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.
For the holidays, Catherine Wilkinson, aka Bosscook, offers an inspiring idea for gift-giving: “Rather than buy ourselves and our young adult children gifts this Christmas, we decided to walk the walk. You know. That walk where you stop indulging yourself with increasingly frivolous items and actually reach out to help others not as fortunate. We bought several Walmart gift cards with funds we would have used to buy our gifts for one another and our kids. Then our daughter and daughter-in-law (who is pregnant with twins, our 10th and 11th grandchildren, so yes, we have more than enough blessings in our life), Mr. Wilkinson and I went to our local Walmart yesterday, a beautiful Sunday morning. Not quite knowing how to do what we wanted to do, just praying we’d get it right and not embarrass anyone or get arrested. Our girls decided on an approach, took the gift cards, and my husband and I stood at a distance, ready to help if needed. The girls walked along and watched the check-out lines, and when they felt a tug at their kind hearts, they went up to people ready to check out and asked, ‘May I buy your groceries?‘ The initial responses were ones of shock and disbelief. No one was rude, or dismissive. They just wanted to know why. The girls answered that they were part of a family who decided this was the way they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Then a few asked if they were with a church or an organization. No, the girls said, we are just a regular family and this is our gift to you! No strings attached! From us! Then the miracles came. The first one, a young Mom, with a cart of food and just a couple of tiny presents for her little son, broke down in sobs, confiding that she ‘didn’t know how I could afford any of this’. Her hugs and her tears washed away all the nervousness our girls felt at first. They helped her bag her groceries and they all held one another for a long time, before this young woman left the store, trying hard not to sob.” There are more miracles here that will warm your heart. h/t WRM. –RB
Aziz Rana writing in n+1 takes on the American Creed, which he argues is simply inconsistent with racial equality. “The intensity of this paradox–of superficial equality amid widespread deprivation–has sustained a year of protest. It has drawn activists’ attention toward questions not of intentional bias–the Bull Connors of the 1960s, the Donald Trumps of today–but of structural racism. This turn to structure is evident everywhere. Where Ta-Nehisi Coates once presented Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights movement, completing the legacies of Martin and Malcolm, he now calls for reparations for slavery and presents white supremacy as constitutive of the republic. For Coates and countless others, racism is now about deep-rooted hierarchies, the living legacies of centuries of economic exploitation and state-sanctioned violence that have endured despite the end of legal discrimination. The emphasis on structure speaks to a remarkable development in American public discourse. Today, the ‘creedal’ story of national identity–according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea–finds itself in profound crisis. This story has been unmasked, not for the first time, by the problem of race. So has the vision for reform with which it is associated–the steady opening of equal opportunity to all. The creed is so central to American identity that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative, similarly grounded in a strong political tradition. Finding and defending such a tradition is the difficulty of the present moment, but also its promise.” Rana’s claim that racism demands we abandon the liberal American creed and attack the liberal structures of American society is one widely heard amidst the protests over police violence and college racism. It is, in the words of Shelby Steele in his new book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, part of a fundamental fallacy that sees America as an inherently evil country that was never actually a good or fair nation. Steele calls this argument “characterological evil:” namely, that the country’s past sins have made all attempts at reform futile. It is also analogous to an ad hominem argument, one against the person or nation itself absent an argument. Such characterological arguments make “anti-Americanism a precondition for the nation’s redemption from its past.”
Rana’s worry that America itself is fundamentally oppressive is, as he writes, based on the rhetorical strategy of ‘unmasking.’ Unmasking, as Peter Baehr writes in the latest issue of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, “refers to a mode of exposure that accuses a person, argument or way of life of being fundamentally defective. It may be claimed, for instance, that a person is an imposter.” For Rana, America has been unmasked as such a fake. It is not a country of freedom, equality, and justice but a nation built on the hypocrisies of racism, sexism, and economic oppression. Unmaskers argue that they see through illusions to a stark truth. As Baehr writes, “Unmaskers do not simply claim to see what others have missed; they claim to see through–a person or object. ‘Things are not what they seem. They reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated–at which point they make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme.'” Baehr traces unmasking back to the terror of the French Revolution: “Traitors,” Robespierre urged, “must be unmasked and struck without pity.” What unmaskers forget, he writes, is that the word ‘person’ is from the Latin ‘persona’ which is that which sounds through a mask. To be a person is always to wear a mask, to present oneself in public as a citizen or in a chosen role. All of us are hypocrites if we lay bare the hidden vices of our hearts. To demand that we strip off our mask and appear in public as naked selves is as impossible as it is totalitarian. It is a search for authenticity that can never be achieved except by a constant ratcheting up of the charge of hypocrisy so that today’s radical unmasker is tomorrow’s unmasked hypocrite. Once the process of unmasking asserts itself, there is no place for refuge. Which is why the demand that the American Creed be unmasked leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that America itself is evil and needs to be undone. That is the logic of Rana’s argument that the American Creed has been unmasked. And it is the reason that Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated that once hypocrisy is unmasked, rage replaces virtue as the spirit of the people. –RB
The Hannah Arendt Center is now preparing our Fall 2016 conference, “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” While college is a safe space for difficult questions, free and collegiate inquiry rests on rules of civility. We raise our hands to speak, listen to those who disagree, and make sacred the space of collective inquiry. Asking difficult questions in a respectful way structures our search for truths and prepares us for the activity of democratic citizenship. The emergence of the seemingly unbridgeable divides separating republican and democratic truths, black and white truths, male and female truths, secular and religious truths is that nearly all of us are increasingly so committed to the absolute truth of our partial story of reality that we find opposing truth and opposing stories existentially threatening. At a moment when difficult questions are evacuated from public spaces, we must strive to maintain the idea of college and university life as a safe space for difficult and contested thinking. Bringing together academics, business people, artists, and intellectuals, we ask the following: how can we protect the spirit of the university while honoring our unshakable commitment to justice and equality? Talking about hard questions of race, sex, and religion takes courage today. When Arendt writes, “Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world,” she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning than our individual lives. And when she continues, “Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake,” she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt’s writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt’s bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work. –RB
S. Brent Plate considers what the role of marginalia is in a digital world: “The margins are sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and, to stretch it tenuously further, between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive–alive because they’ve been read and responded to. Modern democratic society itself, which arguably would have been impossible without books and print, is based on interactions that both produce, and are produced by, a collapsing of power. This occurs not just through the mass production and consumption of literature, pamphlets, and the news of the world–making knowledge accessible to more people–but engagement with the production of knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility’ exalts the rise of the Letters to the Editor section of newspapers so that ‘at any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.’ Marginalia operates in a similar matter, turning readers into writers, and upsetting the hierarchy of the author as authority. How New Media alter and resituate these power dynamics is part of what is at stake in the current debate…. What we find in marginalia is not simply a place of intellectual disputation, two minds duking it out, but a site for the body to awaken from its long sleep and dispute the mind. In reality, reading is sensual: we read with our eyes, or in the case of braille and other practices, with our fingers. But the rational page (carefully kerned and serifed typeface, fully justified blocks of text) cuts off the sensate body, channeling our mindful intentions into its rectilinear prison, making us feel we have direct communication, jacked in. The rigid text has its uses, though messy bodies need not apply.”
In an interview, author Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses the importance of objects to his thinking: “When I wrote my last novel, I discovered how much goes on outside the narrative, or just on the outskirts of the story–objects and actions that aren’t really stories but are still a part of everyday life. When I write, I’m just as concerned with creating some kind of presence as I am with narrating a story. It’s not a stylistic trait, but a longing of some kind, and it’s that presence I seek when I write and when I read. I’m not really present in the real world, obviously. I’m closed off inside myself. Ironically, the only way I can feel present, feel that I belong, is through writing, which is really about turning away from the world. In these texts I’m not directing attention to my own presence but to the presence of objects. I’ve wanted to look at everything in the same manner, whether it’s high or low, ugly, bad, good, beautiful. A beer bottle receives the same attention as the concept of love–as much space and as much care. I’m interested in the idea of looking at things without hierarchy, in the world as it is before we start categorizing it.”
Arthur C. Brooks writes in the NY Times that we are becoming a culture of victimization and that this trend matters. “So who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We all should. To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take–the very concept of good-faith disagreement–turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them). Consider a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which examined why opposing groups, including Democrats and Republicans, found compromise so difficult. The researchers concluded that there was a widespread political ‘motive attribution asymmetry,’ in which both sides attributed their own group’s aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side’s to hatred. Today, millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them. Second, victimhood culture makes for worse citizens–people who are less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish. In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled ‘Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups. Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other to write about ‘a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone.’ After writing the essay, the participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task. The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers, and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 percent more entitled. In a separate experiment, the researchers found that members of the unfairness group were 11 percent more likely to express selfish attitudes. In a comical and telling aside, the researchers noted that the victims were more likely than the nonvictims to leave trash behind on the desks and to steal the experimenters’ pens. Does this mean that we should reject all claims that people are victims? Of course not. Some people are indeed victims in America–of crime, discrimination or deprivation. They deserve our empathy and require justice. The problem is that the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture. Where does the former stop and the latter start? I offer two signposts for your consideration.”
Katharine Schwab cuts into the history of rock-paper-scissors: “The earliest known references to finger-flashing games are a tomb-wall painting at the Beni Hasan burial site in Middle Egypt (dated to around 2000 B.C.E.) and centuries later on a scroll from Japan. Versions of rock-paper-scissors can be found in cultures around the world, but outside of North America it remains most ubiquitous in Asia. In Japan, the game is called jan-ken or jankenpon, and uses the same rock-paper-scissors finger positions, though a variation features a tiger, a village chief, and the village chief’s mother (who beats the chief). In Indonesia, the game is earwig-man-elephant, where the earwig overcomes the elephant by crawling up his trunk and eating his brain. But whatever the interpretation, the game is pervasive, combining everyday utility with basic human psychology. People tend to think that it’s a random (and thus fair) way of making trivial decisions, but the game’s simple structure still allows for an element of strategy, making it an unlikely but fitting subject for a worldwide competition. While your best chance of winning would be to choose your moves completely at random, humans are naturally terrible at behaving randomly. Well-trained players who think of the game as a psychologically driven battle can use this fact and other influencers to increase their chances of winning. Ironically, children are actually the most difficult to play against because they’re the most random in their choices, while adults who are inclined to overthink their moves tend to be more predictable, Simmons says. More skilled players use gambits, which are pre-decided sets of three throws that help reduce the chance that you give away your next move. The Great Eight Gambits, the most common strategies employed, have names like ‘Bureaucrat’ (for three papers used in a row) and ‘Fistful o’ Dollars’ (for rock, paper, paper). ‘It’s about choice and the power of suggestion,’ Simmons says. ‘The game itself almost disappears and it becomes this rarified force of will between two competitors when they both know what they’re doing.'” Best two out of three?
On the 20th anniversary of Emmanuel Levinas’s death, the Levinas Society is making available for one week the new documentary film “Absent God – Emmanuel Levinas and Humanism of the Other.” What better way is there to spend your holiday?
Finally, The New Yorker reaches way back into its archives to find James Thurber doing his best Ernest Hemingway impression: “It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them. The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.”
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, January 8, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.
About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.
Wednesday, April 8, 2016
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA
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
This holiday week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch explains how rage may authorize momentary violence as a legitimate, if for Arendt, antipolitical response to injustice in the Quote of the Week. Also, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno reflects on what it means to think anymore in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.