John Kenneth Galbraith on the Labor of Thought

“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”

— John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith’s Biography

John Kenneth Galbraith,  (born October 15, 1908, Iona Station, Ontario, Canada—died April 29, 2006, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.), Canadian-born American economist and public servant known for his support of public spending and for the literary quality of his writing on public affairs.

After study at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Agricultural College (now part of the University of Guelph; B.S., 1931) and the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D., 1934), Galbraith, who became a U.S. citizen in 1937, taught successively at Harvard and Princeton universities until 1942. During World War II and the postwar period, he held a variety of government posts and served as editor of Fortune magazine (1943–48) before resuming his academic career at Harvard in 1948. He established himself as a politically active liberal academician with a talent for communicating with the reading public. A key adviser to President John F. Kennedy, Galbraith served as ambassador to India from 1961 to 1963, when he returned again to Harvard; he became professor emeritus in 1975. He also continued his involvement in public affairs, and in 1967–68 he was national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action.

Galbraith’s major works include American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power(1951), in which he questioned the competitive ideal in industrial organization. In his popular critique of the wealth gap, The Affluent Society (1958), Galbraith faulted the “conventional wisdom” of American economic policies and called for less spending on consumer goods and more spending on government programs. In The New Industrial State(1967) he envisioned a growing similarity between “managerial” capitalism and socialism and called for intellectual and political changes to stem what he saw as a decline of competitiveness in the American economy. Among his many other works are The Great Crash, 1929 (1955),The Liberal Hour (1960), Ambassador’s Journal (1969), A Life in Our Times: Memoirs (1981), The Anatomy of Power (1983), Economics in Perspective: A Critical History (1987), and The Culture of Contentment (1992). He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1946 and 2000.

To read additional Thoughts on Thinking, please click here.

Featured image sourced from Hilobrow. Biography sourced from Encyclopedia Britannica.



Amor Mundi 1/31/16

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upPardon Me

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

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

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

Occupying a Partisan Fragment

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

Ideology Critique

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upA Muslim in the West

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

What If the World Were…

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

A Private Public Life

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

Can We Be Heroes?

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

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

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

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

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

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

What Is Political Theory?

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

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, February 18, 2016

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

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

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

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

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

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

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

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

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

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

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

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

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

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

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

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

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

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

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

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

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


Amor Mundi 12/6/15

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-upThe Rojava Commune

rojavaWes Enzinna has an extraordinary essay in the NY Times Magazine on the utopian, anarchist, military experiment of Rojava, a small, quasi-autonomous territory in Syria that a part of the Kurdish PKK is trying to turn into a secular and liberal homeland. Enzinna traveled there to teach a class in free speech. He describes some of the surprising aspects of life in Rojava: “In accordance with a philosophy laid out by a leftist revolutionary named Abdullah Ocalan, Rojavan women had been championed as leaders, defense of the environment enshrined in law and radical direct democracy enacted in the streets.” The territory is governed by the PKK, which includes “an all-female force called the Y.P.J., or Female Protection Units. These forces have become key American allies in the region.” Turkey considers the PKK terrorists. But many others have a different view. “…[T]o sympathetic Western visitors, Rojava was something else entirely: a place where the seeds of the Arab Spring promised to blossom into utopia. ‘What you are doing,’ said Raymond Joliffe, a member of Britain’s House of Lords, during a trip in May 2015, ‘is a unique experiment that deserves to succeed.’ A Dutch professor named Jan Best de Vries arrived in December 2014 and donated $10,000 to help buy books for Kurdish university students. David Graeber, a founder of Occupy Wall Street, visited that same month and wrote before his trip that ‘the autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots–albeit a very bright one–to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution.’ In May, I saw an announcement on Facebook for the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, a new, coed university in Rojava’s de facto capital, Qamishli. This in itself was revolutionary. For years, Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, forbade many Syrian Kurds to study. In ISIS territory just 15 miles away, Kurdish girls were routinely tortured for being Westernized heretics–sometimes tied by their ponytails to car bumpers and dragged to their deaths. In Rojava, they were being educated. When I sent a message to the academy’s Facebook page, requesting more information, I received a reply from Yasin Duman, a Kurdish graduate student living in Turkey. He had taught several courses there, he said, and when he found out I was a writer and professor in New York, we discussed a journalism class. Duman explained that Rojava’s youth had little experience with the idea of free speech. Perhaps I could teach them: ‘A free people has to have freedom of speech,’ he said. It would be a cultural exchange. I would teach writing, and my students would show me what life was like in Rojava. We decided that I would spend a week in July giving a crash course in journalism basics: how to report, how to interview and how to document the war raging around them.” The people in Rojava have a near-fanatical loyalty to Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic founder of the PKK who sits in jail in Turkey. Enzinna notes that Ocalan “looms as a Wizard-of-Oz-like presence in Rojava.” He also points out that amidst a horrific war, the PKK-based government in Rojava has committed war crimes and fallen short of the ideals it was charged to uphold. But overall, Enzinna offers an incredible glimpse into a unique and hopeful social experiment in the midst of the hell that now is Syria.

Learning How to Love

deeyah khanRosamund Urwin writes about Deeyah Khan, creator of the new film Jihad: A British Story. For Khan, recruiting young Brits into ISIS is a matter of teaching them about love. “Khan feels frustrated about the media debate after the Paris attacks. ‘One guy will say, “it’s all about Islam”. The other will say, “it has nothing to do with Islam”. I want to throw something at the TV! What are we doing about it? We don’t have time for douchebags in suits to be pointing fingers at each other. Of course Islam has something to do with it–people are doing it in the name of Islam–but it’s also about human vulnerabilities–needs that get filled somehow.’ IS, she notes, spends hundreds of hours recruiting each fighter. It builds an intimate connection on Skype: finding out who this person is, their dreams. ‘IS takes the yearning, the sadness, the anger, preys on that and draws people into becoming cannon fodder.’ Perhaps because we’re sitting in a Canary Wharf restaurant, Plateau, surrounded by Savile Row suits, I suggest IS may be the ultimate headhunters. Khan nods. ‘They are. It’s also like grooming. They find out what all your needs are, they build that loyalty and love.’ Love, she acknowledges, seems a strange word to use when we’re talking about a hateful ideology. ‘It doesn’t start with hate. It starts out as a human need that is not being met, and with love and loyalty between the recruiter and the follower.’ Those radicalised by former über-recruiter Abu Muntasir describe him as the father they wished they had had.”

Good Cop, Bad Cop

steve lockSteve Locke writes about how he was stopped and questioned because he fit the description of someone who had committed a crime. After he was let go, he went back to his office on his way to teach his class: “My colleague was in our shared office and she was able to calm me down. I had about 45 minutes until my class began and I had to teach. I forgot the lesson I had planned. I forgot the schedule. I couldn’t think about how to do my job. I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a ‘puffy coat.’ That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.” The cops probably were deeply satisfied with their performance. The vastly different reactions different people will have to this account are themselves many reasons it should be read.

Owning a Vermeer

art criticIn an interview, Teju Cole makes a case for the critic in the age of a bloated art market: “[W]hen someone pays $160 million for a Rembrandt or a de Kooning… I don’t even know what’s going on there. Is it only acquisitiveness? I don’t know what kind of feeling they have for the art… Maybe the question should be: someone who privately owns a Vermeer, there’s some in museums, they’re very nice. Some of it can be in private ownership, it’s okay, it’s part of the circulation. What it’s our job to do [as critics] is to help create and sustain value for overlooked work… So to do the kind of writing around that work, the celebration of that work, to give an account of how that work functions in the world: to say, here’s this photographer from Mali, here’s this sculptor from Nigeria, here’s this Honduran filmmaker, we’re doing this festival of Brazilian film. You know! Those things. I’m talking about this not as a fiction writer but as a critical writer. Some of our work is to look at the overlooked, to draw attention to those worthy things. The question is not always about what people are paying $50 million for, but the stuff that is only fifty thousand, only ten thousand, and getting that stuff into the museum space and have it be what it needs to be, to write books about it, to get it in the syllabus.”

amor_mundi_sign-upGiving to Charity

mark zuckerbergIn the wake of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that he will donate 99% of his stock in his company to charity over the course of his lifetime, John Cassidy considers the present and future of philanthrocapitalism: “It’s not just the size of the donations that the wealthy are making that demands attention, though. Charitable giving on this scale makes modern capitalism, with all of its inequalities and injustices, seem somewhat more defensible. Having created hugely successful companies that have generated almost unimaginable wealth, Zuckerberg, Gates, and Buffett are sending a powerful message to Wall Street hedge-fund managers, Russian oligarchs, European industrialists, Arab oil sheiks, and anybody else who has accumulated a vast fortune: ‘From those to whom much is given, much is expected.’… People like Zuckerberg and Gates, by virtue of their philanthropic efforts, can have a much bigger say in determining policy outcomes than ordinary citizens can. (As Matthew Yglesias pointed out on Vox, one of the advantages of registering the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as an L.L.C. is that it can spend money on political ads.) The more money billionaires give to their charitable foundations, which in most cases remain under their personal control, the more influence they will accumulate. And relatively speaking, anyway, the less influence everybody else will have. Some Americans–not all of them disciples of Ayn Rand–might say that this is a good thing. I have already cited some of the Gates Foundation’s good works. Isn’t Michael Bloomberg, with his efforts to reform gun laws, promoting the public interest? Isn’t George Soros, through his donations to civil-rights organizations, lining up on the side of the angels? In these two instances, my own answers would be yes and yes; but the broader point stands. The divide between philanthropy and politics is already fuzzy. As the ‘philanthrocapitalism’ movement gets bigger, this line will be increasingly hard to discern.”

Physical Media in a New World

shar-e-nawJ. Malcolm Garcia profiles a bookseller in Afghanistan: “She walks without hurry, somewhat stiffly, sore, a diminutive woman unnoticed, burdened, using her chin to clamp down on a column of books she holds against her chest. Thin paperbacks most of them, a few hardcover. All written by her husband. The books appear worn as she does. Her tired eyes, lined face. Her forehead wrinkled into streams. Maybe from long, nightly exposure to the humid, grainy air, the white smoke rising from kabob grills wafting around and powdering her with ash. Maybe from seventeen years of selling her homebound husband’s books. She does not know, does not really consider her fatigue any more than she reflects on how she sees and breathes. Block by block she maneuvers through the teeming sidewalks of Kabul’s Shar-E-Naw shopping district until she enters Ice-Milk Restaurant, stops at tables. ‘Would you like to buy a book?’ she says. The twentysomething customers talk to one another staring at their iPhones and ignore her. Outside, more young people gather, dressed in tight blue jeans and dazzling, multicolored shirts reminiscent of the disco era. They talk loudly, with an air of We are special, laughing, hurrying past storefronts promoting Mastercard Premium, Marco Polo Garments, Alfalah Visa, United Bank, Body Building Fitness Gym, New Fashions Kabul Shop. Their shadows converge and fade into the glow of so many green and blue and red blinking lights dangling from awnings, unfolded above advertisements for pizza and club sandwiches and chicken fingers, and those same shadows cross a boy standing in the middle of the sidewalk and leaning on crutches, his left leg gone, his right hand out for money, and the young people swerve around him as if he were standing in the center of a traffic roundabout, and amid this confusion the book lady leaves Ice-Milk Restaurant without having sold one book and stops at another restaurant, Fast Food Pizza and Burger. The West’s influence can be seen throughout Shar-E-Naw in the kaleidoscopic displays of consumerism and high prices that for a moment render the decades of ongoing war here as obsolete as the donkey-drawn carts plodding next to black Hummers stalled in traffic. But the sight of a maimed begging child, injured, she presumes, by a mine, reminds her that beneath the sequined mannequins and suggested affluence and rush to catch up with the Twenty-First Century, Shar-E-Naw is still Afghanistan.”

Amazing and Boring

putinRebecca Solnit reports from Paris’s conference on climate change: “It was amazing to be in that room with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama–quite possibly the four most powerful people on earth–along with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Framework Convention Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, and dozens of other world leaders. It was amazing and often also boring. The statements were largely positive, predictable, vague, and repetitious. Of course, world leaders have to be graded on a curve. Putin’s statement at least recognized the reality of climate change and suggested that we should do something about it, which is an improvement over his record of denying and dismissing the problem. Obama spoke of his summer trip to Alaska, whose melting permafrost and burning tundra are ‘a preview of one possible future’–though it’s the present, not the future, for Alaska. Still, Obama did acknowledge one of the central facts of the day: ‘We know the truth that many nations have contributed little to climate change but will be the first to feel its threats.’ Given this fact, it’s no surprise that things got real when some of the less famous world leaders took their turns. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi noted that Africa is both the continent that emits least per capita and the one that faces the gravest consequences. Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, itemized the ways his region would be destroyed, and is being destroyed now. ‘It is clear that if nothing is done,’ he said, ‘the peoples of East Africa will find it impossible to survive.'”

Independence and Liberation

happyChris Lebron in the The Stone writes about what a certain kind of unhappiness means, one that comes when one realizes that independence does not yield liberation. “My first serious life lesson in those promising and formative adult years was that independence and liberation are not the same thing. Indeed, they work at different levels. Independence is local. The powers that be take a step back from managing your life. Liberation is still far away. You believe you will step into the space opened up to steer your own life, and you do step in, but find that you are shackled from the inside. But you did not place those restraints there. Rather, you inherited them. Maybe from your father’s sad face. More likely from the very ways of the world that placed that sadness in him–those beatings in the street, unfair treatment by employers, and his precarious stewardship over the local young women and men whose own young lives could still be saved from the inheritance their own parents most likely had ready for them. You may later look in a mirror and wonder where the lightness of being in your own face went. Then, one day, your son begins asking you: ‘Daddy, are you happy?’ And you resolve to cut him out of the bum will handed down over the generations. You think, this is an heirloom he can do without…. I spend most of my days on the campus of Yale University, one of the world’s most elite, respected and powerful, where I try to contribute knowledge to a world in need of viewpoints like mine, but surely not only mine. This, and all other college campuses, are supposed to allow for, among other things, the flourishing of hope. College students are meant to be spending their time formulating the meaning of their newfound independence and discovering how to convert that independence into liberation. For many, it goes as planned. But a great many black and brown students nationally find themselves instead subject to a corrupt and perverse set of manners. They find that some person, some institution, some history, malignant ignorance or benignly neglectful force intends for them to mind their shackles. They are reminded that their independence is comparatively worth far less than that of their white counterparts, never mind their liberation. These students sense that they do not want their own kids asking: ‘Are you happy?’ Critics have dismissed the nation’s student protesters as mere coddled young people in a rage over some nonsense having to do with costumes or fraternity parties or whatever else the headlines say is the matter. I can tell you that none of these really is at the root. Rather, these and similar events are the catalyst for a revelation–that the rage and sadness these students inherited have been there for years, waiting to make themselves known. The inheritance of disaffection can only really come into its own with the maturity of social consciousness.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

virtual reading groupHAC 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

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jennie Han explores the concept of “home” with respect to our discussions of the ongoing student protests on American college campuses in the Quote of the Week. Madame Swetchine draws a metaphor between thinking and nature in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, in a special feature, Jerome Kohn remembers Hannah Arendt on the 40th anniversary of her death.


Amor Mundi 11/29/15

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-upThe Great Transformation

social equality protestDanielle Allen argues that “the real issue” in the campus protests around the country is not free speech. It is, rather, “how to think about social equality.” For Allen, we are coming up against old and petrified cultural and aesthetic ideals that were imagined in a time of racial inequality. What is needed is a “re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace” of the ideal of equality. She writes: “To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction. The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle? The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called ‘n-‘ on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call ‘implicit bias,’ a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on…. How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood? The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal.” Allen is right that the issues are grave and important, and she is correct insofar as in nearly all of the recent cases of campus protest, speech has been met with speech. When students have demanded too much–for example, the firing of House Masters at Yale or that the President of Amherst College issue a statement expressing the College’s intolerance for posters on campus advocating free speech and saying that the free speech posters were “racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus”–administrators have thankfully refused to go along. It is a right of free speech to make demands, however silly or offensive. That is why Allen is right to suggest that in most instances the accusations of a violation of free speech are overblown. And she is also right that the yelling over free speech actually obscures the difficult discussions about race and equality that need to be had on college campuses and beyond. That is why the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference will ask: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016.–RB

The Soul of Harvard Law

harvard law defacementsRandall Kennedy considers the recent incident at Harvard Law School where pieces of black tape were put over the faces of the portraits of black law professors. While many at Harvard are outraged, Kennedy–whose own portrait was defaced–says he feels neither alarmed nor hurt. He takes it for granted that racism exists at Harvard, at colleges, and around the country. Like Danielle Allen above, Kennedy understands that there is implicit bias at work in our society–indeed in every society and in every social group. But Kennedy suggests that we not confuse a “pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice” with something less pervasive. He writes: “Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.” Kennedy points out that shortly after the black tape appeared, it was removed and replaced by “hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.” In this respect, he advises that we attend not only to our failures but also to our successes, especially the successes of the campus activists who have elevated the dissatisfactions of African American students to the top of the higher-education agenda. And amidst these successes, Kennedy offers us caution. “Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. They complain of a paucity of black professors, courses in which racial issues, though pertinent, are marginalized, teachers whose interactions with black students display far less engagement than interactions with nonblack students, white classmates who implicitly or even expressly question the intellectual capacity of black peers (‘You know, don’t you, that they are here only because of affirmative action’) and campus police officers who subject black students to a more intensive level of surveillance than white students. Students are also taking to task schools that allegedly disregard the sensibilities of minorities by memorializing figures who perpetrated cruel wrongs, including the Royall family, who sponsored what became Harvard Law School with funds drawn from the labor and sale of enslaved blacks; John C. Calhoun, the statesman for whom a residential college at Yale is named despite his having propounded the idea that slavery was a positive good; and Woodrow Wilson, the former president who is lionized at Princeton despite having reinforced racial segregation throughout the federal government. While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.”

Confronting Our Hatred and Our Dirt

oscar pistoriusJacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books has a long, moving, and deeply provocative reading of the roles of race, sex, and disability in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. Rose offers compelling portraits of Pistorius and his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, as well as of the black female South African Judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa. Struggling to untangle the racial and sexual demons that terrorize South Africa, Rose concludes: “If there is a lesson I take from all this, it is that we should not disavow our hatreds in a futile effort to make ourselves–to make the world–clean.” Her essay is a brave effort at making good on that promise to not disavow our hatreds. In one of many literary reflections on the trial, she writes: “I happened to be in Cape Town a week after the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. At the time I was reading A Bantu in My Bathroom, a book of essays by Eusebius McKaiser, a South African political and social theorist and radio talkshow host. He is known for being provocative and likes to challenge South Africans to confront their darkest thoughts. (His collection is subtitled ‘Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics’.) In 2012, 18 years after the end of apartheid, he was looking for a room to rent and lighted on an advertisement from a woman willing to share her house but only, the ad stipulated, with a white person. On the phone, McKaiser got her almost to the point of sealing the deal before announcing that he wasn’t white (she hung up when he suggested her choice might be racist). When he related the incident to the audience of his weekly radio programme, Politics and Morality on Talk Radio 702, two responses predominated. Either the listeners sided with the owner of the house (her property, her preference, no different from ‘only non-smokers need apply’), or they made a more subtle but disquieting distinction: if the room was in a cottage in her backyard, the choice would be racist, but she clearly had the right to share her house, or not, with whomever she pleased. ‘Reasonable’ as the second preference might seem, McKaiser concedes in his essay, it is still ‘morally odious’, still ‘the product of our racist past’. ‘This viewpoint,’ he elaborates, ‘is an acknowledgment (indeed, an expression) of a deep racial angst. Why else would you be fine with Sipho [the name McKaiser gives the fictional black tenant] sleeping in the flat outside but heaven forbid that you should wake up in the morning and the first thing you see on your way to the bathroom is the heart attack-inducing spectacle of Sipho smiling at you, a horror that just might elicit a scream of apartheid proportions: “Help! There is a Bantu in my bathroom!”‘ ‘Not one listener,’ McKaiser writes, ‘grappled with how it is that 18 years after our democratic journey … racialism’s reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about.’ Not one avoided the cliché–indeed they all rehearsed it to perfection–that your private life is private and it is up to you what you do in your own home (a cliché whose potentially lethal consequences were of course long ago dismantled by feminism). In failing to do so, they ‘betrayed dark secrets about themselves and our country’. In another essay McKaiser refers to the Coloureds of Cape Town–he himself is a Coloured–as ‘the dirty little secret’ of the city: ‘Cape Town, you see, treats Coloured people like dirt.’ ‘The dirty secrets of both Jozi [Johannesburg] and Cape Town are a stain on both cities’ images, like mud on a kid’s new white pants.’ It soon became clear that a strange, racially charged and legally confused distinction would be at the heart of the trial. If Pistorius didn’t fire the shots through the toilet door in the knowledge that Steenkamp was inside, then he believed he was shooting at an intruder, in which case the charge of premeditated murder wouldn’t hold up. There was no doubt that the second possibility was seen–or rather would be presented by Barry Roux for the defence–as the lesser offence, and not just because the legal category of ‘putative private defence’ (defending oneself against a presumed attacker, even if the presumption was wrong) could present the shooting as a legitimate response to fear. What was largely unspoken was that in the second case we can be more or less certain that the person killed in the bathroom would be–could only be–imagined as black. ‘As the judge will not have failed to register,’ the journalist John Carlin writes in Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, ‘if his story were true–and even if it were not–the faceless intruder of his imagination had to have had a black face, because the fact was that for white people crime mostly did have a black face.'”

Looking for Shiny Things

luc sante parisLuc Sante describes his method of finding material for his upcoming book on a Paris we don’t often think about: “I wanted to tell the story of what Louis Chevalier calls the ‘working and dangerous classes.’ Those are my people–my forebears on both sides all the way back, Belgian in my case but with many cultural points of similarity–and it also happens to be the aspect of Parisian life that American readers know the least about. It’s easy enough to define the borders there, since they were vigorously enforced by the larger culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as indeed they still are. Ambiguity arises only in a few specific areas: the worlds of literature and art, for example. Many writers and artists portrayed the poor sympathetically, and even fought on their behalf, but they themselves were not of that class. Gay life is perhaps even more subject to ambiguity, since it so often involves crossing classes…. My method is the magpie’s: I look for shiny things. That is, I look for concrete material details of daily life, and I look for vigorous prose, which is the only kind I can read for very long. That effectively bars a great deal of scholarly work, but I didn’t feel its loss. It’s not hard to find vigorously written, colorfully detailed accounts of life in the Paris of the past, in all kinds of places. There is not just the eloquence of the people you list, but also that of reactionaries like Maxime du Camp and the Goncourt brothers, and even of a police commissioner like Adolphe Gronfier. There is such an abundance of engaging writing about the city, much of it untranslated, that my research felt like a spree.”

amor_mundi_sign-upIs Separate Unequal?

separate unequal collegeSince Brown v. Board of Education, the rejection of “separate but equal” is one tenet of American law. Fareed Zakaria writes that many of the demands made by student protestors over the last few weeks run counter to that basic tenet. “Over the past four decades, whenever universities have faced complaints about exclusion or racism–often real–the solution proposed and usually accepted has been to create more programs, associations and courses for minority students. This is understandable, because these groups have been historically ignored, slighted and demeaned. But is this solution working, or is it making things worse? A 2004 empirical study led by Harvard University psychologist James Sidanius (who is African American) concluded that ‘there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented … organizations increased the students’ sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community. Furthermore … the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.’ The academic programs that have been created and expanded also reinforce feelings of separateness. Again, there was a need for greater attention to many of the areas of study, and some extraordinary scholarship has been produced in these fields. But the cumulative effect is one that distinguished scholar Tony Judt wrote about in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 2010. ‘Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others,’ he noted. ‘The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves–thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.'” None of this changes or challenges the moving testimony of students, largely African American students, of how demeaning and de-humanizing the reality of racism is in their lives. It is natural and even sensible for students who feel marginalized and dismissed to seek safe spaces. As colleges and universities announce new programs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on, among other things, new Deans of Diversity and new cultural and social centers for particular student groups, one hopes that research along the lines that Zakaria mentions will at least be considered.–RB

“Black Afflictions”

Partially burned American flag lies on the street near the spot where Michael Brown was killed before an event to mark the one-year anniversary of the his death in FergusonOne refrain heard over and again during the student protests of the past few weeks is that those who don’t live as black on American campuses can’t understand the feelings of those who do. This is a truism, and yet the very essence of a liberal education is to seek, to explore, and to understand the experiences of those who are different from oneself. Thus it is helpful that Jim Sleeper seeks to articulate four separate ‘Black Afflictions’ that are the root of the experience of being black on American campuses. He lists: “The pressure of others’ outsize hopes”, “The pressure of white fear”, “White classmates’ myopia”, and “A Wall of Malevolence”. Here is a sample: “A four-walled vise presses in upon every black student at Yale, even as doors in those walls open and close unpredictably and the walls themselves sometimes seem to withdraw–all this invisible to most of us, its pressures unseen and unfelt. 1. The pressure of others’ outsize hopes. Last year a black Yale undergraduate I know was working late one night in the office of a history professor for whom he was a research assistant. A custodian entered the room to empty the waste baskets. Black, too, but graying and near retirement, the older man broke into a broad smile. ‘This makes me glad,’ he said, as much from the heart as from the mouth. ‘This makes me glad,’ he repeated. ‘Thank you,’ the student replied, cordially but cryptically, his accent signaling his upbringing in formerly British East Africa. A distancing look flickered across the countenance of the custodian, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers and slaves whose grandparents had come to New Haven during World War II to work in gun factories now long since closed. But as quickly as the older man’s doubt surfaced, he displaced it with a reaffirming smile and nod. Neither man needed to say anything more. Both understood that although the younger had grown up in a majority black society–and in an elite bubble within it, at that–they both now bore burdens of white American incomprehension, coldness, fear and, occasionally, of the kind of over-solicitude that is almost an insult. This African-American janitor expected this East African student to mitigate those burdens a bit by setting a different example, and the hope is credible precisely because the vast differences in these men’s backgrounds and prospects are invisible to most whites and, for that matter, to most non-black people ‘of color.’ ‘It only added to the weight of things,’ the student told me, recalling the encounter a year later. ‘If I remain here, I’m obligated to meet not only my parents’ expectations but also those of black people in a white country I didn’t grow up in.’ He does plan to stay, not only because, on balance, that broadens his prospects against narrower ones back home, but also because he would take ‘some pride and satisfaction’ in lessening the weight of racism for others. But contemplating the challenge while making occasional campus forays to meet it ‘saddens me,’ he said three times during our conversation–saddens him in ways few of the rest of us comprehend. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s shock to alert us Americans to what we usually ignore. A student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don’t differ noticeably in physiognomy from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it, on arriving at Yale, to see an overwhelmingly black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-black population. At least 70 percent of Yale’s custodial and cafeteria workers are black. Fewer than 5 percent of the faculty are. Like the student from East Africa who finds himself carrying the hopes of a janitor with decades of white racism on his back, other black Yalies find that most black elders in their lives in New Haven are service workers. Thirty-five percent of the city’s 130,000 residents are African-American; 31.8 percent are non-Hispanic white. Yale, including its medical affiliates, is black workers’ biggest employer.”

Rewriting History

john hope franklinDrew Gilpin Faust pens an elegy to historian John Hope Franklin: “Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II. But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts–facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered. Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began ‘stalking’ him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.”

Love the Gift

black fridayIan Bogost suggests that Black Friday is in keeping with the meaning of Christmas: “Christmas gift exchange owes a debt to the social imbalance of potlatch-like excess rather than reciprocal exchange. Gift-giving symbolizes the ultimate gift of the Christian God. As John 3:16 puts it, ‘God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.’ Theologically speaking, both God’s and Jesus’s sacrifices set an unreachable bar: a gift so peerless that no worldly version could ever best it. It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love. Black Friday’s gift-giving is not nearly as magnanimous, but there are gifts being exchanged nevertheless, and not only from parent to child or spouse to spouse. When Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or Target or any other retailer offers sales, discounts, special hours, and all the rest, it’s easy to see them just as brusque trappings of consumerism run amok. That’s not entirely wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either: Sales and discounts are also gifts. And as gifts, they also participate in the social practice of reciprocity and one-upsmanship. Instead of offering greater or more valuable offerings, Black Friday deals issue their own version of the gift’s challenge: They allow companies to say, ‘Look what we are willing to give away, even though we normally operate by currency exchange… Sacrilegious though the suggestion might be, perhaps Black Friday ought to be thought of as the real start of Advent, rather than as a counterpoint to it. As a ritual, it is actually closer to the excessive origin of God’s sacrifice than is unwrapping the latest toys and electronics a month hence. Sure, we could do without the retail bedlam and trampling, without the shadow of consumption and corporate rule by proxy, and all the other very real defects of Black Friday. But there’s also something fundamentally fitting about it for the season.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #15

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, December 4, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm



images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

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, Martin Wagner discusses how Arendt reconstructs from Kafka’s work a writer inspired by a world “in which the actions of man depend on nothing but himself and his spontaneity” in the Quote of the Week. Also, American journalist Theodore H. White discusses what it means to go against the thinking of your friends in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.


Amor Mundi 11/22/15

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-upHome Away From Home

yale protestsJeannie Suk notices that the student protests that erupted last week at Yale, Mizzou, and elsewhere mobilize the rhetoric of home and the family: “Particularly in the way things have unfolded at Yale, students’ social-justice activism has been expressed, in part, as the need for care from authority figures. When they experience the hurt that motivates them to political action, they’re deeply disappointed with parental surrogates for not responding adequately or quickly enough to support and nurture them. The world in which it’s not bizarre for a young person to rebuke someone for failing to ‘create a place of comfort and home,’ or to yell, ‘Be quiet … You’re disgusting!,’ and storm away, is the world of family, where a child in pain desperately desires empathy and understanding from a parent. The online scorn heaped on the student who was filmed behaving this way represents an unproductive refusal to compassionately translate her behavior across the generational divide. In a piece called ‘Hurt at Home,’ another Yale student wrote, ‘I feel my home is being threatened,’ and contrasted her comforting relationship with her father to the care she felt students emphatically did not receive from the master of Silliman College. Yale tells its students that the residential college is their ‘home away from home,’ but this generation might be the first to insist so literally on that idea…. The president of Claremont McKenna College–which has recently seen racial-bias protests, hunger strikes, and a high administrator’s resignation–wrote in an e-mail to the community that one role of higher education is to ‘provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world.’ This formulation is particularly poignant at a time when material independence will be elusive for many college students, who are coming of age during a recession, with onerous debt, and may actually go home to their parents for much of their twenties in order to make ends meet. In the midst of the developing story on campus activism, the horror of mass violence in Paris wrought by ISIS brought us back to our experience of the September 11th attacks, an event seared into the child psyches of current college students, and sufficient to have robbed them of the basic sense of safety that my generation enjoyed. The students’ preoccupation with safe spaces and the comfort of home seems a plausible manifestation of the profound lack of security–from violence to financial insolvency–that their generation faces. No wonder that their calls for social justice return to the talisman of safety and care of parental figures.” 

This isn’t the first time that metaphors of home have been marshaled as pleas for safety in a suddenly dangerous world. They appeared during the Cold War, when the suburbs turned into a refuge for white families attempting to protect themselves in a homogenized home from the dual threats of Communism and the atomic bomb. The family and social formations encouraged by those metaphors led to an infamously flat and seemingly conformist culture, which led to the countercultural spasms of the 1960s and in turn to the conservative revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, which also mobilized home and family as symbols of a time when the world seemed a little safer, that is, somewhat ironically, than the 1950s. In both cases, the symbolism of the home was used to protect the private lives of white people. 

In her essay “What Is Freedom,” Arendt writes that “the public realm stands in the starkest possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves or must serve the security of the life process.” Similarly, Richard Rodriguez in his book Hunger of Memory distinguishes the intimacy and safety of the home life of a young Latino immigrant from the publicity and challenges of life at school. As Rodriguez argued at his talk during the 2013 Arendt Center conference “Failing Fast,” becoming a citizen means learning to switch between the two worlds of home and public life; it means acquiring a public self. One important role of higher education is to give students the experience of living away from home, in public, where they can experiment with and learn to assume their public personas. That college, which constitutes a time for taking chances, also means that it is a moment of failure and danger. This has always been the case, but it is also true that students today negotiate a more complicated world of class, race, religion, and gender than students of any prior generation. So many college students now find themselves without safe homes and private places to which they can retreat at moments of crisis. More students at colleges and universities are from diverse and insular communities than ever before. Thrust from their often-sheltered lives, students now must negotiate public interactions with people whose opinions they have never before encountered and that they frequently find threatening. And in college dorms teeming with sometimes obnoxious students eager to try out new ideas, tensions can rise. 

No one can live in public all the time, and all of us need moments alone where we can, in private, collect ourselves and steel ourselves for the courage public life demands. At a time when the security of a private space is fleeting for so many young people, colleges and universities have added layers of student deans and counselors to help students through emotional, racial, and sexual crises. Students now call upon and depend on the very administrators for help whom they criticize and protest against. In such a situation, the danger lies less with students and more with administrators who, in the name of consumerism and motivated by an aversion to risk, are creating policies and procedures that shut down the vibrancy of the student experience. Some students may demand trigger warnings, disciplinary procedures, and censorship. That is part of the experience of being young and experimenting with new and powerful if also dangerous ideas. We shouldn’t blame students for speaking and trying out new ideas. The fault, if there is one, is with administrators who accede to these demands. –RB (with assistance from JK)

Save the date for the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2016 conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” October 20-21, 2016.

The Challenge of Unmediated Media

jonathan hollowayIn the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb interviews Yale Dean Jonathan Holloway. Cobb: “There have been people who look at this situation and say, ‘These students, who are at one of the most élite institutions in the United States and are reacting in this way, they are coddled and thin-skinned and they should just maybe toughen up. That’s the biggest thing they need to do.Holloway: “I understand that. This is not just a black problem or a brown problem or a women’s problem or whatever. We are seeing a generation of students, and I don’t know why, who do seem less resilient than in the past. I think part of it is that things aren’t mediated like they have been in the past. You don’t have the luxury of sitting down and pondering what somebody just said, because you’re too busy putting it into a Tweet and saying, ‘This is an outrage.’ There’s no mediation of ideas. It’s all off the top of my head and it’s pain, in this case. I think that, because people are not getting enough sleep, and these things just keep on, Tweets keep coming in, that they are not equipped properly to process it all. I think that’s a major part of it. The other part is that students have been struggling at Yale for a long time, and at similar institutions. The administrations were not set up even to care about them. It’s not just that maybe students are less resilient, it’s that the administrations actually are doing more work to identify people who are struggling. In a different era, if you had a drinking problem, there’s a nod and a wink, and that’s just the way Buster behaved. Now we understand women’s side, that this thing is a real problem, and, hey, wait a second, this guy drinks and he sexually assaults somebody. We’ve got to deal with that. You build up an apparatus to deal with people in crisis, and it actually helps us understand that–you know what?–more people are in crisis than we actually thought. I think these things go hand in hand, and I don’t think anybody’s really figured it out. We can claim we figured it out, but I think no one’s got the patent on that one yet. I think I’ve said it, but I’ve actually been buoyed in the last couple days, because I’ve seen the Yale that I believe is normal–a really smart school confronting a problem and trying in a creative way to solve it together. That sounds like an advertisement but I actually believe that it operates that way. People are being increasingly willing to presume good faith on someone else’s behalf instead of just being negative. It’s as simple as that. Time will tell where this all shakes out, but I am cautiously optimistic that we are moving to a different place here. Hell, I’ve been wrong three or four times already this week, so who knows?”

Snowden Against Sousveillance

snowden sousveillanceAmong the many accounts of Edward Snowden’s recent talk at the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference “Why Privacy Matters,” Ruth Starkman’s essay in the LA Review of Books stands out for raising the wide range of issues discussed, including some of the more controversial. For example, Starkman focuses on Snowden’s somewhat unpopular (at least at Bard) rejection of sousveillance as a response to surveillance. Sousveillance means to observe from below as opposed to the observation from above, that is, surveillance. “Indeed, Snowden flung the doors wide open on public discussions of privacy and the internet. His legacy was clear at the Bard College ‘Why Privacy Matters’ conference, which featured prominent speakers whose careers have one way or another been shaped by Snowden, including Ben Wizner. Senior editor from The Intercept Peter Maass interviewed Snowden. Fritz Schwarz of the historic Church Commission took student questions about information before and after 9/11. Kate Crawford asked questions about the sort of ethical education computer science students should receive. Jeremy Waldron argued for ‘an accountable, open’ surveillance, which allows people to talk back to and cooperate with government agencies. Astrophysicist and sci-fi author David Brin took the radical position that students and the general public at large should fight surveillance with their own cameras, as people have in the Black Lives Matter movement. Brin describes this kind of grassroots, defensive surveillance as ‘sousveillance.’ Sousveillance appeals to students of all stripes. In fact, when the Bard College Debate Union invited the West Point Debate Society to debate the question of surveillance, both sides argued that surveillance could become an instrument of the public as well as the government, and could protect ‘black and brown bodies, the LBGTQ community and other vulnerable populations.’ West Point debaters on both sides of the debate reminded the audience that this debate was purely educational and did not reflect the opinions of the United States or its military. Snowden disagrees with sousveillance: ‘We don’t need a surveillance arms race; we need to protect individual privacy.’ Bard students defended grassroots public surveillance as a tactic against the elite (an elite to which institutions like Bard, Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton also belong). Snowden didn’t budge much here.”

Unintended Consequences

borderAlfredo Corchado in The New Yorker cites Hannah Arendt Center Fellow Natalia Mendoza as a means to explore the unexpected consequences of beefed up security at the U.S.-Mexican border. “Like many other policies from Washington, this one had unintended consequences. The anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, a fellow at Bard College, observes that, because of greater border securitization, ‘the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.’ That is, as small, autonomous, local ‘mom and pop’ smuggling became more expensive and difficult, bigger, more structured, and violent organizations took over. Common-use crossing points, for instance, were now ‘privatized’ by criminal networks able to keep their operations going, absorb the rising costs, and still make a profit. Hence, groups of smugglers who used to work on their own or as subcontractors for different bosses were either pushed out of business or forced to join a larger cartel. Even if unanticipated, this process of criminal professionalization was a perfectly rational result of border security acquiring ‘industrial’ proportions: with the post-9/11 clampdown, the business of drug smuggling consolidated. The old and close-knit communities along the border never prevented drug trafficking or illegal crossing. Yet they used to function as a sort of social-control mechanism that kept drug-related violence relatively under check. People knew one another; they kept an eye on things. Suddenly, though, fear and hardened policies broke those bonds. Border communities started resembling ghost towns. The result was a surge of violence in Mexico, as cartels fought to establish dominance over important drug-shipping routes. According to estimates, the drug trade makes up between half a per cent and four per cent of Mexico’s $1.2 trillion annual G.D.P.–totaling between about six billion dollars and forty billion dollars–and employs at least half a million people. Contraband U.S. guns that are trafficked into Mexico facilitate the drug traffickers’ work. Around two hundred and fifty thousand firearms are purchased each year to be trafficked, and U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing only about fifteen per cent of them, according to a study by the University of San Diego and Igarapé Institute.”


japanese internmentSeeking a way through the questions, the grandstanding about whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees following last week’s attack in Paris, Matt Ford suggests that we look back to the internment of Japanese residents and citizens during WWII, as well as the Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, that upheld that policy: “The Supreme Court has never overturned Korematsu, largely because federal and state governments have not attempted the mass internment of an entire ethnic group since then. But the decision belongs to what legal scholars describe as the anti-canon of American constitutional law–a small group of Supreme Court rulings universally assailed as wrong, immoral, and unconstitutional. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, Buck v. Bell, and Korematsu form the anti-canon’s core; legal scholars sometimes include other decisions as well. Korematsu‘s place in that grim pantheon is well-earned. Courts apply strict scrutiny, the highest level of review, when weighing laws or policies that discriminate on the basis of race, national origin, or alienage. Korematsu was the standard’s first application; it was also the last time it failed to protect the group in question. ‘There is only one situation in which the Court expressly upheld racial classifications burdening minorities: the rulings affirming the constitutionality of the evacuations of Japanese-Americans during World War II,’ wrote Erwin Chemerinsky, a UC Irvine law professor and prominent scholar of constitutional law. ‘No evidence of a specific threat was required to evacuate and intern a person. Race alone was used to determine who would be uprooted and incarcerated and who would remain free.’… Expelling all Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast would have seemed unthinkable in 1940. Then came the fear and paranoia that pervaded cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco after Pearl Harbor. Frenzied reports of Japanese submarines off Oregon and saboteurs in California fueled a climate in which extreme constitutional violations towards an unpopular few seemed reasonable to a fearful many. Korematsu is a reminder that, in times of crisis, there will always be an unpopular minority to fear and opportunistic demagogues to demonize them. But central to the Bill of Rights’ purpose is the protection of the few from the cruelty of the many, no matter who that few or many may be.”

A Lesson in Courage

syrian refugeesPhil Klay, a decorated Marine and winner of the National Book Award, engaged the debate over refugees in a series of twelve tweets. Here are a few: “3. The Marine hymn claims that Marines are the ‘first to fight for right and freedom and to keep our honor clean.’–Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 4. You’re not supposed to risk your life just for the physical safety of American citizens–Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015. 5. You’re supposed to risk your life for American ideals as well…. 11. Millions of pilgrims are hurtling through the darkness, but it’s Germany that has recently been the beacon standing strong and true. Phil Klay (@PhilKlay) November 19, 2015.”

The Risk It May Be Boring

homerIn the NY Times Magazine, Arendt Center Senior Fellow Wyatt Mason recommends Christopher Logue’s half-completed and finally posthumously published translations of Homer’s Iliad. “‘I find it boring,’ Logue said to a friend, Doris Lessing, about Homer’s epic, echoing a feeling that I–and perhaps you, too–have had upon trying to read any of the translations we’ve endured in school: I’m looking at you, Richmond Lattimore! ‘Professor Lattimore adheres to the literal at times as stubbornly as a mule eating briars,’ wrote the Thoreauvianly literate American critic Guy Davenport in his great ‘The Geography of the Imagination.’ Lattimore’s literality–English words arranged in Greek syntax–produces a language that is barely English, let alone representative of Homer’s poetry. ‘One can say in this language,’ Davenport explains, quoting Lattimore, ‘such things as “slept in that place in an exhaustion of sleep” (for Homer’s “aching with fatigue and weary for lack of sleep”) and “the shining clothes are lying away uncared for” (for “your laundry is tossed in a heap waiting to be washed”).’ Carne-Ross, who was commissioning his new ‘Iliad’ to evade translatorese, wouldn’t accept Logue’s demurral. He, too, found many translations of Homer–Lattimore’s especially–boring and had the Greek to back it up. He also had a plan for how Logue could manage the impossible task of translating a language he did not know. ‘I will make you a crib,’ Carne-Ross told Logue. A crib: a word-for-word translation of the Greek for Logue to work from. Carne-Ross also read the Greek aloud to Logue, to give him a sense of how it felt. Logue quickly discovered that there was nothing boring about Homer, only the risk of translating Homer into something boring.”


dying comicJared Gardner suggests that comics may be a form particularly suited for describing illness: “As the authors behind the Graphic Medicine Manifesto argue, the comics form that emerged simultaneously with the new imaging technologies at the end of the 19th century was in the 20th the constant subject of experiments in the relationship between two semantic systems–word and image–as they collaborated and competed to convey meaning. The highly charged relationship wherein neither text nor image conveys the truth but together succeed in saying something more true than either could individually has been termed ‘the vital blend’ by Robert C. Harvey. This blend extends further to the relationship between creator and reader, who must, as Scott McCloud and others have argued, collaborate at every turn to make meaning by filling in the gaps of what this highly elliptical and fragmentary form necessarily leaves unwritten and undrawn. Arguably more than any other narrative form, comics have always wrestled with the challenges of making meaning out of competing systems and storytellers, yielding something different–and, when it is done right, better–than either could tell alone. And here is where comics can come to the rescue of medicine, as they did for this patient and for so many others over the last generation, modeling generative collaborations between image and text, data and narrative, creator and reader, and doctor and patient in the face of experiences seemingly impossible to relate. Graphic autobiography was born with an illness narrative–Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary (1972), about debilitating OCD–but it was not until the 1990s that illness memoirs began truly to proliferate in comics, with such seminal texts as Al Davison’s The Spiral Cage (spina bifida) and Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s Our Cancer Year (testicular cancer and chemotherapy). In the 21st century, narratives about mental and physical illness have emerged as the dominant form of nonfiction comics.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #15

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, December 4, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm



images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Stefanie Rosenmüller discusses how Arendt scarcely addressed distributive justice but how her reasoning could nonetheless augment that of Martha Nussbaum, who criticized the liberal model of John Rawls, in the Quote of the Week. Albert Camus discusses the responsibility of thinking people in a world of victims and executioners in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to E. P. Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class” in this week’s Library feature.


Hannah Arendt and The Muqaddimah

On a recent trip to the Hannah Arendt Collection housed in Bard College’s Stevenson Library, we came across this three-volume copy of The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History:

the muqaddimahHere is a description of the book, per

“The Muqaddimah, often translated as ‘Introduction’ or ‘Prolegomenon,’ is the most important Islamic history of the premodern world. Written by the great fourteenth-century Arab scholar Ibn Khaldûn (d. 1406), this monumental work established the foundations of several fields of knowledge, including the philosophy of history, sociology, ethnography, and economics. The first complete English translation, by the eminent Islamicist and interpreter of Arabic literature Franz Rosenthal, was published in three volumes in 1958 as part of the Bollingen Series and received immediate acclaim in the United States and abroad.”

This particular copy of The Muqaddimah is the same three-volume set that was published in 1958.

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

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

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greece austerity

Born of Necessity, Blindness, or Strategy: On Greece and the Bureaucratically Divine

By Jennifer M. Hudson

“The force of the machinery in which the K. of The Trial is caught lies precisely in this appearance of necessity on the one hand, and in the admiration of the people for necessity on the other. Lying for the sake of necessity appears as something sublime; and a man who does not submit to the machinery, though submission may mean his death, is regarded as a sinner against some kind of divine order.… It has been characteristic of our history conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name–and this amounts to the same thing–of the ‘wave of the future.’”

— Arendt, “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation (On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death)”, Partisan Review

Necessity signifies the absence of choice; therefore, freedom and necessity, as principles, are logically opposed. Enlarging the concept of simple necessity, imagining it as a type of perpetual motion “machinery” or “the ‘wave of the future’ amplifies this opposition. Necessity as “progress,” or providence, becomes a deterministic force that would take away our capacity to shape our human world and future. Arendt’s concern in this passage is not, however, the myriad ways in which real human needs restrict sovereign human action. Instead, she points to an ideology of necessity–“the admiration of the people for necessity”–through which human beings abdicate responsibility for their common world by way of false beliefs in their own helplessness in an uncertain world and, simultaneously, their power to control this world using artificial means. Bureaucracy, both symbolically in Kafka’s novels and in Arendt’s appraisal of actually existing configurations, is the tangible manifestation of this ideology. Continue reading


Amor Mundi 10/26/14

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 Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making “Citizenfour,” her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden’s true story, and how uncritically Snowden’s own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: “The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give ‘Citizenfour’ the human truth she’s always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden’s decision. But, in this case, … Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it’s a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras’s terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it’s a “locked path.” He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn’t look for ways to complicate him. … Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn’t completely square with others’ accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.’s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, “While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.” Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald’s questioning.”

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: “Adams and his librettist…do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like ‘Homeland.’ The most specious arguments against ‘Klinghoffer’ elide the terrorists’ bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in ‘Schindler’s List’ compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words ‘break his teeth’; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words ‘stories of our love.’ The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera ‘attempts to counterpoise to terror’s deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.’ Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. ‘At least we are not Jews,’ an old Swiss woman says. ‘I kept my distance,’ an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud.”

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: “By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the ‘masterpiece’ its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted ‘Hasidism’ protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination…. At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba.”

Don’t Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won’t give up on change in Hong Kong: “So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this.”

Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: ” I teach Sophocles’ ‘Antigone.’ My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion – for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today – against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle’s claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield’s helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it’s important to remember that what is problematic in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is its hero’s aversion to negotiation and compromise – not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger’s beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed.”

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: “I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet’s madness and Hamlet’s character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this.”

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: “Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie’s three large housing projects and the ‘Lower End,’ three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-‘the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.’ This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics.” MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a “Politically Charged Sentence”

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger’s lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger’s notation for “National Socialism” as “The Natural Sciences.” Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger’s original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the “inner truth of National Socialism.” In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: “I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger’s politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye’s division of his ‘Bibliography’ into categories such as ‘Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,’ ‘Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,’ and ‘Works Critical of Heidegger,’ in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger’s own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it.”

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman’s slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center’s seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt’s works in our Library feature.


The Poverty of Ideas

In an essay on the past and future of critical theory, Raymond Geuss offers an observation that has increasing resonance across all fields of inquiry, from politics and economics to philosophy and literature: sometime around 1970, the basic 20th century consensus that democracy and capitalism would provide an eternal increase in both justice and wealth began to unravel. Thomas Piketty makes a similar point in his book Capital in the 21st Century. It is increasingly likely that the post-World War II marriage of rising equality and rising incomes was a bubble of sorts. Whether one mourns the loss of a golden age or celebrates the liberation from childish illusions, the loss of the hopeful liberal idealism of the mid-20th century is a fact still to be reckoned with. Continue reading

The Preferential President


There is a fascinating essay over on the Guernica blog, where David Bromwich examines “how Obama became a publicist for his presidency (rather than the president).” In his first term Obama delivered 1,852 separate speeches, comments, or scheduled public remarks and granted 591 interviews. These exceptional numbers, explains Bromwich, were the result of  “magical thinking” on the part of the Obama White House: if the American public heard the president often enough, they would see how sincere and bipartisan he was and accept his policies. An endless string of speeches, road trips, and town hall meetings thus came to serve as a stand-in for the decision-making and confrontation that true leadership requires, and genuine conviction demands. Argues Bromwich: “…The truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions—and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.”


Bromwich’s reflections call to mind two classic statements of what might be called the nihilism of the modern age—the psychological state in which all values are relative and none may rise from preference to conviction. The first is a fragment from Friedrich Nietzsche’s notebooks composed in 1881-1882. It reads:

…we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.

As Nietzsche writes elsewhere, “The most extreme form of nihilism would be: that every belief, every holding-as-true, is necessarily false: because there is no true world at all.” To call the President a nihilist is nothing extreme; it is simply to say that he well represents the age in which he lives, an age that is extraordinarily uncomfortable with convictions of any kind. Some believe in God, but too strong a belief in God is unseemly, even fanatic. It is good to believe in democracy, but we recognize the need for stable tyrannies as well. The free market is the best system of economics, but only if it is not too free. We live in a pragmatic age and Obama is our pragmatic President. That is precisely what many like in him. And yet we also want him to lead. In other words, we want strong leadership of a convinced leader and at the same time we want the pragmatic and technocratic malleability of someone with preferences absent convictions.

There is no better expression of this fear basic psychological state of modernity than William Butler Yeats poem, “THE SECOND COMING”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The problem with President Obama is not that he lacks convictions. It is that he doesn’t know that he lacks convictions. And despite what Bromwich writes, the President hasn’t learned this. He still believes that he has strong convictions that Syria cannot use chemical weapons in a civil war against its own people. He still believes that it is intolerable to allow Russia to annex part of a sovereign country. He stands up and makes his strong convictions clear. But then he sits down and refuses to fight for those convictions, proving them beliefs. The point is not that he should fight in Syria or in Ukraine. The point is that he should not be speaking loudly and issuing ultimatums when he lacks the conviction to back them up.

-RB (hat tip Anna Hadfield)

National Security and the End of American Exceptionalism


Back in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin called out President Barack Obama for carrying out a foreign policy based in American exceptionalism. Around the same time conservatives in the GOP argued that President Obama was abandoning American exceptionalism, pushing a secular and even socialist agenda that leads him to apologize for American greatness. According to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, “The survival of American exceptionalism as we have known it is at the heart of the debate over Obama’s program. It is why that debate is so charged.” Mitt Romney repeated this same line during his failed bid to unseat the President, arguing that President Obama “doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do.” American exceptionalism—long a sociological concept used to describe qualities that distinguished American cultural and political institutions—has become a political truncheon.


Now comes Peter Beinart who writes in the National Journal that the conservatives are half correct. It is true that American exceptionalism is threatened and in decline. But the cause is not President Obama. Beinart argues that the real cause of the decline of exceptionalist feeling in the United States is conservatism itself.

The core of the first part of Beinart’s argument concerns a generational shift regarding the place of religion in American society. That younger Americans are fundamentally changing their attitudes toward religious life is a theme Beinart has written about often. In short, one pillar of American exceptionalism has been its religiosity. America has long been the most religious of the western democracies. But the current younger generation is an exception.

For centuries, observers have seen America as an exception to the European assumption that modernity brings secularism. “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America,” de Tocqueville wrote. In his 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, Seymour Martin Lipset quoted Karl Marx as calling America “preeminently the country of religiosity,” and then argued that Marx was still correct. America, wrote Lipset, remained “the most religious country in Christendom.”  But in important ways, the exceptional American religiosity that Gingrich wants to defend is an artifact of the past. The share of Americans who refuse any religious affiliation has risen from one in 20 in 1972 to one in five today. Among Americans under 30, it’s one in three. According to the Pew Research Center, millennials—Americans born after 1980—are more than 30 percentage points less likely than seniors to say that “religious faith and values are very important to America’s success.” And young Americans don’t merely attend church far less frequently than their elders. They also attend far less than young people did in the past. “Americans,” Pew notes, “do not generally become more [religiously] affiliated as they move through the life cycle”—which means it’s unlikely that America’s decline in religious affiliation will reverse itself simply as millennials age.  In 1970, according to the World Religion Database, Europeans were over 16 percentage points more likely than Americans to eschew any religious identification. By 2010, the gap was less than half of 1 percentage point. According to Pew, while Americans are today more likely to affirm a religious affiliation than people in Germany or France, they are actually less likely to do so than Italians and Danes.

Beinart’s point is that the younger generation is less religious and thus less tied to one of the core components of American exceptionalism than previous generations of Americans. That he is right is apparently beyond dispute. And it is not unimportant.

The deflation of religion removes one of the pillars that has long-distinguished American life. For Tocqueville, religiosity was necessary in a democratic country, as it gave the people a moral language to restrict the unimpeded longings of individualism. Religion also feeds the confidence and sense of purpose lends to the American project its jeremiad-like quality. And this is nowhere better illustrated than in Philip Freneau’s 1795 poem “On Mr. Paine’s Rights of Man:”

So shall our nation, formed on Virtue’s plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.

The religious roots of American exceptionalism are well established and form the central argument of Deborah Madsen’s book American Exceptionalism. Madsen traces the doctrine to 17th century Puritan sermons and poetry, including Peter Buckley’s famous “Gospel-Covenant sermon” that proclaims,

We are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth; the eyes of the world are upon us because we profess ourselves to be a people in covenant with God, and therefore not only the Lord our God, with whom we have made covenant, but heaven and earth, angels and men, that are witnesses of our profession, will cry shame upon us, if we walk contrary to the covenant which we have professed and promised to walk in.

According to Madsen, this religious sense of distinction and purpose translated easily to a rationalist project as well. Benjamin Franklin embraced the exceptionalist rhetoric but covered it in a rationalist patina, arguing the “providence” is a “rational principle that controls the operation of the world.” For Franklin, American newness meant that it was “unhampered by the complexities of European history and unburdened by a sophisticated class system and structure of inheritance.” Thus, Madsen writes, America “offered an unrivalled opportunity for the establishment of a democratic society based on rational principles…. Franklin represents the American errand as the creation of a secular state that is purified of the corruption of European politics and a social structure based on inherited title.”

By the time Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the vision of the United States as a unique and exemplary democracy marked by a distinct approach to freedom and equality had established itself in the nation’s psyche.


The United States of America was understood not simply to be one country amongst many, but it was “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The survival and success of the United States was hardly a local matter, but was a grand experiment testing whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Americans understood that America mattered as an example for the world.

Seymour Lipset summed up the idea of American exceptionalism in his 1996 book American Excptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword.

The United States is exceptional in starting from a revolutionary event, in being “the first new nation,” the first colony, other than Iceland, to become independent. It has defined its raison d’être ideologically. As historian Richard Hofstadter has noted, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In saying this, Hofstadter reiterated Ralph Waldo Emerson and Abraham Lincoln’s emphases on the country’s “political religion.”

For Lipset, the “American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Exceptionalism, he argues, doesn’t mean American is better than other countries. It means that America “is qualitatively different, that it is an outlier.  Exceptionalism is a double-edged concept.”

There have always been opponents of what Godfrey Hodgson calls The Myth of American Exceptionalism. And there is the question of how fully different races and classes have embraced the idea of American exceptionalism. But overall, the myth has had some basis in sociological reality. Americans were more religious than other democratic and liberal states. Americans believed they had more economic mobility, and saw their country as the first truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy; one that developed in fits and starts towards an ideal of equality over 200 years.

So what does it mean when this idea of American exceptionalism is in retreat? Beinart traces the increasingly suspicious attitudes of the young to traditional tenets of American exceptionalism in foreign affairs and also in economics.

When conservatives worry that America is not as economically exceptional anymore, they’re right. A raft of studies suggests that upward mobility is now rarer in the United States than in much of Europe. But if America’s exceptional economic mobility is largely a myth, it’s a myth in which many older Americans still believe. Among the young, by contrast, attitudes are catching up to reality. According to a 2011 Pew poll, young Americans were 14 points more likely than older Americans to say that the wealthy in America got there mainly because “they know the right people or were born into wealthy families” rather than because of their “hard work, ambition, and education.” And as young Americans internalize America’s lack of economic mobility, they are developing the very class consciousness the United States is supposed to lack. In 2011, when Pew asked Americans to define themselves as either a “have” or a “have-not,” older Americans chose “have” by 27 points. In contrast, young Americans, by a 4-point margin, chose “have-not.” According to the exceptionalist story line, Americans are all supposed to consider themselves “middle class,” regardless of their actual economic fortunes. For seniors, that’s largely true. According to a 2012 Pew study, they were 43 points more likely to call themselves “middle” than “lower” class. Among young Americans, by contrast, the percentage calling themselves “middle” and “lower” class was virtually the same.

Perhaps the most interesting generational change Beinart identifies is what he calls the loss of American civilizational self-confidence, which he ties to our loss of religious feeling.

[A]s conservatives suspect, Americans’ declining belief in our special virtue as a world power really is connected to our declining belief in our special virtue as a people. And the young are leading the way. A 2013 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost two in three Americans over 65 call themselves “extremely proud to be American,” among Americans under 30 it is fewer than two in five. According to a Pew study in 2011, millennials were a whopping 40 points less likely than people 75 and older to call America “the greatest country in the world.”

Young Americans, in fact, are no more “civilizationally self-confident” than their European counterparts. When Pew asked respondents in 2011 whether “our culture is superior” to others, it found that Americans over the age of 50 were, on average, 15 points more likely to answer yes than their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Americans under 30, by contrast, were actually less likely to agree than their peers in Britain, Germany, and Spain.

It is easy to worry about the effects of the loss of exceptionalism in America, but hard to deny the truth that America is, today, increasingly less exceptional than in the past. Beinart is worried and rightly so. For what would a country be that had no common ideals? It would be a geographic entity held together by fear and bureaucratic inertia.

So Beinart holds out the hope that, in the end, Americans will reinvigorate their mythic exceptionalism. His prescription is a war on inequality that will return our faith to America as the land of economic mobility. If we can break down the Republican coalition with the plutocratic one percent and between Republicans and religionists, we could re-inspire both religious and economic exceptionalism that have undergirded so much of the progress toward social and racial justice in American history.

What Beinart’s hoped for return of American exceptionalism forgets is that historically what most distinguished America from other nation-states in Europe and elsewhere was its uniquely federalist and decentralized and constitutional structure—something that has long been abandoned and is a distant memory in today’s national security state. Not only Tocqueville in the 19th century but also Hannah Arendt in the 20th century saw in the United States a unique and exceptional country, one that for Arendt was fundamentally different from all European countries. The difference, for Tocqueville, was in America’s incredible multiplication of distinct power centers at all levels of government and society. Arendt agrees, arguing,

The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny and the same.

Arendt understood that what truly made America exceptional was its decentralized system of power, that the states did not surrender their powers to the Federal government, but that that Federal government should check the powers of the states and the considerable powers that still remained with them. By multiplying power sources, the American constitutional republic created a system that both prevented one sovereign power from acquiring tyrannical power and, equally importantly, insured that local power structures would persist that would give individual citizens reason and incentive to engage in the American practice of democratic self-government.

Arendt’s love for America, as she expressed it in her last interview, was for a country that refused to be a nation-state. “America is not a nation-state and Europeans have a hell of a time understanding this simple fact.” As a country and not a nation, America was comprised of a plurality of persons and groups that each could found and support their own institutional bases of power. Politics in America had no center, but proceeded according to the contest of local and dispersed groups. And what unites all Americans is one thing: “citizens are united only by one thing, and that’s a lot: that is, you become a citizen of the United States by simple consent to the Constitution.” The Constitution in the United States is not just a scrap of paper. I it “a sacred document, it is the constant remembrance of one sacred act, and that is the act of foundation. And the foundation is to make a union out of wholly disparate ethnic minorities and regions, and still (a) have a union and (b) not assimilate or level down these differences.”  It was this view of the United States as a country that did not require the assimilation or leveling down of meaningful differences that so impressed Arendt. It was American pluralism free from a nation-state that Arendt found so exceptional.

In the same interview, however, Arendt expressed her fear that the exceptional American pluralism that she found in the country was coming to an end. And the culprit, she identified, was the rise of the national security state.

National security is a new word in the American vocabulary, and this, I think, you should know. National security is really, if I may already interpret a bit, a translation of “raison d’etat.” And “raison d’etat,” this whole notion of reason of state, never played a role in this country. This is a new import. National security now covers everything, and it covers, as you may know form the interrogation of Mr. Ehrlichman, all kinds of crimes. For instance, the president has a perfect right… the king can do no wrong; that is, he is like a monarch in a republic. He’s above the law, and his justification is always that whatever he does, he does for the sake of national security.

Arendt expressed a similar worry about the rise of a national security state in American in 1967, when she wrote:

There is no reason to doubt Mr. Allan W. Dulles’ statement that Intelligence in this country has enjoyed since 1947 “a more influential position in our government than Intelligence enjoys in any other government of the world,’ nor is there any reason to believe that this influence has decreased since he made this statement in 1958. The deadly danger of “invisible government” to the institutions of “visible government” has often been pointed out; what is perhaps less well known is the intimate traditional connection between imperialist policies and rule by “invisible government” and secret agents.

If American exceptionalism is about religious freedom and religious passion, if it is about equal rights to participate in government, if it is about populism, and if it is about a moral vision of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then American exceptionalism is incompatible with the increasingly large, centralized, and bureaucratic security state that has emerged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


Whether the security sought is national or economic security, the demand that a central government secure our freedoms lives in tension with the basic desire for freedom understood as self-government. It is the loss of that American tradition more than any other that underlies the waning belief of Americans in their exceptionalism. And for that loss, both parties are at fault.

While Beinart misses the connection between national security and the decline of American exceptionalism, his presentation of that decline is convincing, important, and troubling. His essay is well worth your time.


Totalitarianism and the Sand Storm


“If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with […] [the desert] of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth.
The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

In the concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that totalitarianism must be understood as a new “form of government” in its own right, rather than as a transitory or haphazard series of external catastrophes afflicting classical forms like democracy or monarchy.  Essentially different from the extralegal form of tyranny as well, totalitarianism’s emergence marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience, one that will surely survive the passing of Hitler and Stalin.  Arendt’s point is that the totalitarian form is still with us because the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.


The sand storm is Arendt’s metaphor for this volatile and shifting space that throws together the totalitarian form, the enduring civilizational crises that produced it, and the public realms that are precariously pitched against it.  The ambiguities and subtleties of Arendt’s striking metaphor are worth pausing over.  Her image of the sand storm can tell us a lot about the nature and environs of the totalitarian form – and the kinds of politics that might withstand it.

Arendt’s judgments about totalitarianism in the book’s conclusion are carefully measured and quietly demur from the Cold War bombast with which she is now so often associated.  Although Arendt argues that totalitarianism will most certainly recur after Hitler and Stalin, she insists that this new form is too self-destructive to last for very long in any given time and place. Totalitarianism’s suicidal rage for conquest and violence renders it unable to secure anything like a permanent world order.  (She notes in the second edition’s 1966 preface that it has undoubtedly thawed into tyranny in the Soviet Union.)  Critics and admirers of Arendt’s theory alike often overlook both the fast burn of totalitarianism’s death-drive and the wider geopolitical amorphousness that ignites it.  Totalitarianisms emerge for a time, then disappear suddenly, only to have some of their elements migrate, shape-shift, and re-emerge elsewhere, accomplishing fantastical destruction in the course of their coming-to-be and passing-away.  There is, then, paradoxically, a kind of fluidity, turbulence, and even formlessness that attends this new political form, which is partly what Arendt’s sand storm metaphor tries to convey.

What in the world could cause the desert of tyranny to be thrown into the air and perambulate the earth?  One might guess that the cause is something like absolute lawlessness.  And, indeed, the extraordinary criminality of totalitarianism makes it tempting to think of it as a mere modern tyranny, but Arendt’s desert-in-motion metaphor argues against this commonplace.  She likens tyranny to a desert because it is a political space that is evacuated of laws, institutions, and traditions.  What remains under tyranny, however, is the open space of plurality, where human beings can still confront one another within a cohering field of action and power.  Totalitarianism radically eliminates the space of plurality through the mobilizations of mass terror, collapsing the spaces between us that make us human.  Such mobilizations are not simply lawless.  Although contemptuous of positive law, totalitarianism is lawfully obedient to its own images of Nature and History.  More than this, the totalitarian form seeks to embody the laws of Nature and History.  Because it imagines that these laws can be directly enacted by politics, the totalitarian movement tries vainly to form their more-than-human movements.  Ideology helps to put the desert into motion too, but again not mainly through the lawlessness of unreason.  Rather, Arendt argues that totalitarian ideology is distinguished by its logical lawfulness.  Totalitarian logicality at once divorces thought from worldly common sense and attaches it to arbitrary and fleeting first principles.  The resulting conclusions are half-believed, inchoate certitudes that cling feverishly to a tight deductive form.  Thanks to this a priori sandblasting of common sense, the desert of tyranny is no longer a setting for the creative solace of solitude, exile, or contemplation.  It can only become the whirlwind of ideological reason in concert with the supra-human laws of everyday terror.

The most important force that throws the desert into motion is loneliness, which Arendt distinguishes from isolation.  Isolation, the old game of divide and conquer, belongs to the desert of tyranny.  Isolated women and men lack an organized public realm in which to create freedom with others. Yet they nonetheless retain a private realm that roots them in the world through home, family, work, and labor.  To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely.  The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of “uprootedness” and “superfluousness” that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism.  Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway.  Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.  The genius of mass terror is that it is able to sustain precisely this kind of loneliness among many millions of people together simultaneously.  This is in part, Arendt argues, because totalitarian ideology seems to promise an escape from loneliness, that is, to offer form to what was before felt as superfluous and uprooted.  It is also because there is something in the psychology of loneliness that makes it singularly susceptible to the ideological calculus of despair and fatalism, to “deducing […] always the worst possible conclusions,” as Arendt puts it.


Arendt herself does not pursue the worst possible conclusions in the final chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism.  She does, however, entertain the dark possibility that the “true predicaments” of our times have yet “to assume their authentic form,” a form that she does not expect to be totalitarian.  Given her sand storm metaphor, this remark might be understood as a double warning about the emergence of still newer political forms and the persistent dangers of political formlessness.  While it may be difficult to imagine worse forms than totalitarianism, Arendt’s story is also about the generative origins of totalitarianism.  She concludes her book by arguing that these origins are still very much in the wind.  The protean creativity of these airborne elements makes political life a much more precarious and circumscribed affair than it might otherwise appear, especially in the wake of Nazi defeat and Stalinism’s thaw.  That said, there exist other protean forces that are more congenial to the power of the public realm.  Against the sand storm, Arendt wagers on the formless forces of natality, the new beginnings that attend every human being for the sheer fact of having been born into the world as a distinct someone, different from all who have lived or will live.  The stubborn facts of natality do not yield reliably to loneliness or ideology or terror precisely because of their radical novelty, their inevitable disruptions of whatever preceded them, but also because of their inherent worldliness.  Natality’s stubborn facts will always push – sometimes weakly, sometimes irresistibly – toward plurality, action, power, and the public realm.  It is for this reason, if for no other, that totalitarianism’s origins will never be the only origins given to us.

-Bill Dixon

The Moral Roots of Income Inequality


Inequality is not simply a matter of numbers and economics. Thomas Edsall explores at the moral and cultural roots of income inequality last week in the New York Times. His essay takes as its basis a recent speech by Alan B. Krueger, President Obama’s Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, entitled “Fairness as an Economic Force.” Here is one excerpt from Krueger’s speech:

In considering reasons for the growing wage gap between the top and everyone else, economists have tended to shy away from considerations of fairness and instead focus on market forces, mainly technological change and globalization. But given the compelling evidence that considerations of fairness matter for wage setting, I would argue that we need to devote more attention to the erosion of the norms, institutions and practices that maintain fairness in the job market. We also need to focus on the policies that can lead to more widely shared – and stronger – economic growth. It is natural to expect that market forces such as globalization would weaken norms and institutions that support fairness in wage setting. Yet I would argue that the erosion of the institutions and practices that support fairness has gone beyond market forces.

While globalization, outsourcing, and the rise of robots certainly are part of the reduction of wages and the hollowing out of the middle class, they do not tell the whole story.


At a time when real wages are stagnant, CEO pay is skyrocketing, income at the highest levels of society is increasing disproportionately, and corporate profits as a share of Gross Domestic Product have reached record levels.

Importantly, Edsall notes that conservatives and liberals both have focused a light on this disintegration of the moral fabric of our society, though they often do so in very different ways. He begins his essay with a discussion of Charles Murray and David Brooks, each of whom argue that the economic and political problems we face have their roots in “disintegrating moral norms.”

While Krueger’s analysis is very different from Charles Murray’s or from David Brooks’, all three share an interest in what they see as disintegrating moral norms. And there is something else that binds them: the trends that Murray, Brooks and Krueger deplore continue with unrelenting force. From Murray’s perspective, social decay and irresponsible behavior have spread into the broad working and lower middle class.

Liberals and conservatives often reject alliances on moral questions, and their analyses of the moral decay are meaningfully different. And yet, Edsall does well to bring them together and to remind us that radical inequality and political paralysis may have cultural and moral valences that transcend political affiliation.  His essay on “Our Broken Social Contract” is your weekend read.

You might also look at Alan Krueger’s speech, “Fairness as an Economic Force.” originally given at Oberlin College. I have written about Murray’s book Coming Apart, here and here.


In the Age of Big Data, Should We Live in Awe of Machines?


In 1949, The New York Times asked Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, to write an essay for the paper that expressed his ideas in simple form. For editorial and other reasons, Wiener’s essay never appeared and was lost. Recently, a draft of the never-published essay was found in the MIT archives. Written now 64 years ago, the essay remains deeply topical. The Times recently printed excerpts. Here is the first paragraph:

By this time the public is well aware that a new age of machines is upon us based on the computing machine, and not on the power machine. The tendency of these new machines is to replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one, rather than to replace human energy and power by machine energy and power. It is already clear that this new replacement will have a profound influence upon our lives, but it is not clear to the man of the street what this influence will be.

Wiener draws a core distinction between machines and computing machines, a distinction that is founded upon the ability of machines to mimic and replace not only human labor, but also human judgment. In the 1950s, when Wiener wrote, most Americans worried about automation replacing factory workers. What Wiener saw was a different danger: that intelligent machines could be created that would “replace human judgment on all levels but a fairly high one.”  

Today, of course, Wiener’s prophecy is finally coming true. The IBM supercomputer Watson is being trained to make diagnoses with such accuracy, speed, and efficiency that it will largely replace the need for doctors to be trained in diagnostics.


Google is developing a self-driving car that will obviate the need for humans to judge how fast and near to others they will drive, just as GPS systems already render moot the human sense of direction. MOOCs are automating the process of education and grading so that fewer human decisions need to be made at every level. Facebook is automating the acquisition of friends, lawyers are employing computers to read and analyze documents, and on Wall Street computer trading is automating the buying and selling of stocks. Surveillance drones, of course, are being given increasing autonomy to sift through data and decide which persons to follow or investigate. Finally, in the scandal of the day, the National Security Agency is using computer algorithms to mine data about our phone calls looking for abnormalities and suspicious patterns that would suggest potential dangers. In all these cases, the turn to machines to supplement or even replace human judgment has a simple reason: Even if machines cannot think, they can be programmed to do traditionally human tasks in ways that are faster, more reliable, and less expensive than can be done by human beings. In ways big and small, human judgment is being replaced by computers and machines.

It is important to recognize that Wiener is not arguing that we will create artificial human beings. The claim is not that humans are simply fancy machines or that machines can become human. Rather, the point is that machines can be made to mimic human judgment with such precision and subtlety so that their judgments, while not human, are considered either equal to human judgment or even better. The result, Wiener writes, is that “Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.”

Wiener saw this new machine age as dangerous on at least two grounds. First, economically, the rise of machines carries the potential to upend basic structures of civilization. He writes:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

The dangers Wiener sees from our increased reliance on computing machines are not limited to economic dislocation. The real threat that computing machines pose is that as we cede more and more power to machines in our daily lives, we will, he writes, gradually forfeit our freedom and independence:

[I]f we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

For Wiener, our eventual servitude to machines is both an acceptable result and a fait accompli, one we must learn to accept. If we insist on arrogantly maintaining our independence and freedom, we will die. I gather the point is not that machines will rise up and kill their creators, but rather that we ourselves will program our machines to eliminate, imprison, immobilize, or re-program those humans who refuse to comply with paternalistic and well-meaning directives of the machines systems we create in order to provide ourselves with security and plenty.

Wiener counsels that instead of self-important resistance, we must learn to be in awe of our machines. Our machines will improve our lives. They will ensure better medical care, safer streets, more efficient production, better education, more reliable childcare and more human warfare. Machines offer the promise of a cybernetic civilization in which an entire human and natural world is regulated and driven towards a common good with super-human intelligence and calculative power. In the face of such utopian possibility, we must accept our new status as the lucky beneficiaries of the regulatory systems we have created and humble ourselves as beings meant to live well rather than to live free.


Recent revelations about the U.S. government’s using powerful computers to mine and analyze enormous amounts of data collected via subpoenas from U.S. telecom companies is simply one example of the kind of tradeoff Wiener suggests we will and we should make. If I understand the conclusions of Glenn Greenwald’s typically excellent investigative reporting, the NSA uses computer algorithms to scan the totality of phone calls and internet traffic in and out of the United States. The NSA needs all of this data—all of our private data—in order to understand the normal patterns of telephony and web traffic and thus to notice, as well, those exceptional patterns of calling, chatting, and surfing. The civil libertarian challenges of such a program are clear: the construction of a database of normal behavior allows the government to attend to those whose activities are outside the norm. Those outliers can be terrorists or pedophiles; they may be Branch Davidians or members of Occupy Wall Street; they may be Heideggerians or Arendtians. Whomever they are, once those who exist and act in patterns outside the norm are identified, it is up to the government whether to act on that information and what to do with it. We are put in the position of having to trust our government to use that information wisely, with pitifully little oversight. Yet the temptation will always be there for the government to make use of private information once they have it.

In the face of the rise of machines and the present NSA action, we have, Wiener writes, a choice. We can arrogantly thump our chests and insist that our privacy be protected from snooping machines and governmental bureaucracies, or we can sit back and stare in awe of the power of these machines to keep us safe from terrorists and criminals at such a slight cost to our happiness and quality of life. We already allow the healthcare bureaucracy to know the most intimate details of our lives and the banking system to penetrate into the most minute details of our finances and the advertising system to know the most embarrassing details of our surfing and purchasing histories; why, Wiener pushes us to ask, should we shy away from allowing the security apparatus from making use of our communication?

If there is a convincing answer to this hypothetical question and if we are to decide to resist the humbling loss of human freedom and human dignity that Wiener welcomes, we need to articulate the dangers Wiener recognizes and then rationalizes in a much more provocative and profound way. Towards that end, there are few books more worth reading than Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Wiener is not mentioned in Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book; and yet, her concern and her theme, if not her response, are very much in line with the threat that cybernetic scientific and computational thinking pose for the future of human beings.

In her prologue to The Human Condition, Arendt writes that two threatening events define the modern age. The first was the launch of Sputnik. The threat of Sputnik had nothing to do with the cold war or the Russian lead in the race for space. Rather, Sputnik signifies for Arendt the fact that we humans are finally capable of realizing the age-old dream of altering the basic conditions of human life, above all that we are earth-bound creatures subject to fate. What Sputnik meant is that we were then in the 1950s, for the first time, in a position to humanly control and transform our human condition and that we are doing so, thoughtlessly, without politically and thoughtfully considering what that would mean. I have written much about this elsewhere and given a TEDx talk about it here.

The second “equally decisive” and “no less threatening event” is “the advent of automation.”  In the 1950s, automation of factories threatened to “liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” Laboring, Arendt writes, has for thousands of years been one essential part of what it means to be a human being. Along with work and action, labor comprises those activities engaged in by all humans. To be human has meant to labor and support oneself; to be human has for thousands of years meant that we produce things—houses, tables, stories, and artworks—that provide a common humanly built world in which we live together; and to be human has meant to have the ability to act and speak in such a way as to surprise others so that your action will be seen and talked about and reacted to with a force that will alter the course and direction of the human world. Together these activities comprise the dignity of man, our freedom to build, influence, and change our given world—within limits.

But all three of these activities of what Arendt calls the vita activa, are now threatened, if not with extinction, then at least with increasing rarity and public irrelevance. As automation replaces human laborers, the human condition of laboring for our necessary preservation is diminished, and we come to rely more and more on the altruism of a state enriched by the productivity of machine labor. Laboring, part of what it has meant to be human for thousands of years, threatens to become ever less necessary and to occupy an ever smaller demand on our existence. As the things we make, the houses we live in, and the art we produce become ever more consumable, fleeting, and temporary, the common world in which we live comes to seem ever more fluid; we move houses and abandon friends with the greater ease than previous ages would dispose of a pair of pants. Our collective focus turns toward our present material needs rather than towards the building of common spiritual and ethical worlds. Finally, as human action is seen as the statistically predictable and understandable outcome of human behavior rather than the surprising and free action of human beings, our human dignity is sacrificed to our rational control and steering of life to secure safety and plenty. The threat to labor, work, and action that Arendt engages emerges from the rise of science—what she calls earth and world alienation—and the insistence that all things, including human beings, are comprehensible and predictable by scientific laws.

Arendt’s response to these collective threats to the human condition is that we must “think what we are doing.” She writes at the end of her prologue:

What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness—the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of “truths” which have become trivial and empty—seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.

Years before Arendt traveled to Jerusalem and witnessed what she saw as the thoughtlessness of Adolf Eichmann, she saw the impending thoughtlessness of our age as the great danger of our time. Only by thinking what we are doing—and in thinking also resisting the behaviorism and materialism of our calculating time—can we humans hope to resist the impulse to be in awe of our machines and, instead, retain our reverence for human being that is foundation of our humanity. Thinking—that dark, irrational, and deeply human activity—is the one meaningful response Arendt finds to both the thoughtlessness of scientific behaviorism and the thoughtlessness of the bureaucratic administration of mass murder.


There will be great examples of chest thumping about the loss of privacy and the violation of constitutional liberties over the next few days. This is as it should be. There will also be sober warnings about the need to secure ourselves from terrorists and enemies. This is also necessary. What is needed beyond both these predictable postures, however, is serious thinking about the tradeoffs between our need for reliable and affordable security along with honest discussion of what we today mean by human freedom. To begin such a discussion, it is well worth revisiting Norbert Wiener’s essay. It is your weekend read.

If you are interested in pursuing Arendt’s own response to crisis of humanism, you can find a series of essays and public lectures on that theme here.