Amor Mundi 3/13/16

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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Politics of the Deal

Arthur Goldhammer understands that Donald Trump is hardly Hitler and The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf. The Trump phenomenon may feed on racial tension, but it is not founded upon fascism, racism, or authoritarianism. Recognizing this is important because lazy criticism can be worse than the failure to criticize, as it only solidifies the sense of righteous anger in those are unfairly targeted. Calling Trump and his huge numbers of supporters racist or fascist may make a small group of intellectuals feel morally superior, but it will hardly convince those voters. The Trump phenomenon is powerful and potentially dangerous and it needs to be understood. What it promises is something new, the anti-politics of “the deal”; Trump outlines his philosophy with clarity in his book The Art of the Deal. Goldhammer is one of the few critics who pay attention.  “Some observers have argued that Trump exemplifies the authoritarian personality, who answers his supporters’ craving “for order and a fear of outsiders,” but that is not the right way to think about Trump. He is not an authoritarian but a celebrity. The French historian Antoine Lilti has described “the invention of celebrity” in the late 18th century. For Lilti, celebrity is a phenomenon of fusion. The relationship of admirer to celebrity is a mediated one, but in the mind of the admirer the mediation disappears: She becomes one with the object of her devotion, his desires becomes hers, his fulfilments as well. What he detests or fears, she detests or fears. One sees this urge to identify, to erase critical distance, in this video of a group of young women being shown around Trump’s penthouse. One sees it in his assumption that the things (and women) he collects are what everyone else covets as well. One sees it in his followers’ belief that no opposition will be capable of resisting him, because he has mastered “the art of the deal.” “The deal,” ultimately, is the trumpenproletariat’s answer to the potential for paralysis that the Founding Fathers built into the American Constitution to allay their fears of faction and tyranny. To prevent a faction or a tyrant from seizing power, they installed checks and balances into our system of government and sought to ensure that no individual or group would likely be able to control every possible veto point. But in recent years this veto-ridden system has shuddered to a halt. Immobilized, the great engine of government has failed to respond to the needs of many groups of citizens, not just those who see their salvation in Trump. With celebrity and the illusion of omnipotent wish-fulfillment it bestows, Trump now promises to slice through this Gordian knot. He has made a career of portraying himself as a man who gets things done, who builds buildings, beds women, pummels opponents, hires and fires apprentices. His followers want things done and, having identified with his self-presentation to the point of fusion, they have convinced themselves that with him their wishes, no matter how contradictory, will all be fulfilled. They mistake their man’s celebrity for the kind of power and mastery needed to unfreeze the system. And why shouldn’t they? As Thomas Hobbes put it, “Reputation of power is power.” Thanks to his reputation of power, Trump’s ignorance of government, of foreign policy, of economics counts in his favor, because as Hobbes also said, knowledge “is small power,” since the truths it contains are evident only to “such as in a good measure have attained it.” Ignorance cloaked in celebrity appeals to the many, while knowledge, with its frustrating acknowledgment of difficulty and of incompatible goods, does not please crowds.”

To understand Hitler, it helps to read Mein Kampf. Similarly, those who would understand Trump would do well to stop psychoanalyzing his supporters and look at what he wrote. The Art of the Deal is Trump’s manifesto. When Trump says that building a wall is the beginning of his negotiations with Mexico and that he will have to negotiate a final deal, you can hear his words written 40 years ago: “My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing to get what I’m after. Sometimes I settle for less than I sought, but in most cases I still end up with what I want.” When Trump responds to insults with invective and anger, you can hear his self-analysis in The Art of the Deal. “Much as it pays to emphasize the positive, there are times when the only choice is confrontation. In most cases I’m very easy to get along with. I’m very good to people who are good to me. But when people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is that you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone.” And when Trump shoots from the hip, seeming both uninformed and flippant, one should recall his well-established strategy of deal making: “Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.” And finally, when one listens to Trump joking, needling, and provoking, one should hear the resonance with his philosophy of life:  “I don’t kid myself. Life is very fragile, and success doesn’t change that. If anything, success makes it more fragile. Anything can change, without warning, and that’s why I try not to take any of what’s happened too seriously. Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what I should have done differently, or what’s going to happen next. If you ask me exactly what the deals I’m about to describe all add up to in the end, I’m not sure I have a very good answer. Except that I’ve had a very good time making them.””

There is an unmistakably racial undertone to many of Trump’s rallies and remarks. I’ve written about that here. But it is important to recognize that Trump’s focus on illegal immigrants, protectionism, the wall on the Mexican border, and the terrorist danger posed by Muslims transcends race. Illegal immigration is a problem in a society governed by the rule of law. Free trade does hollow out the jobs that have for generations sustained the working class. And while not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists practice Islam, the rise of international Jihad and ISIS are inseparable from contemporary Islamic movements. Trump could and should make these distinctions clearer than he has. But it is hardly racist or fascist to take the positions he has. Indeed, both Democrat candidates have been supporters of a fence in Mexico and rigorous screenings of Muslim refugees. The difference between Trump, Clinton, and Sanders is one of rhetoric and degree, hardly of policy. And as Janell Ross has recently written in the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders’ supporters have pushed the limits of racial propriety as well. The real difference is that Sanders has shown a willingness to condemn excesses by his supporters while Trump has not. That shows a difference of character that’s is considerable and important. It shows Trump to be low class. It hardly makes Trump a racist.

For those who think this is quibbling, distinctions and definitions are not arbitrary and they are important. First because we should all try to speak with a clarity that allows others to understand us. Second, distinctions allow us to speak with those with whom we don’t agreed. To call Trump a racist is to score points amongst your friends, pile up “Likes” and “Loves” on Facebook, and win Twitter followers. But it will not persuade those with whom one disagrees because it does not truthfully engage with their reality. Politics, Hannah Arendt taught, is not about truth, it is about opinion. When Trump refuses to condemn violence or when his rhetoric is excessive, he should be called on it. When he makes up facts, he should be shamed. But too often the vitriol against Trump comes from a belief that his supporters have illegitimate beliefs. To delegitimize political beliefs with charges of racism and fascism is to drive a deeper wedge between the liberal and conservative elites who self-righteously condemn Trump and the bi-partisan working class Americans who have turned to Trump after decades of Republican and Democratic refusal to respond to their interests. The hope that a narcissistic deal-maker can save the country may be a shallow and desperate hope. But the worry that our political class is not up to the job is born from experience. -RB


Georg Diez writes about the anger of Jürgen Habermas and his newly empowered fight against European elites. We live at a time where western representative democracy has lost its legitimacy because it has ceased to be either representative or democratic. Habermas calls this post-democracy.  “”Zur Verfassung Europas” (“On Europe’s Constitution”) is the name of his new book, which is basically a long essay in which he describes how the essence of our democracy has changed under the pressure of the crisis and the frenzy of the markets. Habermas says that power has slipped from the hands of the people and shifted to bodies of questionable democratic legitimacy, such as the European Council. Basically, he suggests, the technocrats have long since staged a quiet coup d’état. “On July 22, 2011, (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a vague compromise — which is certainly open to interpretation — between German economic liberalism and French etatism,” he writes. “All signs indicate that they would both like to transform the executive federalism enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty into an intergovernmental supremacy of the European Council that runs contrary to the spirit of the agreement.” Habermas refers to the system that Merkel and Sarkozy have established during the crisis as a “post-democracy.” The European Parliament barely has any influence. The European Commission has “an odd, suspended position,” without really being responsible for what it does. Most importantly, however, he points to the European Council, which was given a central role in the Lisbon Treaty — one that Habermas views as an “anomaly.” He sees the Council as a “governmental body that engages in politics without being authorized to do so.” He sees a Europe in which states are driven by the markets, in which the EU exerts massive influence on the formation of new governments in Italy and Greece, and in which what he so passionately defends and loves about Europe has been simply turned on its head.”

For so many today, the failure of democracy leads to pessimism and cynicism. Not for Habermas. As Diez writes, “Habermas truly believes in the rationality of the people. He truly believes in the old, ordered democracy. He truly believes in a public sphere that serves to make things better.” Hannah Arendt also rejects pessimism. Never afraid to look reality in the face, Arendt confronts the undemocratic element of representative democracy and the corruption of a citizenry that prefers acquisition and luxury to self-government. But Arendt also insists that we not only face up to reality, but resist it. Resistance for Arendt does not embrace the fantastic ideal of the “rationality of the people.” Such mythic ideals are an avoidance of reality. Instead, we must develop institutional incentives and constitutional institutions that habituate people to the joys of acting and speaking in public. Arendt shares Habermas’ optimism, but not his rationalist fantasies. What is needed, she suggests, is a wide-eyed confrontation with the way individuals can act and speak in ways that inspire new the ideals of citizenship, new institutions, and new ideals. The first step toward such action is a willingness to say what is and speak one’s opinion with vigor and newness. And that requires bold and provocative thinking that is out of step with public opinion. New political opinions will frequently be unpopular. But only new and even shocking opinions are those that can make others take note and talk about them. Only when truly new and surprising actions and opinions enter the public realms is there a real chance to create new ideals and new institutions. But new opinions will most often be attacked rather than embraced. That is why Arendt calls courage the first political virtue. -RB

The Public Safety State

Thinking about the rhetoric and legal bases of the War on Terror, Kade Crawford differentiates between kinds of public safety and, in turn, kinds of public good: “Both Democrats and Republicans justify Terror War abuses by telling the public, either directly or indirectly, that our national security hangs in the balance. But national security is not the same as public safety. And more: the things the government has done in the name of preserving national security-from invading Iraq to putting every man named Mohammed on a special list-actually undermine our public safety. That’s because, as David Talbot demonstrates in The Devil’s Chessboard, his revelatory Allen Dulles biography and devastating portrait of a CIA run amok, national security centers on “national interests,” which translates, in the brand of Cold War realpolitik that Dulles pioneered, into the preferred policy agendas of powerful corporations. Public safety, on the other hand, is concerned with whether you live or die, and how. Any serious effort at public safety requires a harm-reduction approach acknowledging straight out that no government program can foreclose the possibility of terroristic violence. The national security apparatus, by contrast, grows powerful in direct proportion to the perceived strength of the terrorist (or in yesterday’s language, the Communist) threat-and requires that you fear this threat so hysterically that you release your grip on reason. Reason tells you government cannot protect us from every bad thing that happens. But the endlessly repeated national security meme pretends otherwise, though the world consistently proves it wrong.” The confusion of national security with public safety is a theme of Arendt’s work; she insists that what we justify in the name of national security is rarely about the security of the nation and frequently in support of economic or imperialist adventures. And the turn toward public safety furthers the tenuous connection of our national security state to any meaningful connection to the security of the nation. The debate is really between personal freedom and personal security; the question is whether the seemingly unique unlimited human desire for security will corrupt the essential republican freedoms of free speech, free assembly, and free protest that are at the root of our constitutional freedoms.

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 Art in Dark Times

aleppo-wsj-amor-mundiUrsula Lindsey visits Egypt’s literary elite and, through their struggle with the country’s repressive, but secular, military government, tells a story of its history since Tahrir: “Cairo has always had a lively literary scene, which since the early 20th century has been anchored in the bars, bookstores, offices, and smoke-filled cafés of Downtown. The district adjoins Tahrir Square, a belle epoque wonder created by Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1865 to rival the glory of Paris. Its elegant apartment buildings, old palaces, and passages have slipped into charming dilapidation, but it remains the city’s cultural epicenter. In the novel The Yacoubian Building, a best seller during Mubarak’s twilight years in power, Alaa Al Aswany indicts the regime’s corruption and describes its repercussions on the lives of the residents of a historic Downtown building. Merit published the first edition. Two years after Mubarak’s downfall, Hashim and his friends were in the street again. In 2013, they backed the protests against the Muslim Brotherhood’s post-Mubarak government and the military intervention that ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency that July. Headed by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has since become president, the regime outlawed the Brotherhood and arrested thousands of its members. When security forces cleared Morsi supporters from Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013, they left at least 1,000 people dead. As an Islamist insurgency grew in the Sinai Peninsula and the country’s economy faltered, the Sisi regime’s repression expanded in every direction, driving a generation of young activists into prison, exile, or silence. Egyptians are still dying regularly in police custody or being kidnapped and held for weeks or months on end in a secret, parallel prison system where torture is rampant. The authorities harass media outlets, human-rights groups, universities, civil-society organizations, and cultural institutions-anywhere citizens might congregate, reflect, and express themselves. In the entrance to Merit’s office hangs a tattered, framed gray sheet of paper covered in signatures. At the top is written i was in tahrir. So many waves of violence, fatigue, disappointment, and confusion have swept over Egypt since the uprising five years ago that these days, one almost forgets, or doubts, it ever took place. Sisi’s regime wants not only to rewrite the past-it insists the Arab Spring was a conspiracy hatched by the West and Islamists-but also to forbid any honest accounting of the present crisis and to disable the capacity to imagine alternatives. To the government, the motley spirit of defiance displayed by institutions like Merit is unacceptable.”

The Rise of the Social

Emily Bell takes stock of the new media landscape: “Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves. Our news ecosystem has changed more dramatically in the past five years than perhaps at any time in the past five hundred. We are seeing huge leaps in technical capability-virtual reality, live video, artificially intelligent news bots, instant messaging, and chat apps. We are seeing massive changes in control, and finance, putting the future of our publishing ecosystem into the hands of a few, who now control the destiny of many. Social media hasn’t just swallowed journalism, it has swallowed everything. It has swallowed political campaigns, banking systems, personal histories, the leisure industry, retail, even government and security. The phone in our pocket is our portal to the world. I think in many ways this heralds enormously exciting opportunities for education, information, and connection, but it brings with it a host of contingent existential risks…The reintermediation of information, which once looked as though it was going to be fully democratized by the progress of the open Web, is likely to make the mechanisms for funding journalism worse before they get better. Looking at the prospects for mobile advertising and the aggressive growth targets Apple, Facebook, Google, and the rest have to meet to satisfy Wall Street, it is fair to say that unless social platforms return a great deal more money back to the source, producing news is likely to become a nonprofit pursuit rather than an engine of capitalism. To be sustainable, news and journalism companies will need to radically alter their cost base. It seems most likely that the next wave of news media companies will be fashioned around a studio model of managing different stories, talents, and products across a vast range of devices and platforms. As this shift happens, posting journalism directly to Facebook or other platforms will become the rule rather than the exception. Even maintaining a website could be abandoned in favor of hyperdistribution. The distinction between platforms and publishers will melt completely.”

The Common Turtle Pile

Diane Ravitch, citing a certain couplet loving children’s author, takes stock of the divide between educators and the people who write education policy: “In New York State, 220,000 students refused to take the state tests in 2015. This is called “opting out” of the test. A survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents sixty-eight urban districts, reported that the average student takes 112 standardized tests from pre-kindergarten to the end of high school, most of which are mandated by the federal government. The new online tests for the Common Core require children in grades three to eight to sit for fifteen to twenty hours over a two-week period to measure their reading and math skills. National opinion polls showed that a majority of parents thought there was too much testing in schools. In response to such expressions of parental opposition, the Obama administration announced in late October that it was taking action to reduce the burden of standardized testing. Secretary Duncan issued a statement saying that testing was consuming too much instructional time and “causing undue stress for students and educators.” The one concrete proposal in the Obama “Testing Action Plan” was advice to states and districts to limit tests to no more than 2 percent of class time. Since most schools are in session 180 days a year for at least six hours a day, the limit translates to twenty-one hours of testing time. In other words, the 2 percent “limit” merely confirmed the status quo, while giving the appearance that the administration was making genuine changes. Nothing in the administration’s plan allowed states to drop the failed practice of evaluating the quality of teachers by the test scores of their students. In early December, Congress passed and President Obama signed a new federal law, replacing Bush’s No Child Left Behind. It is called the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which is another way of saying “no child left behind” (why Congress feels the need to put an unrealistic prediction into the title of legislation is baffling). Like NCLB, the new law requires annual testing of students in grades three to eight in reading and mathematics, but it turns this responsibility over to the states. ESSA prohibits future secretaries of education from meddling in states’ decisions and contracts the federal role in education. It also eliminates federal punishments for schools and teachers with low test scores, leaving those decisions to the states. What is not abandoned is the core belief that standardized testing and accountability are the right levers to improve education. The best metaphor for education reform today is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, the master turtle, forced all the other turtles to pile themselves into a very high stack so that he could survey his kingdom. From where Yertle sat, perched on top, everything looked grand and glorious. Those on the bottom were not experiencing anything but pain and frustration. When the pile collapsed, Yertle was brought back to earth and got his comeuppance. This will likely be the fate of the politicians, economists, and business leaders who decided to reform the nation’s schools, at a distance, without consulting working educators.”