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.
If you want an example of why distrust of American institutions is at epidemic proportions, listen to the investigative report of the New York Federal Reserve based on secret tapes made by one of their Senior Bank Examiners, Carmen Segarra. Segarra, a lawyer with impeccable credentials, was hired by the Federal Reserve after the financial crisis as part of an effort to bring in new personnel who were more willing to stand up to the banks they were charged with regulating. Segarra’s story is told jointly in a hour-long radio show by Ira Glass on “This American Life” and in an investigative article by ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein. Here is one exchange between Bernstein, Segarra, and David Beim, author of a once secret report commissioned by the Federal Reserve to study why the Fed had failed to adequately regulate banks in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis.
David Beim: So I could just read the fear of speaking up list of quotations. And it goes like this: “Don’t want to be too far outside from where management is thinking. The organization does not encourage thinking outside the box. After you get shot down a couple of times, you tend not to go there anymore. Until I know what my boss thinks, I don’t want to tell you.”
Jake Bernstein: According to Beim’s report, this culture of fear paralyzed the Fed in the years leading up to the financial crisis and prevented it from taking action. It’s not that the Fed regulators didn’t notice the problems accumulating in the financial system that eventually brought it down.
David Beim: They were aware of those problems coming. There were lengthy presentations on subjects like that within the organization. It’s just that none of those meetings ever ended with anyone saying, “and therefore let’s take the following steps right now.”
Carmen Segarra: I mean they’re meetings without a clear agenda, they’re meetings without clear objectives.
Jake Bernstein: Carmen was used to the private sector, where she says meetings ended with specific action items. People knew what they were supposed to do.
Carmen Segarra: None of that happens at the Fed. It’s like the information is discussed, and then it just ends up in like a vacuum floating on air, not acted upon. And the mere act of having this meeting, for them, is almost like akin to having done something about it.
You can read more about Segarra and also about George Packer in this week’s Weekend Read.
Jeremy Waldron in the NY Review of Books raises important questions about the “libertarian paternalism” of nudging as social policy. Nudging is the idea that government encourages healthy or rational behavior not by commanding it but by changing default choices. Instead of banning large sugary drinks, for example, the government could require that restaurants serve diet soda in medium cups unless the customer expressly asks for a large sugary drink. Customers remain free to fill themselves with sugar, but, nudged by the default choice, more customers will consume less. Waldron admits such nudging helps many live healthier. But he worries: “I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary, and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused. There are deeper questions, too, than these issues of trust and competence. As befits someone who was ‘regulation czar’ in the Obama White House, Sunstein’s point of view is a rather lofty one and at times it has an uncomfortable affinity with what Bernard Williams once called ‘Government House utilitarianism.’ Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.”
In an interview, Hillary Mantel compares Thomas Cromwell, the subject of her books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and Margaret Thatcher, the subject of the only new story in a collection that’s about to be released: “Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it… Cromwell did too. But there are big differences. He was a negotiator and she detested consensus-she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs. Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”
In a survey of the state of the essay about research into the relationship between madness and creativity, Tom Bartlett suggests that maybe we want our artists to suffer a little bit: “The depressed writer is a stock character, like the ditzy cheerleader or the slick salesman. It’s something we believe almost without thinking about it, in part because that pathetic figure so frequently appears in books and movies, and because we can point to historical examples of artists plagued by mental illness. John Berryman leapt from a bridge. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. David Foster Wallace, a fairly new addition to this sad list, hung himself. We mull the meaning of their deaths, divine clues from the works they left behind. We do the same with other artists. After Robin Williams’s recent suicide came the predictable musings about whether his comedic brilliance was fueled by his apparent depression. Was his manic humor a tool to keep the darkness at bay? Our readiness to accept the connection between mental illness and creativity makes Andreasen’s research all the more palatable: It is approval from on high of what we already feel in our guts. Perhaps it’s perversely comforting to us nongeniuses that artists, in a sense, pay dearly for their cultural accomplishments. Maybe you’ll never produce a great American anything but at least you’re not nuts. At the same time, it’s nice to think that the mentally ill harbor some special skill, and to argue otherwise seems unkind.”
Hannah Arendt’s call to think without banisters has captured the imagination of political thinkers. Within a symposium on Tracy Strong’s important book Politics Without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century, Patchen Markell offers a definition of thinking without a banister: “I’ll begin with a terminological question: What are ‘visions’ and ‘banisters,’ exactly? Often, Strong’s uses of these terms, and especially the latter, seem to refer to what we used to call ‘epistemological foundations.’ He begins his book by saying that the phrase ‘thinking without a banister,’ for Arendt, ‘meant for her that humans no longer could rely on any transcendental grounding to finalize their thinking’ (1, emphasis added). What this amounts to is the idea that action cannot be underwritten by ‘complete’ knowledge of the world, not because there are things we should know but cannot, but because ‘human understanding [is] not exhausted in the act of knowing.’ Absent the banister of knowledge, we are compelled to relate to the world aesthetically, which means we acknowledge the ‘presence of the incomprehensible’ and, consequently, we recognize that ‘what one says about it is necessarily in and only in one’s own voice,’ a recognition that ‘necessarily opens and relates one to others making a judgment of their own’ (13). What sets Strong’s authors off from the tradition that precedes them, it seems, is that all take up the challenge of thinking without banisters in this sense, radicalizing Kant’s critique of knowledge under the weight of their anticipation or experience of the horrors of the twentieth century.” The Symposium has essays by Markell, Linda Zerelli, Mary Dietz, and a response by Tracy Strong. The entire symposium can be found in the journal Political Theory.
In a profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein, Alice Gregory reveals the sound and fury that he finds necessary to running a small liberal arts college with relatively few resources (the Arendt Center is housed at Bard). In Botstein’s case, it often means taking risks and fostering innovation with the faith that the funding will follow. Gregory suggests that the key to Bard’s recent success is a series of attempts at revising the traditions of secondary education, specifically mentioning the college’s revolutionary programs in prisons, it’s acclaimed high school early college programs, and its innovative ways of admitting new students. People ask how Botstein does so much with so little. Gregory writes that Botstein turns the question around: “Botstein, who has accused other college presidents of doing nothing more than ‘running something that is somewhere between a faltering corporation and a hotel,’ seems genuinely baffled by what he sees as the financial conservatism of most well-endowed liberal-arts schools. ‘I’m a little mystified about what they do with their money,’ he said.” For Gregory, Botstein has created Bard in his “polymath image”: “Classes are small and seminar style. Freshmen arrive on campus three weeks before the fall semester starts, not to river-raft or play getting-to-know-you games but to study philosophy, literature, and religious texts for five hours a day. In January, they are required to stay on campus and work in science labs. Unlike many colleges today, Bard still has distribution requirements. Before declaring a major, sophomores must present and defend papers before a board of professors. All seniors must write theses.The school remains small-there are fewer than two thousand students-and resources are scarce. But Botstein has built Bard, which saw a thirty-per-cent increase in applications this year, into an academic center that punches far above its weight.”
As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.
Monday, October 6, 2014
The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm
Resolved: “Individualism is an American value worth fighting for.”
Tuesday, October 7th, 2014
Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!
Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!
Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!
Learn more about the conference here.
This week on the Blog, Anne O’Byrne discusses Arendt’s reaction to a Matisse exhibition and what “stripping away the face” means for our humanness in the Quote of the Week. Athenian historian Thucydides provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a 2010 Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon on a new critique of globalization in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we discover a Bible in Hannah Arendt’s library and wonder whether she herself owned it. And Roger Berkowitz discusses Carmen Segarra and the “unwinding” of America in the Weekend Read.