of “anti-Semitism” to emphasize that Nazi antisemitism was a “secular nineteenth century ideology” and not the same as traditional hatred of the Jews. As an ideology, antisemitism articulated a truth that was the key to the world: namely, the Jews were the source of German suffering. Antisemitism made sense of the world and offered a solution: the extermination of the Jews. This radical ideological movement was a far cry from traditional anti-Semitism.

Liberty By Post

land officeMike Konczal turns to a series of recent books on legal history to land a glancing blow at those who worry that modern bureaucracy and administrative government is endangering American freedom. Legal historians have shown that well back into the 19th century, Americans turned to administrative rules and agencies to maintain safety and govern wisely. Unacknowledged in Konczal’s essay is that many–but not all–of these bureaucracies were local, as most government was in the 19th century. But aside from a politicized history, Konczal wants to make a larger political point: that bureaucracy actually secures liberty. “The administrative state was not only built on the basis of American legal norms, but it also helped to create them, and, in the process, American conceptions of liberty itself. What sort of bureaucracy could do that? One of the strongest examples is also one of the most prosaic: the Post Office. The Post Office was, at one time, a massive federal state-building enterprise. Spanning and keeping pace with a rapidly expanding frontier, the Post Office was one of the most impressive features of the early state. But not just that. As legal scholar Anuj Desai argues, it is also via the Post Office that our notion of privacy gained shape.” The early post office wanted to encourage literacy and struggled to convince a skeptical public that letters would not be subject to surveillance. It may have ultimately adopted norms preventing prying postal workers, but the post office is a governmental entity, and its record of protecting personal correspondence from government surveillance is hardly stellar. To credit the post office with the invention of privacy and the securing of liberty is more than a stretch.

Powerpoint Thinking

powerpointAndrew Smith thinks that the imperatives of Powerpoint are a contributor to a dearth of nuanced thinking: “Let’s stay with teaching a moment. PP’s enthusiasts claim that it emboldens nervous speakers and forces everyone to present information in an ordered way. To an extent, both contentions are true. But the price of this is that the speaker dominates the audience absolutely. Where the space around and between points on a blackboard is alive with possibility, the equivalent space on a PP screen is dead. Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one–least of all the speaker–is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength…. The presentational precursor to PowerPoint was the overhead projector, which is why PP screens are still called ‘slides’. The program owes most to Whitfield Diffie, one of the time lords of online cryptography, but it was quickly snapped up by Microsoft. Its coding/marketing roots are intrinsic to its cognitive style, being relentlessly linear and encouraging short, affirmative, jargonesque assertions: arguments that are resolved, untroubled by shades of grey.”

amor_mundi_sign-upSomewhere Else

iphoneSusan Dominus considers the way the cell phone isolates us from each other: “My mother’s address book is one of the small visual details of my childhood that I can perfectly conjure, although I am sure no photograph of it exists. Fake-leather-bound, filled with her formal, spidery script, it was, to me, barely legible, with addresses crossed out and replaced with new ones as friends’ lives shifted. I often was dispatched to grab it for her from a kitchen drawer. I knew when she was looking for someone’s phone number, which seems unremarkable, except that my own children do not know when I am searching for a phone number, because all they see is me, on my iPhone, intently focused on something mysterious and decidedly not them. It is that loss of transparency, more than anything, that makes me nostalgic for the pre-iPhone life. When my mother was curious about the weather, I saw her pick up the front page of the newspaper and scan for the information. The same, of course, could be said of how she apprised herself of the news. I always knew to whom she was talking because, before caller ID, all conversations started with what now seems like elaborate explicitness (‘Hi, Toby, this is Flora’). And when my mother spent her obligatory 20 minutes a day on the phone with her own aging mother, it played out, always, in the kitchen, where I was usually half-listening as I did my homework, waiting impatiently for her to finish. All was overt: There was much shared experience and little uncertainty. Now, by contrast, among our closest friends and family members, we operate furtively without even trying to, for no reason other than that we are using a nearly omnipresent, highly convenient tool, the specific use of which is almost never apparent.”

On the Margins

aliceEvan Kindley considers the past and future of literary annotation: “Annotation is a form of literary lingering: It allows us to prolong our experience with a favorite book, to hang around the world of a beloved text a bit longer. But it can also serve as a gateway, for younger readers, to the pleasures of scholarship, by pointing to a larger universe of knowledge beyond. I first read The Annotated Alice at the age of eleven, and I was fascinated by its wealth of recondite information. I’m not quite sure why, at that stage of my life, I was interested in the fact that, say, the man in the folded paper hat in one of John Tenniel’s Alice illustrations resembles British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli; I’m sure I’d never even heard of Disraeli. And yet I was interested; the book taught me how to be curious about such things. Leafing through Norton’s new anniversary edition, I was surprised at how many of Gardner’s notes I remembered vividly, like his reflection on Carroll’s fondness for the number 42, or Humpty Dumpty’s aristocratic habit of offering his inferiors a single finger to shake.”

Higher Education in the Marketplace

universitySiva Vaidhyanathan turns to Thorstein Veblen to consider the paradoxical state of college education now that it’s coming to be considered a service with students as its customers: “If more than one out of three American adults now has a bachelor’s degree, the only way to maintain a premium value on some degrees is to attach artificial prestige to them. The markers of prestige include a premium price tag. Tuition and fees at selective and private Bennington College in Vermont amount to more than $48,000 per year. Tuition and fees at public Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, just twenty-three miles away from Bennington and with just as good access to skiing and Phish bootlegs, are only $9,065 per year for Massachusetts residents. So why would someone pay $39,000 more per year–almost $156,000 over four years–to attend Bennington? There are certainly differences between the institutions. Bennington is notoriously eccentric, and students there are forced to make up their own educational programs–something that more than a few of them aren’t equipped to handle. But what justifies the premium? Prestige is part of the answer. Attending the school that produced Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt might inspire a young person in ways that sharing a degree with urban fantasy novelist Anton Strout or former Major League pitcher Ken Hill, the most notable alumni of MCLA, does not. Parents might boast of a child attending Bennington (and their own ability to foot the bill) with stickers on their Audis; an MCLA sticker, meanwhile, would look much more at home on the back of a Kia Rio. Is the quality of instruction better at premium private schools? Are the facilities better? Is the weed better? Is one school more queer-friendly than the other? Perhaps. But to understand how the good becomes all Vebleny, we must acknowledge that few students who attend expensive-looking private institutions actually pay the sticker price.” Of course, Vaidhyanathan doesn’t answer his rhetorical questions. People may be paying for prestige. But prestige is also a marker for something else–intellectual seriousness and the life of the mind. Elite colleges promise entry into an elite that is not determined by only economics. Whether elite colleges are delivering on their promise is another question.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

yogi berraMichael Carlson recalls the inimitable Yogi Berra in The Guardian. “Yogi Berra, who has died aged 90, was one of baseball’s greatest catchers: he played on 14 American League championship teams and won 10 World Series titles, totals unmatched in the game’s history. But while his sporting fame matched that of his fellow New York Yankees Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, he also achieved a much wider celebrity–first because he served as the model for the popular cartoon character Yogi Bear, and second because his pursuit of a highly personal logic created such ‘Yogisms’ as ‘it ain’t over till it’s over’ and ‘it’s like deja vu all over again’, which have long since passed into everyday currency. A stocky 5ft 8in with a jug-eared gnomish face, Berra hardly looked like a sportsman. The baseball writer Bill James once quipped: ‘If he were a piece of furniture, you’d sand him.’ But, as his longtime manager Casey Stengel, explained: ‘He isn’t much to look at, he looks like he’s doing everything wrong, but he can hit.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #13

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, October 2, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



marcus llanqueOn Hannah Arendt’s Republican Criticism of Liberal Conceptions of Human Rights

Marcus Llanque engages with Arendt’s original intention, which was not to criticize the idea of human rights as such but the specific concept of that idea that prevailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which dominates human rights discourse in our times. In Arendt’s view, human rights can only guide actions, but they cannot replace them. Historically, human rights were most successful when they were linked to the foundation of a polity guided by the principles that human rights stand for. Her argument reflects a classical republican position by emphasizing that norms are nothing without actors and that it is the purpose of human beings, not just to enjoy as many rights as possible but to also be able to act in the first place.

Marcus Llanque is Professor for Political Theory at University of Augsburg/ Germany. He’s published several books on the theory of democracy, republicanism, and the history of political ideas. He is the editor of Hannah Arendt’s “What is Politics?” within the upcoming critical edition of Arendt’s complete works.

Free and Open to the Public

Monday, October 5, 2015

Room 203, Olin Hall, Bard College, 5:00 pm

clinton hillary debateDemocratic Debate Screening

Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.

Light refreshments will be served.

Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA

Privacy debate bannerBard College Public Debate

Resolved: “National security is more important than the individual right to privacy.”

Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Why Privacy Matters.” The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Free and Open to the Public

Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm

why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

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

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

hannah arendt poetryNo Word Breaks Into the Dark – The Poetry of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.

The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt’s poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt’s political and philosophical works.

Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm

david brinDoes Literature Become More Relevant When We Incorporate History, Science, and Other Elements of Change?

National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of  The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? 

Free and Open to the Public

Thursday, October 22, 2015 

Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA

albert knollAlbert Knoll, of the Dachau Archives, Will Be Honored as Archivist of the Year

The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.  The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.

Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997.  In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world – including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann.  Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service’s first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.

Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kathleen B. Jones notes how observing the reactions of European countries to the ongoing migrant crisis is cause for feelings of possibility followed by despair in the Quote of the Week. Peter Baehr explains why the People’s Republic of China is fertile territory for Arendt scholars and wonders where they are as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the United States. Charles William Eliot provides his comments on how an efficient man is capable of thinking in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate some marginalia Arendt made in her copy of “Lectures on the French Revolution” in relation to America, revolution theory, and liberty in this week’s Library feature.


A Graduate Student’s Shelf Library of Arendt

Katie Fitzpatrick, a PhD candidate at Brown University who is working on law, democracy, and civil disobedience in the post-war American novel, recently shared with the Hannah Arendt Center this picture of her personal library of Hannah Arendt’s works on Twitter.

shelf libraryKatie had this to say about the image she shared with us:

Arendt’s work is central to my dissertation on law and democracy in the post-war American novel. My Arendtian “library” is really just a shelf in a tiny graduate student office, but it gives a sense of the scope of the project. I’ve been reading Arendt’s work in the context of democratic philosophy (Rousseau), post-war intellectual history (Trilling), Anglo-American legal theory (Hart, Fuller, Dworkin) and contemporary political critique (Agamben, Honig, Mouffe). This summer, I hope to add work by Ralph Ellison and Danielle Allen, which will help me to think more critically about Arendt’s writings on race and civil rights.

In addition to following us on Twitter, Katie is a regular participant in our virtual reading group. To learn more about this membership-only offering, please click here.

Want to share pictures of your own Arendt library?

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

For more Library photos, please click here.


Amor Mundi 11/9/14

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.

The Creep In Our Kitchen, In Our Car, And Everywhere

internet of thingsSue Halpern writes that the internet is getting creepy. Beyond smart phones and smart watches, we now also are confronted with smart cars and smart refrigerators. Cars remember where we like to go and can direct us there; they will soon even drive for us. Refrigerators know our favorite milk and our guilty pleasures and can order them to be delivered before we realize we need them. All these smart appliances are wired, connecting us and the immense and revelatory data of our lives to the world of commerce and security. Companies can, of course, pay for that data and subtly or not suggest new products. And the government, or others, can hack into the streams of data we trail behind us to know where we’ve been, what we’re doing, and even what we want. Halpern cites Jeremy Rifkin, an evangelist of the coming internet of things, who is clear that in this new age, there will be no privacy: “Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency.” For Rifkin, we should have no qualms about trading privacy for a coming age of unparalleled convenience and security. The more information about ourselves we offer up to the internet of things, the more benefits we will receive. As Halpern argues this week in the NY Review of Books, “These trade-offs will only increase as the quotidian becomes digitized, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to opt out. It’s one thing to edit the self that is broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, but the Internet of Things, which knows our viewing habits, grooming rituals, medical histories, and more, allows no such interventions-unless it is our behaviors and curiosities and idiosyncracies themselves that end up on the cutting room floor.” We are entering a world in which we need to rethink what it means to be private in a world when we are so connected to the internet of things that the internet-and those who can mine it-knows more about ourselves than we do.

The Decadent Introvert

alonenessLinda Holmes talks up the pleasure of being alone and asks how, if at all, we can truly be by and with ourselves: “We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can’t tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it. Most of the time, I want good company, like most people do. But the experience of earned, voluntary aloneness is, among other things, instructive. I don’t think you can really understand how accustomed you are to being scheduled and operating off an internal to-do list at almost all times until you think to yourself, ‘My goal will be to get to Providence by 4,’ and then you think, ‘Why is there a goal?’ And then it begins to make you internally rebellious: What if I drove with no goal? What if I had nowhere to be all day until it was time to sleep and I discussed with no one where to stop and take a picture, where to have lunch, what shop to go in, or which way to turn on the trail? What would I do if I could do anything – in this micro-environment, in this moment, at the point of this particular pause, what is my wish?”

The Courage to Speak Up

Alayne FleischmannAttorney General Eric Holder is about to resign. His legacy: after six years as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, no one has gone to jail either for breaking American laws against torture or for breaking U.S. laws regarding financial fraud relating to the financial crisis. In a recent speech at NYU, Holder explained why it is that corporate executives are not criminally prosecutable: “Responsibility remains so diffuse, and top executives so insulated, that any misconduct could again be considered more a symptom of the institution’s culture than a result of the willful actions of any single individual.” As Matt Taibi glosses such doublespeak in Rolling Stone, “In other words, people don’t commit crimes, corporate culture commits crimes!” Taibi’s moral clarity comes in an article on Alayne Fleischmann: “the central witness in one of the biggest cases of white-collar crime in American history, possessing secrets that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon late last year paid $9 billion (not $13 billion as regularly reported – more on that later) to keep the public from hearing. Back in 2006, as a deal manager at the gigantic bank, Fleischmann first witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as ‘massive criminal securities fraud’ in the bank’s mortgage operations. Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she’s kept her mouth shut since then. ‘My closest family and friends don’t know what I’ve been living with,’ she says. ‘Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview.'” Fleischmann saw crimes committed, blew the whistle on them, and is angry that these crimes are still not being prosecuted. Her choice to speak now appears to be a brave one: “And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. ‘I could be sued into bankruptcy,’ she says. ‘I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.'”

Oligarchy, From Left And Right

James BurnhamIn a short essay seeking to revive the 20th century American conservative James Burnham, Daniel McCarthy argues that we need to learn from Burnham’s combination of unblinkered realism regarding power and insight into the non-ideological managerial elite. He suggests that, as a political culture, there’s just one way forward: “What has happened in America since the end of the Cold War, however, is that competition for popular favor has been reduced to a propaganda exercise-employing myths, symbols, and other ‘derivatives’-disconnected from policies of material interest to the ruling class. Thus monetary policy, foreign policy, and positions on trade and immigration vary little between Republican and Democratic presidents. This is a terrible situation-if you’re not part of the elite. If you are, all the gridlock and venom of our politics is simply irrelevant to the bottom line. For the non-elite, however, insecurity of all kinds continues to rise, as does a sense that the country is being sold out from under you. America’s ruling class has bought itself time-for continuing capitalism in an age of worldwide managerial revolution-at the expense of America’s middle and working classes. Reform, alas, will not come from ‘throw the bums out’ populism of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street varieties. It can only come from two directions: the best of the people must grow conscious of how oligarchy operates and why populist leadership is a paradox, and new factions among the elite must be willing to open competition on more serious fronts-campaigning not only on myths and formulas but on the very substance of the managerial revolution.”

No Good Sports

sportsmanshipCharles P. Pierce takes on the myth of American sportsmanship: “Sports today are conducted in a context that makes true sportsmanship – which is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that your opponent is basically the same common clay deserving of the same respect as you are, not because of talent, but simply because he or she is another human being – almost impossible. Sports today, at almost every level, have arranged themselves in such a way that the athlete is made a commodity. The games are a clash of walking narratives, of competing sales campaigns, of a design competition between marketing techniques and strategies. This has exacerbated the emotional conflict that always has been present when we talk about our athletes – we want ferocious, brain-scrambling passion from them when the ball is in play, and conspicuous public politesse when it is not. If the latter gets tangled up in the former, then we get what seem to be endless arguments about how America is being wussified, and how we have become a soft and passive people, and a lot of rancid talk about people playing in skirts and so on. It’s a wonder more athletes don’t simply go mad.” But if sportsmanship is a no go, what’s left? Ultimately, Pierce wonders if it is anything more or less than kindness.  

What’s the Matter With Goodness?

Toni MorrisonIn a conversation with Angela Davis, Toni Morrison gives a short history of the end of goodness: “It wasn’t true in literature in the early days. There was always a hero who prevailed. As awful as things could happen in a Dickens novel, it ended up with the survival and triumph of high morality, of people who deserved to triumph. But something happened. Now, I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think it is after World War I with novelists at any rate, and certainly some of the war poets. Perhaps they understood themselves as attacking evil but they ended up theatricalizing it and the good people were fairly stupid or unlucky or what have you. There are references in literature to the silencing of goodness … I am interested in pulling from the modern canon what I know and what I believe about this adoration and fascination, this compulsion to display evil. Even if there is a mild attempt to say that it is evil, nevertheless, it’s hogging the stage in many novels. I think goodness is weak in literature almost like it is in the culture. This is just a general observation.”

Featured Events

Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin reflects on Arendt’s understanding of violence and the origins of power in the Quote of the Week. John Stuart Mill provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back on a 2010 Lunchtime Talk with Ursula Ludz, a former visiting scholar of the Hannah Arendt Center. And we appreciate a copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera in our Library feature.


Arendt and Intergenerational Justice

“If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men…. There is perhaps no clearer testimony to the loss of the public realm in the modern age than the almost complete loss of authentic concern with immortality, a loss somewhat overshadowed by the simultaneous loss of the metaphysical concern with eternity.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Intergenerational justice is a central idea in contemporary political thought about the environment, sustainability and global climate change. That we must live today in a manner that does not degrade the life chances of future generations is an intellectual response to the depletion of natural resources, particularly fossil fuels, and the global warming fostered by the use of these sources of energy. As one political response to climate change caused by fossil fuel use, intergenerational justice may be described in terms of a revivifying of public life and a corresponding cultivation of trust in politics. That is to say, intergenerational justice is conceived best not in abstract terms, but as a matter of directing concrete political action, which Arendt argues has a transformative nature, against the anti-political and anti-ecological encroachments of “the social realm” that prioritizes economic thinking, growth and bureaucratic efficiency over concerns for the future. In this sense, we appeal to Arendt, who shows us in On Revolution that the founding of new public space and the revitalization of citizenship are always possible. Continue reading

Amor Mundi 5/25/14


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.

The Fourth Revolution

1The first chapter of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Mickletwait and Adrian Wooldridge has been reprinted in various forms, most recently in the Wall Street Journal. It begins with fear and awe-of China. The first chapter, parts of which have been reprinted in various forms most recently in the Wall Street Journal, introduces the reader to CELAP, the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. “Today, Chinese students and officials hurtle around the world, studying successful models from Chile to Sweden. Some 1,300 years ago, CELAP’s staff remind you, imperial China sought out the brightest young people to become civil servants. For centuries, these mandarins ran the world’s most advanced government-until the Europeans and then the Americans forged ahead. Better government has long been one of the West’s great advantages. Now the Chinese want that title back. Western policy makers should look at this effort the same way that Western businessmen looked at Chinese factories in the 1990s: with a mixture of awe and fear. Just as China deliberately set out to remaster the art of capitalism, it is now trying to remaster the art of government. The only difference is a chilling one: Many Chinese think there is far less to be gained from studying Western government than they did from studying Western capitalism. They visit Silicon Valley and Wall Street, not Washington, D.C.” Beginning with the uncontroversial premise that government is broken, The Fourth Revolution argues that two responses are necessary. The first response is technical: “Government can be made slimmer and better.” The second response is “ideological: it requires people to ask just what they want government to do.” What is needed is a revolution, the surprising and unpredictable emergence of a new common sense that can inspire sacrifice and dedication in the name of a collective vision. Mickletwait and Wooldridge are to be commended for moving beyond the typical jeremiads that all that we need to fix government are technical solutions. The last third of their book is an attempt to articulate a vision of a common idea that can inspire and animate a revolutionary re-imagination of the state. That their proposed idea, which they call “freedom,” is actually quite old is an argument against neither the idea nor its messengers. That said, their view of freedom is disappointingly tame and apolitical. Read more in the Weekend Read by Roger Berkowitz on the Arendt Center blog.

A Little More Than An Apple A Day

new yorker_newark schools_revisions_7What happens when a rock star Democratic mayor, a popular no-nonsense Republican Governor, and a billionaire philanthropist decide to make an all-out and high-profile effort to reform the failing schools in a poor post-industrial city? Dale Russakoff, in a long fascinating essay, describes the axis of local and financial interests that drove­-and blocked-school reform in Newark, New Jersey. Despite a $100,000,000 commitment from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the results of the program have been mixed. “Almost four years later, Newark has fifty new principals, four new public high schools, a new teachers’ contract that ties pay to performance, and an agreement by most charter schools to serve their share of the neediest students. But residents only recently learned that the overhaul would require thousands of students to move to other schools, and a thousand teachers and more than eight hundred support staff to be laid off within three years. In mid-April, seventy-seven members of the clergy signed a letter to Christie requesting a moratorium on the plan, citing ‘venomous’ public anger and ‘the moral imperative’ that people have power over their own destiny. Booker, now a U.S. senator, said in a recent interview that he understood families’ fear and anger: ‘My mom-she would’ve been fit to be tied with some of what happened.’ But he characterized the rancor as ‘a sort of nadir,’ and predicted that in two or three years Newark could be a national model of urban education. ‘That’s pretty monumental in terms of the accomplishment that will be.'”

A Political Animal

1In a review essay summing up a recent biography of John Quincy Adams and both a recent biography and a collection of essays from his wife Louisa Catherine Adams, Susan Dunn points to Adams as perhaps the last member of the political generation of the founders, suggesting that he was both brilliant and behind his times: “Adams’s program was a transformational one, but he disdained the transactional skills with which he might have achieved his goals. He rejected party-building, party leadership and followership, and piously stood opposed to using the tool of political patronage. He had neither talent nor patience for the essence of democratic leadership: connecting with, educating, and empowering ordinary citizens who were beginning to play a decisive part in American government. He did not grasp, as the historian Gordon Wood memorably wrote, that the voice of the people would become ‘America’s nineteenth-century popular substitute for the elitist intellectual leadership of the Revolutionary generation.’ On the contrary, like the founders who worshiped ‘the public’ but feared ‘the people,’ Adams felt only scorn for the idea of dirtying his hands in the increasingly boisterous, personality-driven, sectional, and partisan politics of the 1820s and 1830s.” Proving, however, that no one is just one thing, Adams would later prove to be in the advance guard of another issue; after losing the presidency in 1829, he took up abolition, which he fought as a member of the House of Representatives until his death two decades later.

Sometimes The Simplest Solution

1Philip Ball pushes on the idea that the most elegant scientific solution is likely to be the best one, and the following ideal that simplicity is therefore beautiful, and finds it empty: “The idea that simplicity, as distinct from beauty, is a guide to truth – the idea, in other words, that Occam’s Razor is a useful tool – seems like something of a shibboleth in itself. As these examples show, it is not reliably correct. Perhaps it is a logical assumption, all else being equal. But it is rare in science that all else is equal. More often, some experiments support one theory and others another, with no yardstick of parsimony to act as referee. We can be sure, however, that simplicity is not the ultimate desideratum of aesthetic merit. Indeed, in music and visual art, there appears to be an optimal level of complexity below which preference declines. A graph of enjoyment versus complexity has the shape of an inverted U: there is a general preference for, say, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ over both ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia, just as there is for lush landscapes over monochromes. For most of us, our tastes eschew the extremes.”

One Thing After Another

1Ben Lerner has an excellent essay in the London Review of Books on volume three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. One of the most distinctive qualities of the series is the overwhelming amount of detail Knausgaard offers to describe even the most mundane of events, like the exact appearance and characteristics of a bowl of cornflakes. Indeed, Knausgaard has remarked in an interview, “I thought of this project as a kind of experiment in realistic prose. How far is it possible to go into detail before the novel cracks and becomes unreadable?” Lerner observes that it is this immersive and anti-literary formlessness-as well as the risk it carries-that ultimately gives Knausgaard’s experiment its peculiar power. “What’s unnerving about Knausgaard is that it’s hard to decide if he’s just a child who stares at everything, who makes no distinctions, or if he indeed qualifies as a Baudelairean man-child, as a genius who can ‘bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed’. Another way to put it: does My Struggle ultimately have an aesthetic form? Or is it just one thing after another? I think it’s because My Struggle is both absorbing and can feel undifferentiated that you’ll find it being likened at once to crack cocaine and Marcel Proust. It’s why we can read it compulsively while being uncertain if it’s good.”

Reaching Into the Way, Way Back For a Way Forward

1Paul Carrese and Michael Doran, weary of having to listen to pundits discuss foreign policy and wary of off-the-shelf foreign policy doctrine, look back to Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address as a model for present day American decision making. They note four points – the primacy of natural rights and religious ideals, maintaining military readiness and civilian authority, wariness of faction but adherence to Constitutional rules, and a statesmanship balanced between interest and justice – worthy of continued consideration. They conclude, finally, that the foreign policy put forth by Washington is a foreign policy of an informed citizenry: “the Founders’ school of foreign policy encourages us to maintain a flexible but principled disposition. Washington hoped his moderate, balanced principles would ‘prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.’ This presupposed civic vigilance by citizens and leaders alike. The Farewell Address thus calls his ‘friends and fellow citizens’ to take up the hard work of learning about and debating difficult issues, while avoiding passion and partisan rancor to the highest degree humanly possible. In foreign policy, as in all aspects of political life, neither the experts nor the public have a monopoly on insight. Both are capable of error. A successful, long-term American strategy toward any given problem, or any given era of international realities, will command the respect of a large portion of the public and a significant portion of the experts. Such strategies must be a product of co-creation, and must be rooted in our deepest principles and values.”

The Not-So-Clear NSA Line Between Terrorism and Crime

1In the Intercept, Ryan Devereaux, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras write about MYSTIC, a secret NSA program that allows the U.S. Government to record and listen to every single phone call in certain countries. “Rather than simply making ‘tentative analytic conclusions derived from metadata,’ the memo notes, analysts can follow up on hunches by going back in time and listening to phone calls recorded during the previous month. Such ‘retrospective retrieval’ means that analysts can figure out what targets were saying even when the calls occurred before the targets were identified. ‘[W]e buffer certain calls that MAY be of foreign intelligence value for a sufficient period to permit a well-informed decision on whether to retrieve and return specific audio content,’ the NSA official reported. The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The U.S. intelligence community routinely justifies its massive spying efforts by citing the threats to national security posed by global terrorism and unpredictable rival nations like Russia and Iran. But the NSA documents indicate that SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas to locate ‘international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers’ – traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction. ‘The Bahamas is a stable democracy that shares democratic principles, personal freedoms, and rule of law with the United States,’ the State Department concluded in a crime and safety report published last year. ‘There is little to no threat facing Americans from domestic (Bahamian) terrorism, war, or civil unrest.’ By targeting the Bahamas’ entire mobile network, the NSA is intentionally collecting and retaining intelligence on millions of people who have not been accused of any crime or terrorist activity.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog Wolfgang Heuer writes about Arendt and social science in the “Quote” of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz writes about the Fourth Revolution, a call for a classical liberal revolution in the Weekend Read.

Promise and Peril


There is promise and peril in Ukraine. Ukrainians have evicted a corrupt President and embraced democracy. Just today, the Parliament worked towards a new government while citizens listened in on the debates from outside:

At the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev Thursday morning, as legislators debated the confirmation of a new temporary government, hundreds of people gathered outside to listen to the debate on loudspeakers, press for change and enjoy the argumentative fruits of democracy.

via Flickr by Mark Estabrook

via Flickr by Mark Estabrook

There is the natural temptation to celebrate democratic success. But we must also note that in Kiev, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a synagogue and the Rabbi of Kiev warned Jews to leave Ukraine:

Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, called on Kiev’s Jews to leave the city and even the country if possible, fearing that the city’s Jews will be victimized in the chaos, Israeli daily Maariv reported Friday. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too,” Rabbi Azman told Maariv. “I don’t want to tempt fate,” he added, “but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”

It is hard to know if such warnings are premature and there have been no laws depriving of Jews of either political or civil rights. Nevertheless, there is always danger in populist revolutions, as Hannah Arendt knew. Indeed, the tension between calling for grassroots populist engagement and the worry about the often ugly and racist tenor of such movements was at the center of much of Arendt’s work. It also may have impacted one instance where she withdrew something she wrote.

If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.

Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.

The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is putting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.

But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens. They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.

You can read the whole talk here.


The Banality of Systems and the Justice of Resistance


Peter Ludlow in the Stone remarks on the generational divide in attitudes towards whistle blowers, leakers, and hackers. According to Time Magazine, “70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. This fits a general trend, one heralded by Rick Falkvinge—founder of the European Pirate Parties—at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last year, that young people value transparency above institutional democratic procedures. Distrusting government and institutions, there is a decided shift towards a faith in transparency and unfettered disclosure. Those who expose such in information are lauded for their courage in the name of the freedom of information.

Ludlow agrees and cites Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann for support of his contention that leakers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning acted justly and courageously:

“In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.”

Ludlow insists: “For the leaker and whistleblower the answer to [those who argue it is hubris for leakers to make the moral decision to expose wrongdoing], is that there can be no expectation that the system will act morally of its own accord. Systems are optimized for their own survival and preventing the system from doing evil may well require breaking with organizational niceties, protocols or laws. It requires stepping outside of one’s assigned organizational role.” In other words, bureaucratic systems have every incentive to protect themselves, thus leading to both dysfunction and injustice. We depend upon the actions of individuals who say simply: “No, I can’t continue to allow such injustice to go on.” Whistle blowers and leakers are essential parts of any just bureaucratic organization.

Ludlow’s insight is an important one: It is that the person who thinks for himself and stands alone from the crowd can—in times of crisis when the mass of people are thoughtlessly carried away by herd instincts and crowd mentality—act morally simply by refusing to go along with the collective performance of injustice. The problem is that if Snowden and Manning had simply resigned, their acts of resistance would have had minimal impact. To make a difference and to act in the name of justice, they had to release classified material. In effect, they had to break the law. Ludlow’s claim is that they did so morally and in the name of justice. 


But is Ludlow correct to enlist Arendt in support of leakers such as Snowden and Manning? It is true that Arendt deeply understands the importance of individuals who resist the easy path of conformity in the name of doing right. Perhaps nowhere is the importance of such action made more markedly manifest than in her telling of the mention of Anton Schmidt when his name appeared in the testimony of the Eichmann trial:

At this slightly tense moment, the witness happened to mention the name of Anton Schmidt, a Feldwebel, or sergeant, in the German Army – a name that was not entirely unknown to this audience, for Yad Vashem had published Schmidt’s story some years before in its Hebrew Bulletin, and a number of Yiddish papers in America had picked it up. Anton Schmidt was in, charge of a patrol in Poland that collected stray German soldiers who were cut off from their units. In the course of doing this, he had run into members of the Jewish underground, including Mr. Kovner, a prominent member, and he had helped the Jewish partisans by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. Most important of all: “He did not do it for money.” This had gone on for five months, from October, 1941, to March, 1942, when Anton Schmidt was arrested and executed. (The prosecution had elicited the story because Kovner declared that he had first heard the name of Eichmann from Schmidt, who had told him about rumors in the Army that it was Eichmann who “arranges everything.”) ….

During the few minutes it took Kovner to tell of the help that had come from a German sergeant, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe the usual two minutes of silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes, which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question – how utterly different everything would be today in this courtroom, in Israel, in Germany, in all of Europe, and perhaps in all countries of the world, if only more such stories could have been told. 

For Arendt, great civil disobedients from Socrates to Thoreau play important and essential roles in the political realm. What is more, Arendt fully defends Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers. It seems, therefore, that it is appropriate to enlist her in support of the modern day whistleblowers.

There is, however, a problem with this reading. Socrates, Thoreau, and Ellsberg all gave themselves up to the law and allowed themselves to be judged by and within the legal system. In this regard, they differ markedly from Snowden, Manning and others who have sought to remain anonymous or to flee legal judgment. For Arendt, this difference is meaningful.

Consider the case of Shalom Schwartzbard, which Arendt addresses in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Schwartzbard was a Jew who assassinated the leader of Ukranian pogroms in the streets of Paris. Schwartzbard stood where he took his revenge, waited for the police, admitted his act of revenge, and put himself on trial. He claimed to have acted justly at a time when the legal system was refusing to do justice. And a French jury acquitted him.

For Arendt, the Schwartzbard case stands for an essential principle of justice: that to break the law and act justly, one must then bring oneself back into the law. She writes:

He who takes the law into his own hands will render a service to justice only if he is willing to transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can, at least posthumously, be validated.

What allows Schwartzbard to serve the end of justice is that he took the risk of putting himself on trial and asked a court of law and a jury to determine whether what he did was just, even it were also illegal. By doing so, Schwartzbard not only claimed that his act was a matter of personal conscience; he insisted as well that it was legal if one understood the laws rightly. He asked the representatives of the law—the French jury—to publicly agree with his claim and to vindicate him. He had no guarantee they would do so. When they did, their judgment brought the justice of Schwartzbard’s act to the bright light of the public and also cast the legal system’s inaction—its refusal to arrest war criminals living openly in Paris—in the shadow of darkness.

When I have suggested to colleagues and friends that Snowden’s flight to Moscow and his refusal to stand trial makes it impossible to see his release of the NSA documents as an act of justice, their response mirrors the argument made by Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg—who turned himself over to the police after releasing the Pentagon Papers—has defended Snowden’s decision to flee. The United States of 2013, he argues, is simply no longer the United States of the 1960s. When Ellsberg turned himself in, he was released on bail and given legal protections. He has no faith that the legal system today would treat Snowden with such respect. More likely Snowden would be imprisoned, possibly in solitary confinement. Potentially he would be tortured. There is every reason to believe, Ellsberg and others argue, that Snowden would not receive a fair trial. Under such circumstances, Snowden’s flight is, these supporters argue,  justifiable.

I fully admit that it is likely that Snowden would have been treated much less generously than was Ellsberg. But aside from the fact that Snowden never gave the courts the chance to treat him justly, his refusal to submit to the law makes it impossible for his act of disobedience to shine forth as a claim of doing justice. He may claim that he acted in the public interest. He may argue that he acted out of conscience. And he may say he wants a public debate about the rightness of U.S. policy. He may be earnest in all these claims. But the fact that he fled and did not “transform the situation in such a way that the law can again operate and his act can be validated,” means that he does not, in the end, “render a service to justice.” On the contrary, by fleeing, Snowden gives solace to those who portray him as a criminal and make it easier for those who would to discredit him.


All of this is not to say that Snowden was wrong to release the NSA documents. It is clearly the case that the security state has gone off the rails and become encased in a bubble of fearful conformity that justifies nearly any act in the name of security. We do need such a public conversation about these policies and to the extent that Snowden and Manning have helped to encourage one, I am thankful to them. That said, Manning’s anonymity and Snowden’s flight have actually distracted attention from the question of the justice of their acts and focused attention instead on their motives and personal characters. They have, by resisting the return to law, diluted their claims to act justly.

It is a lot to ask that someone risk their life to act justly. But the fact that justice asks much of us is fundamental to the nature of justice itself: That justice, as opposed to legality, is always extreme, exceptional, and dangerous. Arendt knew well that those who act justly may lose their life, as did Socrates and Anton Schmidt. She knew well that those who act justly may lose their freedom, like Nelson Mandela. But she also knew that even those who die or are isolated will, by their courage in the service of justice, shine light into a world of shadows.

Peter Ludlow’s essay on the Banality of Systematic Evil is well worth reading. He is right that it is important for individuals to think for themselves and be willing to risk civil disobedience when they are convinced that bureaucracies have lost their moral bearings.  It is your weekend read. And if you want to read more about Arendt and the demands of justice, take a look at this essay on Arendt’s discussion of the Shalom Schwartzbard case.


Hannah Arendt as a Jewish Cosmopolitan Thinker


Hannah Arendt’s life and work defy easy categorization, so I tend to be skeptical when a writer tries to encapsulate her oeuvre in a few catchwords. After all, previous efforts at concise assessment have typically led to reductive if not tendentious misreadings. So I was both pleased and surprised by sociologist Natan Sznaider’s book Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order (2011), which sharpens our understanding of Arendt’s thought by locating her within a specific historical milieu and intellectual genealogy. Briefly put, Sznaider portrays Arendt as both a Jewish and a cosmopolitan thinker, one whose arguments strike a fine balance between the particular and the universal.


This formulation obviously raises questions about Sznaider’s conception of key terms, including “Jewish” and “cosmopolitan.” With regard to the former, he contends that Arendt should be grasped as a Jewish thinker because she was intimately involved in the political debate and activity that defined Jewish life in the years before and after the Holocaust. As Sznaider notes, Arendt defined her Jewishness first and foremost as “a political stance”. She participated in Zionist mobilization when she still lived in Germany and in the founding of the World Jewish Congress during her time in Paris. She retrieved Jewish books, manuscripts, and other artifacts from Europe in her work for Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. She spoke and wrote as a Jew when she discussed the nature of guilt, responsibility, and memory after the destruction of European Jewry. And, of course, she stirred controversy in American, German, and Israeli circles for her portrayal of Eichmann and her sharp criticisms of Europe’s Jewish leadership. Sznaider convincingly argues that Arendt’s politics, molded in the heat of twentieth-century Jewish activism, left a deep imprint on her political theory. Without grasping her specific engagements as a Jew, he insists, we cannot comprehend her more general pronouncements on rights, totalitarianism, and a host of other topics.

This point has important implications for Sznaider’s conception of cosmopolitanism. In his view, cosmopolitanism

combines appreciation of difference and diversity with efforts to conceive of new democratic forms of political rule beyond the nation-state…. It neither orders differences hierarchically nor dissolves them, but accepts them as such—indeed, invests them with positive value. It is sensitive to historic cultural particularities, respecting the specific dignity and burden of a group, a people, a culture, a religion. Cosmopolitanism affirms what is excluded both by hierarchical difference and by universal equality—namely, perceiving others as different and at the same time equal.

Sznaider’s rendering fits comfortably within recent discussions of “rooted” and “vernacular” cosmopolitanism. He insists that people only create and live forms of worldliness on the basis of their particular experiences, histories, and identities. He thereby distinguishes cosmopolitanism from “universalist” modes of thought, which in his understanding treat people as abstract individuals and do not recognize their specific attachments. Sznaider identifies universalist impulses in a number of intellectual and ideological movements, but he draws particular attention to the Enlightenment and the nationalist ideologies that emerged in Europe after the French Revolution. Both offer Jews inclusion and equality—but only, it seems, if they stop being Jewish.

In Sznaider’s reading, Arendt’s thought is cosmopolitan in precisely this “rooted” sense. Like a number of other twentieth-century Jewish intellectuals, she relied on Jewish particularity to advance broader, even “universal” claims about the nature of modern life and politics. (I use Sznaider’s language here, although I believe he could have more carefully distinguished the “universal” dimensions of Arendt’s thought from the “universalist” projects that he decries.) European Jewish experiences of persecution, for example, offered Arendt a crucial lens through which to analyze the potentials and paradoxes of minority and human rights. She also relied on the destruction of European Jewry to reflect on the emerging concept of “crimes against humanity”—without, at the same time, losing sight of the Holocaust’s irreducible specificity. Arendt’s attentiveness to both the particular and the universal is evident in her description of Nazi mass murder as “a crime against humanity committed on the bodies of the Jewish people.”

Sznaider provides a particularly good account of the ways that Arendt resisted early attempts to “generalize” the Holocaust. In her exchanges with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, for instance, she resisted the suggestion that the mass killing of Jews was but one “holocaust” among others. She also challenged the notion that the destruction of European Jewry was a paradigmatic modern event that all human beings, in one way or another, shared in common. For Arendt, such claims not only neglected the history of a specifically Jewish catastrophe, but also absolved its German perpetrators of their particular responsibility.


Sznaider’s favorable assessment of Arendt in this case represents an interesting development in his own thought: in a 2005 book that he wrote with Daniel Levy, Sznaider had been a good deal more sympathetic to the formation of a globalized Holocaust memory. At that time, he and his co-author regarded worldwide remembrance of the Nazi genocide as an important means to transcend national frames of reference and promote a cosmopolitan human rights regime. Little of that position remains in Jewish Memory and the Cosmopolitan Order. Instead, Sznaider takes critical aim at one fashionable contemporary thinker, Giorgio Agamben, for lifting the Nazi concentration camps out of their historical context and recasting them as the epitome of modern sovereign power.

I sympathize with this reading of Agamben, whose provocative claims tend to outstrip the empirical cases on which they are based. Yet in one respect Sznaider could also be more careful about the generalization if not “universalization” of Jewish experience. He is too quick at a few points to position Jews as the embodiments and carriers of modernity’s virtues, too hasty in his portrayal of the Diaspora as the paradigm for de-territorialization and cosmopolitanism as such. In a 1993 article, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin—the one a Talmudic studies scholar, the other an anthropologist—cautioned us against “allegorizing” Jews as the exemplary Other, and we would do well to take their warning to heart. Other groups, identities, and histories inhabit the world in which we all live, and we should take seriously the insights that their own particularity might offer to our understanding of cosmopolitanism.

This last criticism notwithstanding, Sznaider’s book provides an incisive re-appraisal of Arendt’s thought. Although its central argument can be stated briefly, it does not narrow our appreciation of her work as much as enliven and expand it.

-Jeff Jurgens

John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.


The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read “The Humanities and Common Sense,”  and click here to read “The Progeny of Teachers.”

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.

One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.

Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.

The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:

Romney’s ad says, “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs — HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: “They just send you your welfare check.” The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is “designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:

The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all.  Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .

How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn’t fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.

The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don’t trust each other. We can’t talk to one another. We don’t share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.

Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President’s citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.

There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany’s problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.

There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.

For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his “Fight the Smears” website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.

But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts.  It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President’s administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.

While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.

That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don’t much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.

If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.

As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don’t like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity.  Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.

—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)

The Supreme Court No Longer Reigns Supreme

Polling often confirms the obvious, but sometimes it is important to be faced with the fact. The NY Times does just today when it reports,

Just 44 percent of Americans approve of the job the Supreme Court is doing and three-quarters say the justices’ decisions are sometimes influenced by their personal or political views.  Approval was as high as 66 percent in the late 1980s, and by 2000 approached 50 percent.

The loss of respect for the Court is important. Hannah Arendt understood that the Supreme Court was the only institution in American Democracy that could offer stability and authority to the vagaries of democratic will.  The Court is the institution that stands above politics, or at least it used to.

For Arendt, the “great measure of success” of the American experiment in government was the founding of a “new body politic stable enough to survive the onslaught of centuries to come.” Arendt writes that the success of American Constitutional Republicanism was secured “the very moment when the Constitution began to be “worshipped.” The worship of the Constitution meant that the Court decisions where cloaked in a patina of authority. The Court spoke not for itself, nor for the democratic people, but for the American People constituted as a Republic.

The importance of the Supreme Court was that it lacked power and thus stood outside of politics.

Institutionally, it is lack of power, combined with permanence of office, which signals that the true seat of authority in the American Republic is the Supreme Court. And this authority is exerted in a kind of continuous constitution-making, for the Supreme Court is indeed, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, ‘a kind of Constitutional Assembly in continuous session.

The Court was both a truthteller that stood outside politics and, equally essential, a model of free and reasoned discussion about the core constitutional issues of the day.

The decline of the Supreme Court has a long history. It begins with the innovation of the Justices issuing long and reasoned decisions, something that only becomes common in the early 20th century. The long opinions and multiple dissents pierced the veil of authority and showed the Court to resemble bickering legislatures more than reasonable jurists. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme further politicized the Court, as did the activism of the Warren Court. But it was only in the 1980s and the bitter confirmation battles along with the litmus tests for judges on issues like abortion and affirmative action that has produced a Court that sees itself as an increasingly politicized body. The Bush v. Gore intervention that decided the 2000 election and most recently the Citizens United decision that made unconstitutional a century-long practice of limiting the influence of money in elections have stripped the Court of its last veneer of authority.

The loss of authority may not be reversible, but nor is it a minor event. How we respond to the loss of the Court’s authority—with denial, with an effort to return the Court to its prior glory, with an ever-more partisan and thoughtless politics, or with a concerted effort to create new institutions that will conserve and deepen the sense of who we are as a nation—will go a long way to determining whether the United States’ will persist as a beacon of freedom and stability.