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.
Mark Leibovich in the NY Times Magazine has found something fascinating and more frightening about the Trump candidacy. “But what was more compelling to me about both the speech and the spirit of the room was how nonideological it all was. Other than undocumented immigrants, who represent a go-to boogeyman for the right, Trump’s targets consisted of a bipartisan assembly of the ‘permanent political class’ that Joan Didion described in her book ‘Political Fictions’: that incestuous band of TV talkers, campaign strategists and candidates that had ‘rigged the game’ and perpetuated the scripted awfulness of our politics. ‘Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected,’ Didion wrote. ‘But everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-grouped.’ Resentment of this class has built over several years. It has been expressed on both sides, by the rise of insurgent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (Trump’s railing against fund-raiser ‘blood money,’ ‘bloodsucker’ lobbyists and Wall Street ‘paper pushers’ would play well across the board). As a reporter in Washington, I, too, have grown exceedingly weary of this world–the familiar faces, recycled tropes and politics as usual–and here was none other than Donald J. Trump, the billionaire blowhard whom I had resisted as a cartoonish demagogue, defiling it with resonance. He tacked not to the left or to the right, but against the ‘losers’ and ‘scumbags’ in the various chapters of the club: the pundits who ‘wear heavy glasses’ and ‘sit around the table,’ the ‘political hacks’ selling out American interests overseas. Karl Rove ‘is a totally incompetent jerk,’ Trump told the crowd in Dallas, referring to the Fox News commentator and chief Republican strategist of the George W. Bush years. The crowd went nuts at the Rove put-down, which in itself is remarkable–the ‘architect’ of Bush’s political ride being abused by a right-leaning crowd in Bush’s home state. It was at this point that I began to feel glad I decided to write about Trump, who seemed to have clearly seized on some profound exhaustion with our politics. There’s very little difference between Trump when he’s not running for president and Trump now that he is running for president, except that he makes more public appearances. Trump is the same boorish, brash and grandiose showman we’ve known across many realms. And for some reason, that character has proved an incendiary match with this political moment. It was a repeat of what I saw that night of the first debate, when the whole room abandoned the professional campaign surrogates in favor of the blazing chaos of Trump himself. Was Trump the logical byproduct of a cancerous system in which American democracy has mutated into a gold rush of cheap celebrity, wealth creation and narcissistic branding madness? Or has he merely wielded the tools of this transformation–his money, celebrity and dominance of the media–against the forces that have engendered this disgust in the system to begin with?” Leibovich has an answer to that question, and it is as depressing as it is worth pondering.
James Wood has a remarkable testament to the author, Auschwitz survivor, and chemist Primo Levi in this week’s New Yorker. Wood touches upon so many facets of Levi’s prose and humanity, as well as the uniqueness of his particular witnessing of the Holocaust. “There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that ‘Job never existed and was just a parable.’ The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem ‘Homily.’ Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God’s test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn’t understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: ‘But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.’ Pagis’s poem means: ‘Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.’ In just this way, Levi’s writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi’s books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything–every detail, object, and fact–becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. ‘Death begins with the shoes.’ Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: ‘The Lager is hunger.’ In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is ‘the voice of the Lager’ and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the ‘useless violence’ of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox–the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead.”
Ira Katznelson has an essay in Boston Review on the historical return of the worry that liberal democracies are failing. He worries that around the world liberal representative democracies are experiencing a “profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability.” And he reminds us that it is not the first time this has happened. Worries about the exhaustion and limits of representative democracies were widespread in the 1930s when “Many Americans embraced these views. In Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), Reinhold Niebuhr offered ‘the basic conviction . . . that the liberal culture of modernity is quite unable to give guidance and direction to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one.’ Looking across the sea at fascist ascendance and communist assertiveness, he warned, ‘a dying social order hastens its death in the frantic effort to avoid or postpone it.’ The following year, philosopher William Ernest Hocking declared that the time for liberal democracy ‘has already passed,’ for it is ‘incapable of achieving social unity.’ Such government, he predicted, ‘has no future. . . . Its once negligible weaknesses have developed into menacing evils.’ Even the relatively optimistic political scientist Lindsay Rogers believed, in 1934, that representative institutions ‘must reconcile themselves to laying down general principles within the limits of which they will give executives free hands.’ Such ‘considerable revamping of the machinery of representative government [that] will come quickly is greatly to be desired,’ he wrote in Crisis Government. The era’s democratic governments looked vastly inferior to the instruments of mass mobilization and problem solving fashioned by the dictatorships. The pressures on all the democracies were intense. Writing in 1932 about ‘the breakdown of the old order,’ ‘the immediate economic and social needs of labor,’ and ‘the exploitation of the farmers,’ economist and future U.S. Senator Paul Douglas exhorted fellow advocates of peaceful and democratic change that all had not yet been lost. But he thought he was pushing against the odds. Mussolini’s confident assertion in 1932 that ‘liberalism is preparing to close the doors of its temples’ has been proved wrong. Dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Argentina have given way to entrenched democracy. Even an increasingly authoritarian Russia embraces democratic forms. With the exceptions of China’s large-scale experiment in autocratic capitalism and the surprising surge of theocracy in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, liberal democracy based on the rule of law, government by consent, individual rights, and political representation presently has no effective normative or institutional challengers in most of the world, and no effective contenders in countries with long-standing democratic regimes. What saved democracy? Much credit goes to the New Deal.” The Boston Review collects a number of responses to Katznelson, and one particularly noteworthy is by Nadia Urbanati, who writes: “Thus, one novel aspect of the present crisis of legitimacy of parliamentary democracy is a revolt against the intermediary bodies that made it possible–political parties and professional journalism.”
In reviewing Sherry Turkle’s new book “Reclaiming Conversation” in the New York Times, Jonathan Franzen highlights the nexus between conversation and solitude. “Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people ‘in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.’) Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help ‘inoculate’ children against bullying.) When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.”
Gayatri Devi wants us to embrace boredom: “So lean in to boredom, into that intense experience of time untouched by beauty, pleasure, comfort and all other temporal salubrious sensations. Observe it, how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored. This form of metathinking can help you overcome your boredom, and learn about yourself and the world in the process. If meditating on nothing is too hard at the outset, at the very least you can imitate William Wordsworth and let that host of golden daffodils flash upon your inward eye: emotions recollected in tranquility–that is, reflection–can fill empty hours while teaching you, slowly, how to sit and just be in the present. Don’t replace boredom with work or fun or habits. Don’t pull out a screen at every idle moment. Boredom is the last privilege of a free mind. The currency with which you barter with folks who will sell you their ‘habit,’ ‘fun’ or ‘work’ is your clear right to practice judgment, discernment and taste. In other words, always trust when boredom speaks to you. Instead of avoiding it, heed its messages, because they’ll keep you true to yourself.”
Ann Friedman tried, like we all must now, to build a personal brand and was not exactly sold on the process of the personal elevator pitch: “I don’t want to live in a world in which everyone must be able to summarize and publicize their work in order to be professionally successful. I think those journalists in Alaska should have decent salaries and job security just because they report the news well, not because they have a lot of Twitter followers and a flashy personal web site. The same goes for janitors and call-center employees and anyone else who doesn’t have a branding-friendly job. It’s ridiculous to think that, even in the age of widespread access to social media, everyone has the freedom and time to brand themselves. Peters saw personal branding as a way for average workers to become something more than corporate drones. But in reality, that’s still a luxury reserved for the privileged. There’s also something inherently fake about having a carefully constructed identity. The more we think of ourselves as brands, the less personal everything becomes. Instead of the real you, with all your quirks and shortcomings, we get a polished YOU™, the version that is marketed to the world. Maybe, if you’re making a CEO-level salary, the trade-off is worth it. Maybe, if you’re naturally outgoing and find yourself in the right industry, it doesn’t feel like a trade-off at all. But it seems wrong to extol the virtues of personal branding without at least acknowledging this disconnect. Anything less would be inauthentic.”
Hugh Eakin sees the roots of Europe’s refugee crisis, a crisis that extends beyond the fleeing Syrians we’ve come to associate with it in recent days and weeks, as a simple fact: “there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe. You can only apply for asylum once you arrive in a European country, and since the EU imposes strict visa requirements on most non-EU nationals, and since it is often impossible to get a European visa in a Middle Eastern or African country torn apart by war, the rules virtually require those seeking protection to take a clandestine journey, which for most would be impossible without recourse to smugglers. This situation has led to a vast, shadowy human-smuggling industry, based in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa, which European officials have recently estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year. Just months before the current refugee crisis erupted this summer, European leaders launched a ‘war on smugglers,’ a controversial plan to crack down on criminal networks in Libya that control what European officials call the ‘Central Mediterranean’ migration route. As Libya descended into growing instability and violence following the 2011 revolution, it became a haven for human smugglers, who specialize in ferrying asylum seekers to Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. The smugglers are paid upfront and do not themselves navigate the boats; they have every incentive to put as many people as they can onto small, wooden crafts, leaving it to Italian and European naval forces to rescue them when they flounder. (According to European security experts, the smugglers offer a ‘menu’ of different levels of service for these terrifying journeys, charging more if you want to have a lifejacket, or to sit near the center of the boat, where you are less likely to wash overboard.) This is not a new phenomenon: the Missing Migrants Project, a database run by the International Organization of Migration in Switzerland, has recorded more than 22,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since the year 2000. But over the past eighteen months, as demand has gone up and smugglers have grown more reckless, the number of fatalities has increased dramatically, with more than five thousand deaths since the beginning of 2014. This year, in the month of April alone, a record 1,200 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya. ‘How many more deaths will it take for us to call these guys [i.e., the smugglers] mass murderers?’ a migration official for a Northern European government told me. In late September, the UN Security Council was to vote on a draft resolution authorizing European forces to seize and even destroy smugglers’ boats off the coast of Libya.”
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who himself once was conned out of a significant sum trying to get smuggled out of Iraq, tracks the routes that migrants take to get from the Mediterranean Coast through Greece or Turkey and into Europe: “Following the route laid out by my Facebook friend, most of these migrants would stop briefly in Athens and then travel on to Thessaloniki. It’s a six-hour walk from the train station there to the Macedonian border. Next to a deserted petrol station–used by no one, since fuel is cheaper on the other side of the border–is a two-storey motel, a place to rest, buy provisions and charge up your phone. Presumably, this place was once as deserted as the petrol station but now it was a modern-day caravanserai, the lobby stacked high with overpriced canned food, trainers, backpacks and bottled water. Two elderly Greek cooks were ladling out beans and rice for €10 a plate. Every table, chair and corner was occupied. A group of Syrians sat smoking and nattering away; next to them a table full of Eritreans drank beer in silence. The patron of the motel was charging round in a rage shouting orders, behaving as if his fine establishment had been invaded by vermin rather than clients. Business was so good that neighbouring tavernas and places with rooms to let had all hung out signs in misspelled Arabic in the hope of luring in some of the new clientele. Most of the migrants had money to spend and didn’t mind the prices. They had come with a few thousand euros, cash from houses and cars sold back home to fund the journey to Europe. Being charged €5 for a can of Coke was a trivial exploitation compared to the thousand or so euros each had had to pay for a trip on an inflatable dinghy that would have cost €15 on a ferry.”
The European Parliament has released a study “Big Data, Smart Devices, and their Impact on Privacy” that concludes, “the data-driven economy poses significant challenges to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, notably in the fields of privacy and personal data protection.” The study is overly bureaucratic but is worth slogging through. Here are the key findings: “Big Data can be broadly depicted as the massive and rapid processing of data (through modern data analytics) in the search for information (including unforeseen information). The practice of data mining poses a significant challenge due to the degree of opacity characterising many contemporary data processing activities. Envisioned through the lens of Big Data, smart devices are singled out for their ability to further extend data mining practices. The production of data by smart devices can be quite varied (such as sensors planned for data capture); the pervasive and extensive routine data production of smart devices might not be fully grasped by individuals. Data mining practices may result in ‘behavioural targeting’ and further encourage a ‘datafication’ of society that poses significant challenges for privacy and digital rights in general. Due to such risks as statistical discrimination, there are calls for up-to-date regulations.”
Charles P. Pierce takes stock of American football in the week after a high school player “took a hard hit” and died: “Let us be plain. For the moment, anybody who writes about sports who chooses to boycott American football because of the inherent and inevitable damage it does to the individuals who play the game is doing only half of their job. American football is the great, gravitational force at the center of the universe in which our spectacle sports operate. It is fine to operate from the moral high ground, but the fact remains that the existential crisis of physical destruction in American football is an existential crisis at the heart of American sports. It requires a serious moral calculation on the part of everyone who makes a living within the game, who makes a living transmitting the game out there to all the Evan Murrays watching at home, who involves him or herself vicariously through fantasy leagues, and who works at covering the complex at any level of journalism. Too much of American journalism–and, therefore, too much of what Americans think they know about their country–is corrupted by a kind of anesthetic generality. To cover American sports while boycotting football is to make a conscious choice to ignore the most garish form of the basic commodification of human beings that is fundamental to all of the games. At the same time, that same moral calculation requires an acknowledgement that the essence of American football is the destruction of the human body and that it alone among the institutions of sports spectacles involves the death of children”
Marcus Llanque engages with Arendt’s original intention, which was not to criticize the idea of human rights as such but the specific concept of that idea that prevailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which dominates human rights discourse in our times. In Arendt’s view, human rights can only guide actions, but they cannot replace them. Historically, human rights were most successful when they were linked to the foundation of a polity guided by the principles that human rights stand for. Her argument reflects a classical republican position by emphasizing that norms are nothing without actors and that it is the purpose of human beings, not just to enjoy as many rights as possible but to also be able to act in the first place.
Marcus Llanque is Professor for Political Theory at University of Augsburg/ Germany. He’s published several books on the theory of democracy, republicanism, and the history of political ideas. He is the editor of Hannah Arendt’s “What is Politics?” within the upcoming critical edition of Arendt’s complete works.
Free and Open to the Public
Monday, October 5, 2015
Room 203, Olin Hall, Bard College, 5:00 pm
Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.
Light refreshments will be served.
Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to email@example.com
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA
Resolved: “National security is more important than the individual right to privacy.”
Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Why Privacy Matters.” The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Free and Open to the Public
Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is NOW CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.
We will be offering a live webcast to individuals who are interested in watching one or both days of the conference. To learn more, please click here.
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.
The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt’s poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt’s political and philosophical works.
Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm
National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?
Free and Open to the Public
Thursday, October 22, 2015
Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA
The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.
Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world – including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service’s first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.
Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact email@example.com.
Monday, October 26, 2015
Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how the modern Chinese state under President Xi Jinping is an exceedingly different beast than the regimes Arendt understood as inaugurating totalitarianism in the Quote of the Week. Peter Drucker offers his views on asking the wrong questions in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Peter Baehr analyzes “Stalinism in Retrospect“, Arendt’s contribution to Columbia’s Seminar on Communism, with respect to her theories on totalitarianism. Finally, we appreciate the various annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of “The Will of Zeus” in this week’s Library feature.