Amor Mundi 12/13/15

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.

amor_mundi_sign-upHostile Climates

harvard law schoolJeannie Suk writes in the New Yorker about how her willingness to criticize a documentary film might lead to her being disciplined by Harvard Law School. The film in questions, “The Hunting Ground,” is about sexual harassment on college campuses. The reason Professor Suk might end up being disciplined is the Federal Law referred to as Title IX, which requires all educational institutions to guarantee sexual equality in education. Since 2010, Title IX has been interpreted to mean that any act, speech, or gesture that contributes to a “hostile climate” connected to sexual matters must be investigated at a cost to the school and disciplined. Here is Suk’s account of how her criticism of the documentary may trigger a Title IX investigation: “But last week the filmmakers did more than understandably disagree with criticism of the film, which has been short-listed for the Academy Award for best documentary. They wrote, in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, that ‘the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law.’ The words ‘hostile climate’ contain a serious claim. At Harvard, sexual harassment is ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’ including verbal conduct that is ‘sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe’ so as to create a ‘hostile environment.’ If, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors’ statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined. To my knowledge, no complaint of sexual harassment has been filed with Harvard’s Title IX office–though I’ve been told by a high-level administrator that several people have inquired about the possibility–and I don’t know if the school would proceed with an investigation. Precedent for such an investigation exists in the case of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern University, who earlier this year wrote an article criticizing aspects of Title IX policies and culture and was accused of creating a hostile environment on campus; Northwestern conducted an investigation and ultimately cleared Kipnis of sexual-harassment charges. A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors’ statement about the film. If a Title IX complaint were filed and an investigation launched, the professors wouldn’t be permitted to speak about it, as that could be considered ‘retaliation’ against those who filed the complaint, which would violate the campus sexual-harassment policy.”

Over the last two months, much attention has been paid to questions of racial discrimination on college and university campuses. Many have criticized students for making unreasonable demands. At Amherst, students demanded that other students who had put up free speech posters go through a disciplinary process including training for “racial and cultural competency.” Students at Yale demanded that a lecturer who sent an email deemed offensive be fired from her position as Master of a College. And at Emory University, students demanded “that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: ‘Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language and/or other identity?’ and ‘Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability and class identities?’ These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors. We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, fall 2015.” As excessive as these and other demands may be, they harmed no one, as they were all denied by administrators. What is more, while many of these conversations and protests were difficult and some were uncomfortable, they have largely been successful, leading to measured and at times meaningful change. While there were excesses–examples of youthful exuberance–the protests were in the end simply speech that could be, and was, met by more speech. In other words, the protests around the country were not attacks on free speech so much as they were examples of the way free speech works to articulate and respond to grievances.

When it comes to campus protests regarding perceived sexism, as is evident in what Professor Suk describes above, the reality of Title IX means that speaking freely is to risk losing one’s job. We are in a strange situation in which discussions about race, as fraught as they are, are judged by standards of common sense, while speech touching upon sex or sexuality is subjected to the threat of disciplinary processes administered through a federally mandated bureaucracy. The contrast between the way race and sex are being treated is telling. What is worrisome is that student demands during the protests against racism are inflected by a desire to import the atmosphere of disciplinary threats to bear on speech and acts thought to create a racially hostile atmosphere. The better lesson is the opposing one, that free speech does work to allow students and others to make demands and influence changes on campuses without threatening others for their willingness to speak. –RB

Encryption and Morality

encryptionIn a long but still accessible academic essay, UC Davis computer science professor Phillip Rogaway discusses what he calls the moral character of cryptography and also of science and engineering more generally: “Most academic cryptographers seem to think that our field is a fun, deep, and politically neutral game–a set of puzzles involving communicating parties and notional adversaries. This vision of who we are animates a field whose work is intellectually impressive and rapidly produced, but also quite inbred and divorced from real-world concerns. Is this what cryptography should be like? Is it how we should expend the bulk of our intellectual capital? For me, these questions came to a head with the Snowden disclosures of 2013. If cryptography’s most basic aim is to enable secure communications, how could it not be a colossal failure of our field when ordinary people lack even a modicum of communication privacy when interacting electronically? Yet I soon realized that most cryptographers didn’t see it this way. Most seemed to feel that the disclosures didn’t even implicate us cryptographers. I think that they do. So I want to talk about the moral obligations of cryptographers, and my community as a whole. This is not a topic cryptographers routinely discuss. In this post-Snowden era, I think it needs to be.” Rogaway dissents from Stanley Fish, who advises new professors to do their work and not worry about changing the world. “Perhaps such amorality, however revolting, is harmless in Fish’s intellectual realm: one doesn’t particularly expect literary theory to change the world. But scientists and engineers do just that. A refusal to direct the change we do is both morally bankrupt and ingracious.” I think Rogaway misunderstands Fish, who preaches not amorality but rather humility. A teacher is to teach students what is; that includes the ethics and morality of the world. In doing so, the teacher inspires the student to raise ethical questions for themselves. It is not the teacher’s job to tell students what should be but to prepare them to pose and then decide these ethical questions for themselves. What Rogaway shows us is that computer scientists need to teach more than computer science; they must also teach students about the ethical implications of computer science. They must ask themselves basic questions, like “Is computer science not benefiting man?”–RB

Leader of the People

donald trumpMegan Garber talks about what we really mean when we call someone a demagogue: “As an insult, certainly–as an implicit invalidation of one’s political rhetoric–‘demagogue’ is a very good word. It’s slightly gentler than ‘fascist’ and slightly more dignified than ‘buffoon’; it’s extremely opinionated, and yet carries itself with the gravitas of informed objectivity. Uttered aloud–that evocative agog–it forces one’s mouth to gape appropriately. And while Trump is certainly not the only contemporary politician to be dismissed under its auspices (‘Demagoguery 101,’ Charles Krauthammer wrote of President Obama and his policies), no figure has so clearly deserved the word since Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan riled the former century. So deep has the impact of Trump’s fist-pounding rhetoric been that, at this point, there’s a metonymic circularity to the whole thing. The Economist recently published an article titled ‘The Art of the Demagogue.’ It did not need to clarify who it was about…. Today, perhaps as a response to that vague but ongoing threat of media-driven menace, ‘demagogue’ has become a term of last resort: a description–a deeply loaded epithet–that is summoned only when a particular politician or media figure or other modern people-leader has moved so far away from the mainstream that the Overton Window has receded well into the distance. It’s a word that doubles as a siren for a democratic system, directed at one person but implicating us all: Our house is on fire. It’s this sense that gave the phrase its shock value, and its lasting power, when H.L. Mencken dismissed Huey Long as ‘a backwoods demagogue.’ And when Joe Kennedy decried Father Coughlin as ‘an out and out demagogue.’ It is why American history, its terrain so widely populated with people who bluster and flatter and smarm and shout, has anointed so few actual ‘demagogues.'”  

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Human Ear

svetlana alexievichSvetlana Alexievich received her Nobel Prize for Literature this week. In her acceptance speech, she describes the importance of non-fiction to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: “Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ My teacher, Ales Adamovich, whose name I mention today with gratitude, felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche’s words come to mind–no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it. It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting–even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators. I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we’re not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky’s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: ‘We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity … for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.”

Buying Power

bruce raunerNicholas Confessore recounts in the NY Times Magazine a war in Illinois between a small group of wealthy families and the entrenched politics of the state. According to Confessore, the families “have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state, a concentration of political money without precedent in Illinois history. Their wealth has forcefully shifted the state’s balance of power.” Confessore tells how Bruce Rauner was boosted into the Governor’s mansion on the shoulders of $27 million of his own money as well as $13.6 million from Kenneth C. Griffin’s family. “The rich families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns. Economic winners in an age of rising inequality, operating largely out of public view, they are reshaping government with fortunes so large as to defy the ordinary financial scale of politics. In the 2016 presidential race, a New York Times analysis found last month, just 158 families had provided nearly half of the early campaign money. Many of those giving, like Mr. Griffin, come from the world of finance, an industry that has yielded more of the new political wealth than any other. The Florida-based leveraged-buyout pioneer John Childs, the private equity investor Sam Zell and Paul Singer, a prominent New York hedge fund manager, all helped elect Mr. Rauner, as did Richard Uihlein, a conservative businessman from the Chicago suburbs. Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Praising Doublethink

big brotherElijah Millgram thinks we can never be as exact as we’d like to be and that we need more hedges in our language: “Imagine you really did have a repertoire of concepts and names that allowed you to say exactly what you meant, pretty much whatever you noticed, or whatever occurred to you. Adrienne Lehrer, a linguist at the University of Arizona, wrote Wine and Conversation (2009), a book about wine vocabulary: ‘earthy’, ‘full-bodied’, ‘flowery’, ‘cloying’, ‘disciplined’, ‘mossy’, and so on. Many, many such adjectives turn up in wine commentary, though evidently not enough of them to live up to Orwell’s ideal. Imagine really having precise terms for all those flavour notes. Orwell was especially worried about capturing our inner lives, so imagine also having words for the day-to-day events that remind you of particular experiences that only you have undergone. Feeling a little swamped? It’s not simply that your mind would be submerged in conceptual clutter; it’s not just that it wouldn’t be possible to learn most of these words, or to communicate with them. In fact, Lehrer found that people don’t manage to communicate very well with their wine vocabularies; if subjects are asked to pick a wine out of a lineup on the basis of someone else’s description of it, they mostly can’t do it. Presumably this sort of talk isn’t really about communication, but it’s also something of an exception… For the most part, our repertoire of concepts and labels for individuals is important because we use it in our reasoning. Descriptions are useful in that we can draw conclusions from them. In the most basic case, you would use a rule: when certain conditions are met (for example, when you’re making the American chef Deborah Madison’s mashed potatoes and turnips), certain implications follow (an appropriate pairing would be a Sancerre in the summer, or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire in fall or winter). Your ever-so-precise mot juste might capture exactly what you see or feel but, if there’s no inference you can fit it to, then there’s nothing you can do with it. Descriptions that you can’t fold into your reasoning are useless.”

The Art of Friendship

nehamasJamie Saxon collects a series of quotations from a recent interview of Alexander Nehamas that together tell a story of a life of the mind. In one series of quotations, Nehamas says: “What a friend should do is give the other person an opportunity to become themselves. For example, if you’re making a big decision, friends can help you articulate what it is that you really want to do. My best friend at Princeton is John Cooper [the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy]–we’ve been friends for 44 years. Few people can compare to him when it comes to interpreting a text. On an intellectual level, he showed me how to be a better reader than I was, how to try to hold myself to a higher standard of what counts as understanding something and having an idea. Not to go on talking without knowing what we’re saying, which is something we all do, unfortunately. I learned a lot about friendship, family and life from him. There is a deep common element behind finding a work of art beautiful, loving a person and being a friend. In all three cases, your feelings for the object or for the person are open-ended: you think that you haven’t found out everything about that person or that work or art; it’s this idea that there’s more to see, there’s more to understand, there’s more to love here. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is a piece of art that takes my breath away. It is an amazing thing. I love, for example, that the figure is both vulnerable and very strong. I enjoy very much the fact that you can’t tell a story of what’s happening in the painting [which depicts a nude courtesan lying on a bed and a black servant]; nobody has been able to tell a story. When I was in Paris in 2014 to speak at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum, I went to see ‘Olympia’ and it was like seeing an old friend. The painting was the topic of a series of lectures I gave at Yale in 2001, and the book ‘Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art’ that came out of them, but I hadn’t thought seriously about the painting since then. When I saw it again, I realized that I didn’t understand something about the picture, something I hadn’t noticed before. She is holding a kind of silk coverlet, her hand towards the floor and you can’t tell if she’s about to cover herself with it or if she’s just uncovered herself. The moment that I saw there was something else to learn here, something else to know, my love was rekindled. I kept thinking about her the way you keep thinking about a person you have a crush on.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

virtual reading groupHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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

Friday, January 8, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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 theNew 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, 2015

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill observes how the despair expressed in Rilke’s Duino Elegies is an expression of our human world and as such distills the loss we feel from gun violence in the Quote of the Week. Mao Zedong offers his thoughts on how a limited perspective can lead us to think small in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Donna Weeks shares her personal Arendt library with us and her thoughts on studying the Kantian influence in IR in this week’s Library feature.

The War of the Generations

Here’s the headline of the day from our friends over at Via Meadia.

Illinois’s Blue Robin Hoods Stealing from the Young to Give to the Old

The topic is the pension crisis, specifically in Illinois, where the legislature has decided to cut spending on education by $400 million — for the third year in a row. All to pay back money owed to the states horribly underfunded pension plan.

Sticking it to either group, the young or the old, isn’t appealing, but the boomers are politically organized and better positioned to fight for their interests, particularly because powerful unions are on their side. The young, by contrast, are among the least politically active groups in the country, making them much easier for politicians to ignore. Illinois has obviously chosen the path of least resistance.

Check it out.

Talking through the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Prison

As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.

A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?

I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.

But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.

And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.

Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.

On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).

I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?

I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?

Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.

-Jeff Jurgens