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.
Hannah Arendt was a bold thinker. One of the most controversial of her many provocative opinions was her support for the right of social discrimination. Arendt fiercely defended equality in public affairs and in politics, but she also saw equality as necessarily limited to the political sphere. Thus, Arendt strongly justified the right of Jews to spend their vacations at Jewish-only resorts as well as the right of others to “cater to a clientele that wishes not to see Jews while on holiday.” Importantly, Arendt made a distinction between resorts on the one hand and buses, restaurants, theatres and museums on the other. The distinction is based on the criteria that some people go to resorts to congregate with others like themselves (they all are Jewish, all Muslim, all Catholic, or they all like to ski) while people who use buses and restaurants and museums are using “services which, whether privately or publicly owned, are in fact public services that everyone needs in order to pursue his business and lead his life.” For Arendt, these private services are in the public domain and thus must be protected from social discrimination in order to guarantee political equality in the public sphere. And yet, Arendt affirms not only the right, but also the importance, of social discrimination as a necessary antidote against conformism. “The danger of conformism in this country–a danger almost as old as the Republic–is that, because of the extraordinary heterogeneity of its population, social conformism tends to become an absolute and a substitute for national homogeneity.” In other words, the rise of the social realm “which has only one opinion and one interest”–whether in the one-interest of economic rationality or the one opinion of polite society–leads to the expectation that all citizens will behave, follow innumerable rules, and live according to normal standards that “exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.”
It is worth recalling Arendt’s fear of the dangers presented by social conformity and her consequent defense of social discrimination in light of the intense anger directed at the State of Indiana and anyone who might dare to defend the state’s passage of a law protecting persons and businesses from legal action if they refuse business deals that violate their religious beliefs. It is one thing to support the right to marry whomever one wants, which Hannah Arendt did. She specifically says that marriage is a private right and that the state should not in any way intrude on a person’s private decision of whom to marry, be they of another race or of the same sex. She also fundamentally rejected those laws that would permit restaurants, bus lines, or museums to refuse service to gays or to Jews on religious grounds. Even when privately owned, these businesses operate in the public sphere and thus must treat all people equally. But if a business wants to only provide wedding cakes for gay weddings or another business only wants to provide wedding cakes for heterosexual weddings, the logic of Arendt’s position (one should not speak for what Arendt would in fact say) also means that she would likely support that right and would most certainly oppose the societal and state efforts to force religious individuals to forgo their right to association. If the Indiana law would in fact allow restaurants to not serve homosexuals (as some of its critics but not its supporters suggest), it is unjust and would need to be rescinded or amended. But the cacophony of criticism has drowned out such nuance. The demand from critics is that Indiana affirm that the law not permit any social discrimination whatsoever. And Indiana has complied.
We don’t have to agree with Arendt, god forbid. But one reason her thought is so important is because it provokes us to think deeply about the rise and danger of social conformity in the modern age. Arendt was clear that all public discrimination must be fought vigorously. But it will do all of us some good to think a bit more about her equally strong defense of social discrimination. Arendt pushes us to ask, are their meaningful limits to the drive for social equality?
Dylan Davis, a student from Bard College Berlin, penned the winning paper in the Hannah Arendt Center’s essay contest on Hate and the Human Condition. The contest was open to students taking classes on “Hate and the Human Condition” at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Bard College Berlin, and Bard College in Annandale, NY. The courses were part of a Hannah Arendt Center program to explore the fact and meaning of hate, an emotion that has persisted and thrived in nearly every era of human existence. While groups and movements seek to eradicate or limit or ameliorate hatred, hate continues to evolve and thrive. We wanted to ask whether hate is an unavoidable part of human existence and whether hatred, if it is human, might also be valuable in some ways. Is there, for example, a benefit to hating those who are evil? Professors teaching the four classes nominated 10 papers for consideration in the essay contest. Davis’ winning essay argues that against the common sense that increasing equality would reduce hate, experience teaches otherwise. “The different revolutions our class analyzed all conceived of equality as their proper end. Hate was symptomatic of either the revolutionary spirit or the conditions that led to revolution. Because of this, one might easily suppose that when revolutions reach their completion, with equality supposedly realized, hate would dissipate under this new order. Nonetheless, it always seems to survive and, paradoxically, become strengthened. Against common sense, I contend that the relationship between hate and revolution is such that, as equality increases in society, so does hate.” Davis pursues his exploration of the constitutive relationship between hate and equality through readings of two texts by Alexis de Tocqueville. “Tocqueville confirms the phenomenon wherein hate increases in relation to equality by turning to the German peasantry where, because of social conditions inverse to those of France, he can observe the lack of hate relative to inequality. He writes, ‘At first glance, it is surprising that the Revolution, whose essential object was to abolish what remained of medieval institutions everywhere, did not break out in countries where those institutions, being better preserved, made people more aware of their oppressiveness and rigor, but rather in countries where these things were felt the least. Thus their yoke seemed most unbearable where in fact its burden was lightest’ (Tocqueville 31). Astonishingly, precisely because the conditions were worse outside of France, the revolutionary spirit was less palatable. The German peasantry didn’t hate their lords because the system they were part of became naturalized over time. If benefits or privileges were granted, equalizing the conditions of the dominant and subjugated classes, hate would increase in relation to the extent that the lower classes were humanized. The revolutionary spirit, Tocqueville notes, spread to the areas outside of France that were in closest geographical proximity to it due to the fact that conditions in these areas were closer to France’s.” Davis’ excellent paper is worth reading in full. In addition, you can read the rest of the winning essays here.
For National Poetry Month, The Boston Review is printing a two-part interview in which Adam Fitzgerald questions the recently deceased poet Mark Strand in what turns out to be his last interview. Part one is now available, where Strand talks about his early interest in art, his development as a poet, and what poetry can and should not do. “AF: In your famous Paris Review interview with Wallace Shawn, you say, ‘We don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life.’ MS: Well, the meanings are embedded in the poems, but I think the poems represent a particular vision of an individual living in the mid-20th century. And into the 21st. I can’t claim that they are more than that. They don’t tell you how to live your life. Poems that purport to give the reader the meaning of life would tell you this should be the meaning of life, but I don’t preach. I’m not a preacher. I’m always astonished when I read some of my earlier poems. They’re very much like what I would have written today. They have a slightly different way, but the kind of anxiety that exists in the earlier poems, the sort of spookiness, even the humor is in some of them. I was writing prose poems all along. Because it’s fun. I wrote because I enjoyed it. It was work, and it was frustrating, but all in all, when you’ve finished a poem, you have this thing that didn’t exist and it exists independently of anything else. There’s nothing else in the world exactly like it. It’s not a multiple of anything. It’s simply there. And you brought it into the world. It’s pretty amazing. To do something that’s never been done.”
On the principle that what we don’t see might matter more than what we do, UK-based artist James Bridle has put together a short movie of representations of British deportment centers using Computer Generated Images (CGI) rather than film or photographs. Cassie Packard considers how this changes how we understand what we’re blind to: “As Bridle put it frankly in a recent interview, ‘Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it.’ Accordingly, Bridle’s oeuvre has aimed to reveal the concealed. In past work he has drawn attention to covert drone strikes by regularly posting satellite imagery of strike locations to Instagram account Dronestagram and by painting life-size drone-shaped shadows onto the ground in such politicized locations as London and Washington DC. Through his work on drone strikes, Bridle became interested in issues of contested citizenships, and the manner in which UK citizenship is stripped or denied behind closed doors. On view at The Photographer’s Gallery in London, his latest project Seamless Transitions sheds much-needed light on some of the UK’s more out-of-sight immigration and deportation practices…. The Photographer’s Gallery commissioned Seamless Transitions as a complement to the main exhibition on view, a show of black-and-white documentary photography entitled Human Rights Human Wrongs. The pairing of Seamless Transitions with Human Rights Human Wrongs is an astute one that puts two strains of human rights documentary side by side. Seamless Transitions can be a bit emotionally anesthetized as it expresses a concern for human rights without depicting any humans, instead focusing on the shifting legalities and neoliberal networks–there is no one person responsible for anti-immigration measures–that violate human rights. Human Rights Human Wrongs, on the other hand, features more traditional human rights documentary, engaging the viewer emotionally as it zooms in on the lives and narratives of oft-disenfranchised individuals in wars, racism, and political conflict. In marrying these two factions of the genre, The Photographer’s Gallery wisely proposes that, to address today’s numerous and nuanced human rights violations, we need both.”
Franҫois Kiper takes on the high energy HBO newsmagazine Vice, wondering aloud whether it’s the news we need: “To be sure, the screaming promotion of ‘real time’ live action and melodramatic clashes is unremarkable in the age of ‘infotainment,’ where stories are fodder for the feeding frenzy of 24-hour news cycles. However, unlike CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and their myriad online and TV epigones, VICE’s mode of firsthand reporting purports to transcend the mind-numbing formula of clamoring demagogues and nonstop pulp newscasts we have all become inured to. Accordingly, VICE packages its ‘real time,’ ‘on the ground’–but meticulously curated and slickly engineered-‘exposés’ as the gospel-truth of news, specifically targeting the all-important 18-40-year-old demographic that looks at everything with an overstimulated and jaundiced eye. While these jaded young and middle-aged viewers are unlikely to take what they see on cable news networks with anything more than a grain of salt, TV ratings reveal that they are susceptible to VICE’s cult of Immersion… Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand VICE’s popularity: the show enthralls its audience with the frisson of alarm and impending melodrama. A more pressing question is: what’s at stake? Smith contends that VICE’s content–which Dan Rather felicitously termed ‘more Jackass than journalism’–is just what ‘young people, who are … angry, disenfranchised, and … don’t like or trust mainstream media outlets’ want. Indeed, a kind of mythomania has developed around VICE, as if Smith and his cohorts are media firebrands ruffling the hoary feathers of the fourth estate by intruding on its fusty, out-of-touch conventions. And yet, VICE’s sensational approach is itself a radically conventional and historically reactionary journalistic method.”
Ian Crouch worries about Amazon’s new “dash button,” a device designed to be placed at strategic points in your house to help speed the delivery of individual household items that you’ve run out of: “What if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from ‘Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?’ to ‘Why in the hell I am producing so much trash?’ The act of shopping–of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site–is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice–even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.”
Julia Hutton tracks the money that comes into communities, large and small, after a tragedy, and finds that many aid agencies have trouble sorting out how best to spend money: “With no template to guide their decisions, nonprofits and relief-fund panels are still being left to improvise in a charged atmosphere. Many cities today have no better option than picking up the phone and calling Columbine for advice. Small towns and suburbs may be especially hard-pressed to meet the challenges that come with dispersing victim funds, but claims of mismanagement and insensitivity also dogged New York following September 11th and Oklahoma City after the bombing there. Tucson, Arizona, is one community that found its way through the complexities of distributing aid to victims without a fight.”
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.
Free and open to the public!
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Location TBA, 6:00 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, April 24, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.
Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, May 4, 2015
Location TBA, 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens explains how Arendt’s treatment of Socrates warns us of the ways in which abridged thinking can beget cynicism in the Quote of the Week. Edward de Bono, originator of the term “lateral thinking,” provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We announce the winners of the Academic Initiative on Hate and the Human Condition Essay Contest and publish their essays on our blog. And we share a photograph of a personal Arendtian library provided by one of our Twitter followers in this week’s Library feature.