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.
Robert Boyers defends real talk and worries about the anti-intellectualism of safe spaces. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boyers echoes Hannah Arendt’s insistence that we insist on using words in ways that have distinct meanings. “[I]t is now harder than ever to argue about ideas without first ascertaining that you and your antagonist share even rudimentary assumptions about what exactly is intended when a concept is invoked.” Consider the idea of “banality.” Find the rest of this piece here on Medium.
David Graeber ties the government of austerity in the UK to a feeling of hopelessness, and wonders if there isn’t a kind of despair fatigue setting in: “Meanwhile, on the streets and council estates, Britain is undergoing a sea change, a veritable efflorescence of resistance. It’s very hard to know the real scale of it because, unlike in generations past, the media largely refuses to report on it. Perhaps this is because when they do, the results are rarely what they expect. On May 9, 2015, the day after the Tory election victory was declared, before the inevitable new round of cuts could even be announced, there was a minor riot in front of the prime minister’s offices at 10 Downing Street. Hundreds of student activists clashed with police; several of them, on being punched and kicked by uniformed officers, actually punched back; paint bombs were thrown, flares set off, and the Women of World War II memorial was daubed with the familiar slogan “Fuck Tory Scum.” The editors of the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail decided that the public mood was such that it might even be possible to actually report this, and ran a huge spread with splashy pictures under the headline “Anarchist Mob Planning Summer of Thuggery.” Within twenty-four hours, they were horrified to discover that in the comments section, opinion among their own readers was running something like five to one in favor of anarchist thuggery. Even the “desecration” of the memorial didn’t raise much in the way of hackles. After all, most Britons are well aware that the first thing veterans did, on returning from the war, was oust Churchill’s sitting Tory government and vote in one that promised to preside over the creation of a modern welfare state. This is precisely the work the current inhabitants of Downing Street are trying to dismantle. The rioters were simply defending those veterans’ legacy and enunciating what they, if alive, would most likely be saying themselves. Between student occupations, housing occupations, street actions, and a revival of radical unionism, there has been an unprecedented upswell of resistance. But even more important, it has begun, however haltingly, to take on a very different spirit than the desperate, rear-guard actions of years past. After all, even the legendary poll-tax riots that dislodged Thatcher were either backward-looking or, alternately, bitter and nihilistic. Class War’s slogans (“The Royal Question: Hanging or Shooting?”) were perhaps charmingly provocative, but hardly utopian. This is where the notion of despair fatigue comes in….One might argue that its beginnings were already visible in popular culture. Witness the emergence of the Scottish socialist school of science fiction, which, after the relentless dystopianism of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, led the way to a broader trend by toying with redemptive futures once again. Then there was Steampunk, surely the most peculiar of countercultural trends, a kind of ungainly Victorian futurism full of steam-powered computers and airships, top-hatted cyborgs, floating cities powered by Tesla coils, and an endless variety of technologies that had never actually emerged. I remember attending some academic conference on the subject and asking myself, “Okay, I get the steam part, that’s obvious, but . . . what exactly does this have to do with punk?” And then it dawned on me. No Future! The Victorian era was the last time when most people in this country genuinely believed in a technologically-driven future that was going to lead to a world not only more prosperous and equal, but actually more fun and exciting than their own. Then, of course, came the Great War, and we discovered what the twentieth century was really going to be like, with its monotonous alternation of terror and boredom in the trenches. Was not Steampunk a way of saying, can’t we just go back, write off the entire last century as a bad dream, and start over? And is this not a necessary moment of reset before trying to imagine what a genuinely revolutionary twenty-first century might actually be like?”
Responding to the 29-hour, repair related closure of Washington D.C.’s Metro system earlier this week, Phillip Kennicot thinks that we should be ashamed of ourselves: “Metro opened a decade after the National Park Service celebrated its 50th anniversary with the fruition of its Mission 66 program, another major investment in modernizing the country’s federal infrastructure. If Metro was to turn the capital into an efficient and modern city, Mission 66 would restore America’s neglected and overburdened national parks, with new visitor centers and better access for a more mobile population. Aesthetics played a major role in this plan, too, with architects such as Richard Neutra tasked with creating a more contemporary look for park buildings… There are many reasons Metro is closed today, including mismanagement and, some would argue, misplaced priorities. It is straining to expand and keep up with demand at the same time that it is dealing with the inevitable deterioration of 40-year-old systems and equipment. But above all, it is closed today for the same reason that much of what was built during the Great Society era now looks ugly to us: years of underfunding, disinvestment and deferred maintenance, a neglect that comes of a deeper social and political dysfunction. We have learned to tolerate decay, and ugliness. That’s the reason Pershing Park, near the White House, is an eyesore today. And the same reason that outhouses in the National Park Service are often overflowing, and fountains all over Washington are out of service or nearly so. Demolition by neglect is now our maintenance policy, and not just when it comes to things we have made in bricks and mortar; it erodes our civic landscape, too. Even more frightening: We are learning to adapt. In Flint, Mich., residents use bottled water, just as people all across the Third World drink bottled water. And today, in Washington, the city walks, bikes and hitches a ride, just as billions of residents of impoverished cities throughout the world regularly improvise their commute.”
Jim Sleeper rightly argues that the offense in Donald Trump’s campaign is not racism or fascism, but corruption. Trump is boorish, low class, narcissistic, and mean. He is uncurious and self-satisfied in his enormous ignorance. His promotion of violence at his rallies is childish. He is a demagogue. Yes, Trump is possessed of a certain genius in marketing. But how does that qualify him to be President? Only because of a fundamental corruption.
“The American republic’s founders wondered a lot about whether people could balance wealth-making with truth-seeking and public decision-making about the modes of wealth-making itself. As soon as King George III was gone, they took a hard look at the people and became obsessed with how a republic ends. Reading Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hot off the press in the mid-1770s, they saw that people can lose their freedom not to a violent coup but to a smile and friendly swagger if they’ve tired of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied into servitude—or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough.
“History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee. Even as Benjamin Franklin voted for the Constitution in 1787, he warned that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other…”
The more that impulse-buying and escapism become the measures of our well-being, the more we’re like flies trapped in the spider’s web of the 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines with which lenders, insurers, pharmaceutical producers are dissolving our freedoms, not out of malevolence or conspiracy but out of mindless, routinized greed. We resort to palliatives in pills, vials, syringes, elaborate home-security systems, and vapid spectacles punctuated by mob-like cries for an American Augustus who’ll make our nation great again. American founders believed that, as the historian Gordon Wood puts it,
“It was not force of arms which made the ancient republics great or which ultimately destroyed them. It was rather the character and spirit of their people… The obsessive term was luxury, both a cause and a symptom of social sickness. This… love of refinement, the desire for distinction and elegance eventually weakened a people and left them… unfit and undesiring to serve the state.”
Now a purveyor of illusions of luxury in his palace hotels and casinos has persuaded millions of Americans to serve him as the head of their state. But a liberal capitalist republic needs citizens who voluntarily uphold and impart to one another sturdy public virtues and beliefs such as reasonableness, forbearance, a willingness to discover one’s self-interest in serving public interests.”
Hannah Arendt also saw that the danger to the American republic was the corruption of the people and not the corruption of government.
“Corruption and perversion are more pernicious, and at the same time more likely to occur, in an egalitarian republic than in any other form of government. Schematically speaking, they come to pass when private interests invade the public domain, that is, they spring from below and not from above…. [U]nder conditions, not of prosperity as such, but of a rapid and constant economic growth, that is, of a constantly increasing expansion of the private realm—and these were of course the conditions of the modern age—the dangers of corruption and perversion were much more likely to arise from private interests than from public power.”
Beyond his boorishness and immaturity, Trumps’ popularity rests on his unabashed embrace of winning, wealth, and wish fulfillment as opposed to publicly-oriented citizenship as the quintessence of life. —RB
Charles Murray has as good an understanding of the Trump phenomenon as anyone: “White working-class males were the archetypal “Reagan Democrats” in the early 1980s and are often described as the core of support for Mr. Trump. But the grievances of this group are often misunderstood. It is a mistake to suggest that they are lashing out irrationally against people who don’t look like themselves. There are certainly elements of racism and xenophobia in Trumpism, as I myself have discovered on Twitter and Facebook after writing critically about Mr. Trump. But the central truth of Trumpism as a phenomenon is that the entire American working class has legitimate reasons to be angry at the ruling class. During the past half-century of economic growth, virtually none of the rewards have gone to the working class. The economists can supply caveats and refinements to that statement, but the bottom line is stark: The real family income of people in the bottom half of the income distribution hasn’t increased since the late 1960s. During the same half-century, American corporations exported millions of manufacturing jobs, which were among the best-paying working-class jobs. They were and are predominantly men’s jobs. In both 1968 and 2015, 70% of manufacturing jobs were held by males. During the same half-century, the federal government allowed the immigration, legal and illegal, of tens of millions of competitors for the remaining working-class jobs. Apart from agriculture, many of those jobs involve the construction trades or crafts. They too were and are predominantly men’s jobs: 77% in 1968 and 84% in 2015. Economists still argue about the net effect of these events on the American job market. But for someone living in a town where the big company has shut the factory and moved the jobs to China, or for a roofer who has watched a contractor hire illegal immigrants because they are cheaper, anger and frustration are rational. Add to this the fact that white working-class men are looked down upon by the elites and get little validation in their own communities for being good providers, fathers and spouses—and that life in their communities is falling apart. To top it off, the party they have voted for in recent decades, the Republicans, hasn’t done a damn thing to help them. Who wouldn’t be angry? There is nothing conservative about how they want to fix things. They want a now indifferent government to act on their behalf, big time. If Bernie Sanders were passionate about immigration, the rest of his ideology would have a lot more in common with Trumpism than conservatism does. As a political matter, it is not a problem that Mr. Sanders doesn’t share the traditional American meanings of liberty and individualism. Neither does Mr. Trump. Neither, any longer, do many in the white working class. They have joined the other defectors from the American creed.” What Murray doesn’t say, but should, is that Trump is mean, narcissistic, and violent in ways that Sanders is not.
Jill Lepore muses about the nature of truth: “Historians don’t rely on thought experiments to explain their ideas, but they do like little stories. When I was eight or nine years old, a rotten kid down the street stole my baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger that I’d bought with money I’d earned delivering newspapers, and on whose barrel I’d painted my last name with my mother’s nail polish, peach-plum pink. “Give it back,” I told that kid when I stomped over to his house, where I found him practicing his swing in the back yard. “Nope,” he said. “It’s mine.” Ha, I scoffed. “Oh, yeah? Then why does it have my name on it?” Here he got wily. He said that my last name was also the name of his baseball team in the town in Italy that he was from, and that everyone there had bats like this. It was a dumb story. “You’re a liar,” I pointed out. “It’s mine.” “Prove it,” he said, poking me in the chest with the bat. The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval. “Fight you for it,” the kid said. “Race you for it,” I countered. A long historical precedent stands behind these judicial methods for the establishment of truth, for knowing how to know what’s true and what’s not. In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof. Kid jurisprudence works the same way: it’s an atavism. As a rule, I preferred trial by bicycle. If that kid and I had raced our bikes and I’d won, the bat would have been mine, because my victory would have been God-given proof that it had been mine all along: in such cases, the outcome is itself evidence. Trial by combat and trial by ordeal place judgment in the hands of God. Trial by jury places judgment in the hands of men. It requires a different sort of evidence: facts…I never did get my bat back. Forget the bat. The point of the story is that I went to the library because I was trying to pretend that I was a grownup, and I had been schooled in the ways of the Enlightenment. Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement. For the length of the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth, truth seemed more knowable, but after that it got murkier. Somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, fundamentalism and postmodernism, the religious right and the academic left, met up: either the only truth is the truth of the divine or there is no truth; for both, empiricism is an error. That epistemological havoc has never ended: much of contemporary discourse and pretty much all of American politics is a dispute over evidence. An American Presidential debate has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury, which is what people are talking about when they say these debates seem “childish”: the outcome is the evidence. The ordeal endures.”
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has a review of Richard King’s new Arendt and America. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wurgaft argues that life as an immigrant in America had an important impact on Arendt’s thinking. “IN 1975, AT THE FUNERAL of Hannah Arendt, the philosopher Hans Jonas asked a counterfactual question. Jonas, a friend of Arendt’s since their days as students of Martin Heidegger in the 1920s, before they both took flight from the rise of fascism in Europe and came to North America, noted that she first took an interest in politics during a sojourn in Paris. But, he asked, “[W]hat would have become of that, had she not come to these [American] shores — who knows? It was the experience of the Republic here which decisively shaped her political thinking, tempered as it was in the fires of European tyranny and catastrophe, and forever supported by her grounding in classical thought. America taught her a way beyond the hardened alternatives of left and right from which she had escaped; and the idea of the Republic, as the realistic chance for freedom, remained dear to her even in its darkening days.” Arendt and America, Richard King’s ambitious and illuminating new book, is a welcome addition to a crowded scholarly field of works on Arendt, and its central question is related to Jonas’s. How did America change Arendt? If Jonas was correct that the uncategorizable Arendt had found, in American political history and thought, a new way beyond the impasse of left and right, what exactly was that path? And what might Arendt have written in the book on the United States she and her husband Heinrich Blücher dreamed of writing but never wrote?”
Previewing his take on the superhero Black Panther, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing how reading comic books influenced his journalism: “Some of the best days of my life were spent poring over the back issues of The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. As a child of the crack-riddled West Baltimore of the 1980s, I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power. That is the premise behind the wimpy Steve Rogers mutating into Captain America, behind the nerdy Bruce Banner needing only to grow angry to make his enemies take flight, behind the bespectacled Peter Parker being transfigured by a banal spider bite into something more…But comic books provided something beyond escapism. Indeed, aside from hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons, comics were my earliest influences. In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. Some of this was personal. All of the comics I loved made use of two seemingly dueling forces—fantastic grandiosity and ruthless efficiency. Comic books are absurd. At any moment, the Avengers might include a hero drawn from Norse mythology (Thor), a monstrous realization of our nuclear-age nightmares (the Hulk), a creation of science fiction (Wasp), and an allegory for the experience of minorities in human society (Beast). But the absurdities of comics are, in part, made possible by a cold-eyed approach to sentence-craft. Even when the language tips toward bombast, space is at a premium; every word has to count. This big/small approach to literature, the absurd and surreal married to the concrete and tangible, has undergirded much of my approach to writing. In my journalism here at The Atlantic, I try to ground my arguments not just in reporting but also in astute attention to every sentence. It may not always work, but I am really trying to make every one of those 18,000 words count.”