Amor Mundi 1/10/16

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-upWhat We Cling To

the beatlesAdam Gopnik investigates why some pasts are more available than others: “The most persistent mistake that historians and politicians have made in analyzing the modern world is to imagine, again and again–a fallacy shared by liberals and Marxists alike–that people will pursue their own economic interests in preference to their ideological fixations. They don’t. They never will. Nationalist ideology has been a much stronger force in the modern world than class interest. This dates at least to the memorable moment when the Great War began and socialists throughout Europe were sure that transnational class-consciousness would trump nationalist war fever. It didn’t. It never has. The better question may be what divides our past so radically between the things we remember and the things we don’t. It may be that the general force of anxiety that affects everything in modern life is also responsible for the way our pasts get divided. The truth about modern life is that it creates enormous anxiety at every moment. It’s like a traumatic force that suppresses some memories and refuses to suppress others at all. Our past is divided between the archival and the available exactly because it is so quickly past–so rapidly dissolved in confusion. We all want to stop the process of traumatic change from happening, and sometimes we do it by forgetting everything, sometimes by remembering almost too much. The Beatles linger; other bands unduly fade. (Do we really need to remember ‘Mr. Moonlight’ or ‘Don’t Pass Me By?’ We do, though.) When he was running for President the first time, Barack Obama got into some trouble for saying that people in small towns that had lost manufacturing jobs ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’ as a way to explain their frustrations. It was impolitic, but, with a crucial proviso added, true: we all are clinging to something, if no more than an app at our Beatle-loving fingertips.” Gopnik is right that people cling to fantasies over and above their interests. Nationalism is at times one of those fantasies, but as Hannah Arendt points out, nationalism, while dangerous, is nevertheless limited by national boundaries. As bad as nationalism is, the real danger in the modern world is when coherent fantasies are ideological and transnational. This is part of what she means by the total domination of totalitarianism, when fantasies expand eternally with the aim of overrunning the world.–RB

The Critic-in-Chief

obamaEdward Mendelson praises President Obama’s college-age criticism of T.S. Eliot: “Obama sees that Eliot’s conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder. Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed. Behind this insight into Eliot’s conservatism is Obama’s sense that the goal of partisan politics is not the success of one or another party or program, but the means by which private morality can be put into action in the public sphere. So the liberal Obama can respect the conservative Eliot, because both seek what are ultimately moral, not political, ends… Obama asks his friend, ‘You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?’ Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone, just as Kermode sees Eliot’s ‘shudder’ as a special case of something felt by everyone. And instead of making an assertion to his friend about her own ambivalence, Obama asks her a rhetorical question, because no one can be certain about someone else’s inner life, though sympathy makes it possible to guess. Having first placed Eliot in his historical and literary context, then having pointed to what is unique in him, Obama ends by showing how he speaks to any individual reader who pauses to listen. This is what the finest literary criticism has always done.”

The Color of the Sky

claudia rankineDai George writes about the upcoming T.S. Eliot Prize and Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “The T. S. Eliot Prize carries serious money (£20,000, the most of any single poetry prize in the UK) and serious bragging rights. The list of its past winners doubles as a one-stop index of poetic celebrity on this side of the Atlantic: David Harsent, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, John Burnside, and Sinéad Morrissey take their places alongside a host of other stars in the contemporary British firmament. In recent years the prize has also acted as a lightning rod for minor controversy. David Harsent’s win last year led some observers to suggest that an oligarchy was rigging the system, dishing out prizes among its members while a growing constituency of smaller presses and their poets are effectively disenfranchised. One doesn’t have to travel too far down the road of conspiracy and recrimination to recommend the sober, factual analysis of Fiona Moore, a poet and blogger who has done valuable work crunching the numbers to prove how far British poetry prizes have to go before they can claim to represent the full breadth of an increasingly vibrant and diverse publishing ecosystem. The representation question feels particularly urgent this year since the favorite has to be Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that scrutinizes how black men and women–particularly black American men–are diminished and violated every day. It would seem a woeful category error to invite comparison between the serious, insidious brutality exposed in Citizen and this rarefied anxiety over how a book by a black woman will fare in competition for a literary prize that reflects the white cultural establishment–would seem so, were it not for the fact that Citizen confronts the white British literary establishment in its very text. In a passage titled ‘August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,’ Rankine restages an encounter between her multivalent ‘you’ and ‘A man, a novelist with the face of the English sky–full of weather, always in response, constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly.’ They are talking at a party in an expensive house in Hackney, the borough that erupted into violence during the 2011 London riots. The casus belli for the riots was, ostensibly, the police execution of the unarmed Duggan, and our craggy, well-meaning novelist wants to know if Rankine would ever write about this moment of specifically British racism. His question, apparently innocent and engaged, turns into one of those flare points of estrangement that Rankine captures with gut-churning precision: Why couldn’t he write about it himself? ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?’ Rankine pulls off a great, and slightly risky, technical feat when she turns the novelist by degrees into first ‘the man made of English sky’ and then simply ‘the English sky.’ By conflating him with the low-key melodrama of English weather, Rankine risks demeaning the novelist as an exotic ‘other’ himself, an object defined by the clichés of his homeland. But this transition to ‘sky’ works precisely because it enacts the inverted prejudice that prejudice provokes: the blankness, the zoning out from particularities, the reflexive withdrawal that occurs when someone feels unexpectedly isolated by racial assumptions.”

Rage in America

rageOver at Esquire, they have published one of the most fascinating surveys of the year. (OK, it is only January.) “American Rage” is an exploration of how angry we are and who is angry at whom. The results are worth considering: “LET’S BEGIN WITH THE BIG REVEALS: Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all. And black Americans are more optimistic about the future of the country and the existence of the American dream. There are depths and dimensions, dark corners and subtle contours to our national mood, and setting aside the issue of who actually has a right to be angry and about what–these pages are neutral territory; everyone is allowed their beef–we found three main factors shaping American rage. EXPECTATIONS: Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you’re probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment. When we cross-tabulate these feelings with reports of daily anger (which are higher among whites than nonwhites), we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement–a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out–rather than actual hardship. (If anger were tied to hardship, we’d expect to see nonwhite Americans–who report having a harder time making ends meet than whites, per question three–reporting higher levels of anger. This is not the case.) Indeed, despite having what many would consider a more legitimate case for feeling angry, black Americans are generally less angry than whites. Though they take great issue with the way they are treated by both society in general and the police in particular, blacks are also more likely than whites to believe that the American dream is still alive; that America is still the most powerful country in the world; that race relations have improved over the past eight years; and, most important in the context of expectations, that their financial situation is better than they thought it would be when they were younger. Their optimism in the face of adversity suggests that hope, whatever its other virtues, remains a potent antidote to anger.” And one further note: “Seventy-three percent of whites say they get angry at least once a day, as compared with 56 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans get angry at least once a day, as compared with 67 percent of Democrats. The least angry household-income brackets: the very rich ($150,000-plus) and the very poor ($15,000 and less). The most angry: the middle of the middle class.

amor_mundi_sign-upFrom the Mouths of Babes

gargoyleMark Edmundson wonders at the fact that profanity seems to have the most power when children are the ones with the foul mouths: “I suspect that the swearing of kids cracks open illusions for adults. When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity–someone who summons up what Shakespeare might have been, if he decided to become practiced in the art of the headlong cursing symphony. And who knows, lover of language that he was, he may actually have created such compositions from time to time. What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits? What’s lost then is the myth of innocence. Suddenly your child has become a kid. And what better way for the child to rebel against his period of confinement as a child than to become an adept curser? It’s not like having sex just at puberty, or holding up the neighbors with a wooden gun and scampering away with a wallet and a purse. But it really can create a gap, a true facture, between the self that was and the self that now is. The first time you hear your beloved 10-year-old say motherfucker: well, on that day something changes. Why does it disturb us so? I suppose something called parental narcissism is involved. We want the child to be perfect. We want the child to avoid all the wounds and disappointments that we suffered. We want the child to be without flaws. (For surely we had our flaws.) The child is a sort of second chance for us–a way to approach life another time and this time to get it right.”

We’re Gonna Make It Through This Year

new year's resolutionMensah Demary praises the New Year’s Resolution: “New Year’s resolutions attempt to correct that which has gone awry. It often doesn’t, in part because New Year’s resolutions are abandoned so often that their abandonment is woven into American culture. A local newscaster speaks over stock footage of round bellies jiggling on treadmills in gyms, and, at the end of the segment, offers a reminder that it’s okay if resolutions are forgotten, because there’s always next year, and no one achieves their resolutions anyway. Failure is assured, or implied. But while New Year’s resolutions are absurd, they are not without value. That the tradition even exists at all engenders a frame of mind necessary for personal change: Thinking about resolutions means I’m thinking about improving myself. I do need to return to the gym to remove the flab once and for all; I could also resolve to call my mother more often, or take a flight south to see her for the first time in four years; I might decide to write difficult essays that take me out of my head, my comfort zones, even if they won’t garner any immediate shares, or likes, or favorites. Expanding my reading tastes is a worthwhile resolution; I could certainly stand to read more often, which would mean less time for other things, such as Twitter, but this would be a small loss, a trifle to relinquish, since social media has become anathema to my artistic pursuits. (I would rather be known as a bad writer than a good tweeter; this is a realization that is so baffling to me, and unexpected, that I’ve been unable to do anything about it except to sit with it, turn it over, and find the lie in it, if it exists.) I could be a better sibling to my brothers and sister, as well as a better uncle to their children; I could turn to God as I deal with my mortality; I could stop wasting my money on the latest gadgets and take-out lunches, and any money saved could then be used to see more of the world with my partner. We could go to South America, or Central America, and I could peck out some words on my laptop at the beach, brushing sand away from my keyboard; I could look at the tapestries and churches, the sculptures and the jewelry, all the details my partner sees and points out; we could forget to take photos and instead resolve to remember it all, to use both of our minds to remember this one, singular trip for ourselves, and keep all of it in our heads and offline; I could finish my book, and make a note in the acknowledgements that the book was written on a trip with my partner, who reminds me of black love, of black friendship, of black power, black excellence, black family, Blackness with a capital B; I could resolve to taste more varieties of bourbon, to give gin another chance (but only one more chance), and to continue to laugh at all the wrong times, at all the wrong things; I could resolve to be even more absurd.”

Non-Professors Teaching Non-Students

student lifeRon Srigley offers yet another condemnation of the modern university. But unlike most, he identifies what kind of universities he is writing about. “A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same. I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business. As they stand, these schools are about as similar to, say, the Claremont Colleges as pickled eggs are to Coquilles Saint-Jacques. They’re both universities, but … So just to be clear about my subject, I’m going to be talking about the pickled eggs.” Srigley writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which raises the following question: Why should we readers of the LARB care about the failure of lower-tier Canadian colleges? He answers that one, too: “But one more thing before I begin: Why should you, parents of students at Claremont or Stanford or one of the UC schools, care? What’s it to you how these universities are faring? Perhaps you shouldn’t care. But I think it might be good for you, for two reasons. First, it’s always good to think about the less fortunate. It can make you more merciful, because you see how fickle fate can be and how, social capital notwithstanding, one or two slight turns of the screw either way could have caused things to turn out quite differently. It can also build community and even create more equity because seeing others’ misfortunes tends to make us less inclined to add to them. But second, and more to the point, the disease from which my university suffers, yours does too. It’s not as bad where you are, stage one or two as opposed to stage four, but it is recognizably the same disease, and its just as aggressive: administrative bloat, student illiteracy, lots of ‘student experience’ but very little ‘student intelligence,’ dumb and dumber no longer a bad Hollywood joke but the unacknowledged consequence, if not the principle, of higher education. If you think I exaggerate, please read on. The university education you save may be your child’s.” And this is too good not to include: “During one class a couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. The moment the lights went down I saw dozens and dozens of bluish, illumined faces emerge from the darkness. That’s when I understood that a lecture or discussion is now only one of several entertainment options available to students in the university classroom. Given the way the game is played, lectures and discussions rank well below Facebook or Tumblr. You can’t get mad at them for this, not like in the old days. ‘Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.’ Say that today and you won’t hear anger or shame. You’ll hear something like: ‘Wha…? Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn’t mean anything.’ And they don’t. They don’t mean anything. They are not dissing you; they are not even thinking about you, so it’s not rebellion. It’s simply that the ground has shifted and left you hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years) and down we’ll all tumble. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students used to do; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students anymore, and you are not a professor. And there’s the rub.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

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, February 5, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that “Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on “A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 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 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

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, Wolfgang Heuer notes how it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress various boundaries to approach omnipotence in the Quote of the Week. Sir Joshua Reynolds comments on the lengths to which a man will go to avoid the real labor of thinking in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 student opinion contest. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of Nisbet’s “Social Change and History” in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 11/29/15

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-upThe Great Transformation

social equality protestDanielle Allen argues that “the real issue” in the campus protests around the country is not free speech. It is, rather, “how to think about social equality.” For Allen, we are coming up against old and petrified cultural and aesthetic ideals that were imagined in a time of racial inequality. What is needed is a “re-orientation of our cultural life toward the embrace” of the ideal of equality. She writes: “To achieve social equality, however, against a backdrop of centuries of racial social subordination demands not only the vision of prophets who can imagine that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. It calls, too, for cultural transformation, for a revolution, even, in our ordinary habits of interaction. The fight over cultural transformation is being waged on the grounds of how to deal with offensiveness. We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous. So how can we thread this needle? The issue is not, of course, about single, specific insults, of which we all have tales, and which we all have to learn to take in stride. I, too, was called ‘n-‘ on campus in the lovely, deep late-night dark of Princeton in the spring of 1993. The point, rather, is that, in the case of race, such insults represent a rising to the surface of what psychologists call ‘implicit bias,’ a general attribution in this country of lesser value to the lives of dark-skinned people than to those with lighter skin. Psychologists have found that not only non-blacks but also blacks harbor implicit bias against blacks. And implicit bias does its dirty work in any number of contexts: hiring decisions; policing intuitions; school discipline; teacher-student mentoring; elections; and so on…. How do you transform communities and environments that were developed to resonate with the aesthetic tastes and ways of life of one demographic group when they are meant to be homes equally welcoming to all? How do you adjust social habits that have flowed out of long traditions of hierarchy to perform nobly at the table of brotherhood? The seriousness of these questions is real, and it is reasonable and necessary for the institutions of civil society to address them. I think that in all of this controversy we have missed the biggest story of all: Missouri graduate student Jonathan Butler starved himself for a week in pursuit of social equality. His action accurately measures the significance of the goal.” Allen is right that the issues are grave and important, and she is correct insofar as in nearly all of the recent cases of campus protest, speech has been met with speech. When students have demanded too much–for example, the firing of House Masters at Yale or that the President of Amherst College issue a statement expressing the College’s intolerance for posters on campus advocating free speech and saying that the free speech posters were “racially insensitive to the students of color on our college campus”–administrators have thankfully refused to go along. It is a right of free speech to make demands, however silly or offensive. That is why Allen is right to suggest that in most instances the accusations of a violation of free speech are overblown. And she is also right that the yelling over free speech actually obscures the difficult discussions about race and equality that need to be had on college campuses and beyond. That is why the ninth annual Hannah Arendt Center fall conference will ask: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” Save the Date: Oct. 20-21, 2016.–RB

The Soul of Harvard Law

harvard law defacementsRandall Kennedy considers the recent incident at Harvard Law School where pieces of black tape were put over the faces of the portraits of black law professors. While many at Harvard are outraged, Kennedy–whose own portrait was defaced–says he feels neither alarmed nor hurt. He takes it for granted that racism exists at Harvard, at colleges, and around the country. Like Danielle Allen above, Kennedy understands that there is implicit bias at work in our society–indeed in every society and in every social group. But Kennedy suggests that we not confuse a “pervasive bigotry abetted by an unwillingness to redress subtle vestiges of historical racial injustice” with something less pervasive. He writes: “Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. Substantial numbers of onlookers believe that this episode is by no means isolated, that it offers a revealing glimpse into the soul of Harvard Law School.” Kennedy points out that shortly after the black tape appeared, it was removed and replaced by “hundreds of brightly colored stickers expressing respect and appreciation, and rejecting bigotry.” In this respect, he advises that we attend not only to our failures but also to our successes, especially the successes of the campus activists who have elevated the dissatisfactions of African American students to the top of the higher-education agenda. And amidst these successes, Kennedy offers us caution. “Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved. I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. They complain of a paucity of black professors, courses in which racial issues, though pertinent, are marginalized, teachers whose interactions with black students display far less engagement than interactions with nonblack students, white classmates who implicitly or even expressly question the intellectual capacity of black peers (‘You know, don’t you, that they are here only because of affirmative action’) and campus police officers who subject black students to a more intensive level of surveillance than white students. Students are also taking to task schools that allegedly disregard the sensibilities of minorities by memorializing figures who perpetrated cruel wrongs, including the Royall family, who sponsored what became Harvard Law School with funds drawn from the labor and sale of enslaved blacks; John C. Calhoun, the statesman for whom a residential college at Yale is named despite his having propounded the idea that slavery was a positive good; and Woodrow Wilson, the former president who is lionized at Princeton despite having reinforced racial segregation throughout the federal government. While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. A decision by a professor to focus on a seemingly dry, technical issue rather than a more accessible, volatile subject involving race might well reflect a justifiable pedagogical strategy. Opposition to racial affirmative action can stem from a wide range of sources other than prejudice. Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.”

Confronting Our Hatred and Our Dirt

oscar pistoriusJacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books has a long, moving, and deeply provocative reading of the roles of race, sex, and disability in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. Rose offers compelling portraits of Pistorius and his murdered girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, as well as of the black female South African Judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa. Struggling to untangle the racial and sexual demons that terrorize South Africa, Rose concludes: “If there is a lesson I take from all this, it is that we should not disavow our hatreds in a futile effort to make ourselves–to make the world–clean.” Her essay is a brave effort at making good on that promise to not disavow our hatreds. In one of many literary reflections on the trial, she writes: “I happened to be in Cape Town a week after the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. At the time I was reading A Bantu in My Bathroom, a book of essays by Eusebius McKaiser, a South African political and social theorist and radio talkshow host. He is known for being provocative and likes to challenge South Africans to confront their darkest thoughts. (His collection is subtitled ‘Debating Race, Sexuality and Other Uncomfortable South African Topics’.) In 2012, 18 years after the end of apartheid, he was looking for a room to rent and lighted on an advertisement from a woman willing to share her house but only, the ad stipulated, with a white person. On the phone, McKaiser got her almost to the point of sealing the deal before announcing that he wasn’t white (she hung up when he suggested her choice might be racist). When he related the incident to the audience of his weekly radio programme, Politics and Morality on Talk Radio 702, two responses predominated. Either the listeners sided with the owner of the house (her property, her preference, no different from ‘only non-smokers need apply’), or they made a more subtle but disquieting distinction: if the room was in a cottage in her backyard, the choice would be racist, but she clearly had the right to share her house, or not, with whomever she pleased. ‘Reasonable’ as the second preference might seem, McKaiser concedes in his essay, it is still ‘morally odious’, still ‘the product of our racist past’. ‘This viewpoint,’ he elaborates, ‘is an acknowledgment (indeed, an expression) of a deep racial angst. Why else would you be fine with Sipho [the name McKaiser gives the fictional black tenant] sleeping in the flat outside but heaven forbid that you should wake up in the morning and the first thing you see on your way to the bathroom is the heart attack-inducing spectacle of Sipho smiling at you, a horror that just might elicit a scream of apartheid proportions: “Help! There is a Bantu in my bathroom!”‘ ‘Not one listener,’ McKaiser writes, ‘grappled with how it is that 18 years after our democratic journey … racialism’s reach and endurance inside their homes and hearts dare not be spoken about.’ Not one avoided the cliché–indeed they all rehearsed it to perfection–that your private life is private and it is up to you what you do in your own home (a cliché whose potentially lethal consequences were of course long ago dismantled by feminism). In failing to do so, they ‘betrayed dark secrets about themselves and our country’. In another essay McKaiser refers to the Coloureds of Cape Town–he himself is a Coloured–as ‘the dirty little secret’ of the city: ‘Cape Town, you see, treats Coloured people like dirt.’ ‘The dirty secrets of both Jozi [Johannesburg] and Cape Town are a stain on both cities’ images, like mud on a kid’s new white pants.’ It soon became clear that a strange, racially charged and legally confused distinction would be at the heart of the trial. If Pistorius didn’t fire the shots through the toilet door in the knowledge that Steenkamp was inside, then he believed he was shooting at an intruder, in which case the charge of premeditated murder wouldn’t hold up. There was no doubt that the second possibility was seen–or rather would be presented by Barry Roux for the defence–as the lesser offence, and not just because the legal category of ‘putative private defence’ (defending oneself against a presumed attacker, even if the presumption was wrong) could present the shooting as a legitimate response to fear. What was largely unspoken was that in the second case we can be more or less certain that the person killed in the bathroom would be–could only be–imagined as black. ‘As the judge will not have failed to register,’ the journalist John Carlin writes in Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius, ‘if his story were true–and even if it were not–the faceless intruder of his imagination had to have had a black face, because the fact was that for white people crime mostly did have a black face.'”

Looking for Shiny Things

luc sante parisLuc Sante describes his method of finding material for his upcoming book on a Paris we don’t often think about: “I wanted to tell the story of what Louis Chevalier calls the ‘working and dangerous classes.’ Those are my people–my forebears on both sides all the way back, Belgian in my case but with many cultural points of similarity–and it also happens to be the aspect of Parisian life that American readers know the least about. It’s easy enough to define the borders there, since they were vigorously enforced by the larger culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as indeed they still are. Ambiguity arises only in a few specific areas: the worlds of literature and art, for example. Many writers and artists portrayed the poor sympathetically, and even fought on their behalf, but they themselves were not of that class. Gay life is perhaps even more subject to ambiguity, since it so often involves crossing classes…. My method is the magpie’s: I look for shiny things. That is, I look for concrete material details of daily life, and I look for vigorous prose, which is the only kind I can read for very long. That effectively bars a great deal of scholarly work, but I didn’t feel its loss. It’s not hard to find vigorously written, colorfully detailed accounts of life in the Paris of the past, in all kinds of places. There is not just the eloquence of the people you list, but also that of reactionaries like Maxime du Camp and the Goncourt brothers, and even of a police commissioner like Adolphe Gronfier. There is such an abundance of engaging writing about the city, much of it untranslated, that my research felt like a spree.”

amor_mundi_sign-upIs Separate Unequal?

separate unequal collegeSince Brown v. Board of Education, the rejection of “separate but equal” is one tenet of American law. Fareed Zakaria writes that many of the demands made by student protestors over the last few weeks run counter to that basic tenet. “Over the past four decades, whenever universities have faced complaints about exclusion or racism–often real–the solution proposed and usually accepted has been to create more programs, associations and courses for minority students. This is understandable, because these groups have been historically ignored, slighted and demeaned. But is this solution working, or is it making things worse? A 2004 empirical study led by Harvard University psychologist James Sidanius (who is African American) concluded that ‘there was no indication that the experiences in these ethnically oriented … organizations increased the students’ sense of common identity with members of other groups or their sense of belonging to the wider university community. Furthermore … the evidence suggested that membership in ethnically oriented student organizations actually increased the perception that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling of victimization by virtue of one’s ethnicity.’ The academic programs that have been created and expanded also reinforce feelings of separateness. Again, there was a need for greater attention to many of the areas of study, and some extraordinary scholarship has been produced in these fields. But the cumulative effect is one that distinguished scholar Tony Judt wrote about in an essay for the New York Review of Books in 2010. ‘Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others,’ he noted. ‘The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves–thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine. All too frequently, such programs are job-creation schemes for their incumbents, and outside interest is actively discouraged. Blacks study blacks, gays study gays, and so forth.'” None of this changes or challenges the moving testimony of students, largely African American students, of how demeaning and de-humanizing the reality of racism is in their lives. It is natural and even sensible for students who feel marginalized and dismissed to seek safe spaces. As colleges and universities announce new programs to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on, among other things, new Deans of Diversity and new cultural and social centers for particular student groups, one hopes that research along the lines that Zakaria mentions will at least be considered.–RB

“Black Afflictions”

Partially burned American flag lies on the street near the spot where Michael Brown was killed before an event to mark the one-year anniversary of the his death in FergusonOne refrain heard over and again during the student protests of the past few weeks is that those who don’t live as black on American campuses can’t understand the feelings of those who do. This is a truism, and yet the very essence of a liberal education is to seek, to explore, and to understand the experiences of those who are different from oneself. Thus it is helpful that Jim Sleeper seeks to articulate four separate ‘Black Afflictions’ that are the root of the experience of being black on American campuses. He lists: “The pressure of others’ outsize hopes”, “The pressure of white fear”, “White classmates’ myopia”, and “A Wall of Malevolence”. Here is a sample: “A four-walled vise presses in upon every black student at Yale, even as doors in those walls open and close unpredictably and the walls themselves sometimes seem to withdraw–all this invisible to most of us, its pressures unseen and unfelt. 1. The pressure of others’ outsize hopes. Last year a black Yale undergraduate I know was working late one night in the office of a history professor for whom he was a research assistant. A custodian entered the room to empty the waste baskets. Black, too, but graying and near retirement, the older man broke into a broad smile. ‘This makes me glad,’ he said, as much from the heart as from the mouth. ‘This makes me glad,’ he repeated. ‘Thank you,’ the student replied, cordially but cryptically, his accent signaling his upbringing in formerly British East Africa. A distancing look flickered across the countenance of the custodian, a descendant of Southern sharecroppers and slaves whose grandparents had come to New Haven during World War II to work in gun factories now long since closed. But as quickly as the older man’s doubt surfaced, he displaced it with a reaffirming smile and nod. Neither man needed to say anything more. Both understood that although the younger had grown up in a majority black society–and in an elite bubble within it, at that–they both now bore burdens of white American incomprehension, coldness, fear and, occasionally, of the kind of over-solicitude that is almost an insult. This African-American janitor expected this East African student to mitigate those burdens a bit by setting a different example, and the hope is credible precisely because the vast differences in these men’s backgrounds and prospects are invisible to most whites and, for that matter, to most non-black people ‘of color.’ ‘It only added to the weight of things,’ the student told me, recalling the encounter a year later. ‘If I remain here, I’m obligated to meet not only my parents’ expectations but also those of black people in a white country I didn’t grow up in.’ He does plan to stay, not only because, on balance, that broadens his prospects against narrower ones back home, but also because he would take ‘some pride and satisfaction’ in lessening the weight of racism for others. But contemplating the challenge while making occasional campus forays to meet it ‘saddens me,’ he said three times during our conversation–saddens him in ways few of the rest of us comprehend. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s shock to alert us Americans to what we usually ignore. A student from Tehran, where laborers and service workers don’t differ noticeably in physiognomy from the rest of the population, told me how strange he found it, on arriving at Yale, to see an overwhelmingly black workforce serving an overwhelmingly non-black population. At least 70 percent of Yale’s custodial and cafeteria workers are black. Fewer than 5 percent of the faculty are. Like the student from East Africa who finds himself carrying the hopes of a janitor with decades of white racism on his back, other black Yalies find that most black elders in their lives in New Haven are service workers. Thirty-five percent of the city’s 130,000 residents are African-American; 31.8 percent are non-Hispanic white. Yale, including its medical affiliates, is black workers’ biggest employer.”

Rewriting History

john hope franklinDrew Gilpin Faust pens an elegy to historian John Hope Franklin: “Franklin detailed the way the antebellum South rewrote the history of the American Revolution to justify its increasing commitment to slavery, how the popular history represented by the 1915 film Birth of a Nation worked to justify the early-twentieth-century revival of the Klan, how in a volume commissioned for a prominent series on southern history, respected historian E. Merton Coulter’s racist assumptions produced a distorted view of Reconstruction that made an implicit argument against the extension of civil rights in the years immediately following World War II. But Franklin did not simply critique and revise; he did not just overturn existing interpretations by bringing a different lens to bear, or even by just grounding the narrative of the past in what were quite revolutionary assumptions of common human capacity and dignity. Franklin, the scholar, unearthed reams of new facts–facts no one had bothered to look for previously, facts buried in archives, newspapers, government records, facts no historian had searched for until history decided black lives mattered. Franklin’s approach to the doing of history is perhaps most faithfully and explicitly chronicled in the introduction to his biography of the nineteenth-century African-American historian George Washington Williams. A pioneer in charting the black experience, Williams, who died in 1891, had been all but forgotten until Franklin began ‘stalking’ him. Franklin recounts the story of how over three decades he traveled to countless offices, libraries, and archives on three continents. He pursued clues and leads with imagination and unquenchable curiosity until he was able to piece together a full portrait of the man and his work. Franklin rescued Williams from oblivion to install him in his rightful place as a pathbreaking black intellectual, a precursor to Franklin himself in creating a true history of the nation’s past and the place of African-Americans within it.”

Love the Gift

black fridayIan Bogost suggests that Black Friday is in keeping with the meaning of Christmas: “Christmas gift exchange owes a debt to the social imbalance of potlatch-like excess rather than reciprocal exchange. Gift-giving symbolizes the ultimate gift of the Christian God. As John 3:16 puts it, ‘God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.’ Theologically speaking, both God’s and Jesus’s sacrifices set an unreachable bar: a gift so peerless that no worldly version could ever best it. It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love. Black Friday’s gift-giving is not nearly as magnanimous, but there are gifts being exchanged nevertheless, and not only from parent to child or spouse to spouse. When Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or Target or any other retailer offers sales, discounts, special hours, and all the rest, it’s easy to see them just as brusque trappings of consumerism run amok. That’s not entirely wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either: Sales and discounts are also gifts. And as gifts, they also participate in the social practice of reciprocity and one-upsmanship. Instead of offering greater or more valuable offerings, Black Friday deals issue their own version of the gift’s challenge: They allow companies to say, ‘Look what we are willing to give away, even though we normally operate by currency exchange… Sacrilegious though the suggestion might be, perhaps Black Friday ought to be thought of as the real start of Advent, rather than as a counterpoint to it. As a ritual, it is actually closer to the excessive origin of God’s sacrifice than is unwrapping the latest toys and electronics a month hence. Sure, we could do without the retail bedlam and trampling, without the shadow of consumption and corporate rule by proxy, and all the other very real defects of Black Friday. But there’s also something fundamentally fitting about it for the season.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #15

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, December 4, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm



images of surveillanceImages of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, will be a participant at the interdisciplinary symposium: Images of Surveillance: The Politics, Economics, and Aesthetics of Surveillance Societies. The symposium is presented by the Goethe-Institut in New York, NY December 4-6, 2015.

The symposium will combine lectures, panel discussion, artist talks, and presentations to explore the topic in its various political, economic, and aethetic dimensions and open new ways to think about surveillance in the 21st century. At the heart of Images of Surveillance is the recognition that surveillance as object of study is far too complex to be grasped from any single point of view and thus requires us to combine multiple perspectives into a fuller picture of what surveillance might be. Such an approach rejects both disciplinary boundaries and post-modern indeterminacy in favor of a concerted effort to create overlaps and conceptual chains across a wide variety of practices and discourses.

To learn more about the symposium, schedule, and participants visit

Friday, December 4 through Sunday, December 6, 2015

Goethe Institut, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003

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 holiday week on the Blog, Martin Wagner discusses how Arendt reconstructs from Kafka’s work a writer inspired by a world “in which the actions of man depend on nothing but himself and his spontaneity” in the Quote of the Week. Also, American journalist Theodore H. White discusses what it means to go against the thinking of your friends in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.

education crisis

Education, Crisis, and Whether We Love the World Enough

By Laurie E. Naranch

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.”

— Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education” 1954

Education in the United States is generally seen to be in crisis. At the secondary school level, we frequently hear how our scores in math and science lag behind other nations. Here we see that social class is a greater predictive factor of graduation than are other factors given the ways public education is funded through local property taxes and state-level funding. These economic disparities correlate all too often to the locations of racial and ethnic minorities. Teachers in public schools are closely scrutinized as test scores are used to determine their worth; common narratives frame teachers who resist as if they don’t care about good teaching and learning accountability. Continue reading


When Power Runs Riot

(Featured Image Source: The Real Truth)

By Jeffrey Jurgens

“Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use; and the question of this obedience is not decided by the command-obedience relation but by opinion and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends on the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience–to laws, to rulers, to institutions–is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”

–Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”

Both “ordinary” citizens and political theorists have been inclined to regard physical violence as the most pointed and dramatic expression of power. This understanding rests on the premise that power entails “the rule of man over man” in a relationship of authoritative command and unquestioning obedience. Violence, in this account, represents either the “prerequisite of power”–that mode of action which makes dominion possible–or the “last resort [that] keeps the power structure intact.” Continue reading

savages - heart of darkness

The Conditions of “Savages”

By Michiel Bot

“The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt argues in the final chapter of part 2 (“Imperialism”) of The Origins of Totalitarianism that the main problem of contemporary politics is not that existing political institutions may be insufficiently capable of accommodating people who do not belong to a nation-state that guarantees and protects their rights (stateless people, refugees, minorities). Instead, the problem is that the existing political institutions, i.e. a network of nation-states that covers the entire world without remainder, actively produce these people by excluding them. This is why people who are not citizens/members of a nation-state are not marginal to politics but are, as Arendt argues, “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”

Continue reading

civil disobedience

The Institutionalization of Civil Disobedience as Means of Democratization

By Anabella di Pego

“The establishment of civil disobedience among our political institutions might be the best possible remedy for this ultimate failure of judicial review. The first step would be to obtain the same recognition for the civil-disobedient minorities that is accorded the numerous special-interest groups (minority groups, by definition) in the country, and to deal with civil-disobedient groups in the same way as with pressure groups, which, through their representatives – that is, registered lobbyists – are permitted to influence and ‘assist’ Congress by means of persuasion, qualified opinion, and the numbers of their constituents. These minorities of opinion would thus be able to establish themselves as a power that is not only ‘seen from afar’ during demonstrations and other dramatizations of their viewpoint, but is always present and to be reckoned with in the daily business of government.”

— Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” in Crisis of the Republic

The above passage, on the one hand, is situated in a specific historical context: the events of the Vietnam War and the protest movement that responded to it. As a result of a Supreme Justice’s refusal to pronounce the war conduct of the U.S. government illegal and unconstitutional, Arendt explained that the only remedy that could rectify this injustice was for the American public to collectively practice civil disobedience.

On the other hand, and beyond the context of the Vietnam War, I consider Arendt’s support for civil disobedience a relevant concern given the problems confronting representative democratic systems around the world today. Continue reading

Amor Mundi

Amor Mundi 7/27/14

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.

Campbell’s Law

1Rachel Aviv tells the heartrending and maddening story of the rise and fall of Damany Lewis, a dedicated and innovative teacher who helped teachers correct wrong answers on standardized test scores. One of the arguments for the Common Core and other data-driven educational reforms is that it has the dignity to hold students in poor districts to the same standards as students in wealthier districts. Lewis sees this demand as simply unrealistic: “He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide ‘biological experiment’ in which the variables-the fact that so many children were hungry and transient, and witnessing violence-hadn’t been controlled. David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, told me that, with the passage of the law, teachers were asked to compensate for factors outside their control. He said, ‘The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.’ Confronted with the need to reach impossible goals, Lewis and his fellow teachers took the easy way out: they cheated. The choice was made easy for them because ‘they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students’ lives.'” In telling a compelling and devastating story, Aviv raises fundamental questions about the over-reliance on data in education: “John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators’ ‘infatuation with data,’ their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell’s law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. ‘The end goal of education isn’t to get students to answer the right number of questions,’ he said. ‘The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.’ In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics ‘to intimidate-to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.'”

Incarceration on a Scale Unexampled in Human History

jailIn the Atlantic, Matt Ford looks at the United States’ obsession with incarceration. “Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today-perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system-in prison, on probation, or on parole-than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America-more than six million-than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height…. The common retort is that people of color statistically commit more crimes, although criminologists and scholars like Michelle Alexander have consistently found no correlation between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. Claims about a ‘black pathology’ also fall short. But police scrutiny often falls most heavily on people of color nonetheless. In New York City alone, officers carried out nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stops targeted black and Hispanic individuals, although they constitute only half the city’s population. Overall, NYPD officers stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Similar patterns of discrimination can be found nationwide, especially on drug-related charges. Black and white Americans use marijuana at an almost-equal rate, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession nationally. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, that arrest disparity jumps to a factor of five.”

The Transcendent and Sequential Art

transcendant_artBrian Cremins takes on the relationship between the mundane and the transcendental both in comics and in art more broadly: “the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn’t work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn’t differentiate between the ‘major and minor,’ but sees all of history’s actors-from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens-as playing roles of equal weight and significance.”

The Secularization of the Sacred, the Sacralizing of the Secular

turk_politicsKaya Genç notes the way that Turkey’s secular nationalists have taken on characteristics of the religious, while its competing group of Muslim nationalists have taken to certain secular aspects. The result makes the country’s politics unusual: “Religion in Turkey has become secularized and the secular sphere sacralized, resulting in a struggle over the definition of what is sacred, accompanied by accusations of blasphemy (phrased as disloyalty to the nation and even treason). Individual choice – the choice to be suurlu, a ‘consciously’ believing Muslim, as opposed to blindly following tradition – has become highly valued as a sign of Muslim modernity. Islamic practice increasingly has come to be expressed as participation in economic networks and through a commodified lifestyle of self-consciously Muslim fashion and leisure. Meanwhile, Kemalist secularism has taken on aspects of the sacred. To discuss this reversal of cultural values and show how religion could have a Weberian association with a certain entrepreneurial mood, [writer Jenny] White paints a picture of the complexities behind Turkey’s competing political discourses. The camps described above may have different approaches to nationalism, but they also have many things in common. The motif of the flag, for example, symbolizes both ‘secular nationalism’ and what White refers to as ‘Muslim nationalism.’ But beyond the flag, particularly when it comes to race and religion, Turkey’s competing nationalisms have a number of not very easily reconcilable differences.”

Burning Down the Ivory Tower

ivy_league_schoolsWilliam Deresiewicz’ new book Excellent Sheep takes on the academic-industrial complex. In an essay in the New Republic he argues that the Ivy League is ruining the best and the brightest: “These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them-the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education…. So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.”

How to Rebirth the Virtuous (Puritanical) University

excellent_sheepJim Sleeper responds to Deresiewicz’ in an essay in Bookforum and argues that there is a lost tradition in the liberal arts university itself that Deresiewicz ignores but that needs to be reawakened. “[W]hat’s most consequentially wrong with Deresiewicz’s jeremiad is his selective history of the old colleges: ‘We need to go back before the start, to the Gilded Age, the last decades of the nineteenth century,’ a period he knows well as a scholar of its fiction. He dismisses the colleges’ founding missions as too little, too early; like the sociologist Jerome Karabel in The Chosen, he doesn’t quite know what to make of the fact that, as late as the 1960s, the Ivy WASPs mobilized their oldest, toughest Protestant and civic-republican virtues to prepare ‘the ground for their own supersession’ by retiring age-old quotas based on ethnicity and race (though, significantly, not the ones based on economic clout) and to ‘put the interests of the nation as a whole above their own.’ I witnessed that firsthand as an undergraduate at Yale, whose president Kingman Brewster Jr., a descendant of the minister on the Mayflower, gave an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, when some alumni still considered King a rabble-rouser. Brewster understood that the civil rights movement was renewing the Exodus myth that had moved his Puritan ancestors (and my own Jewish ones) to make history. Yale’s radically Calvinist chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., leading resistance to the Vietnam War, defied the state in the name of a higher power that, for some of us, was the living American republic itself. So have Howard Dean, Jonathan Schell, Ned Lamont, and other Ivy graduates in our time.That mystic chord of memory seems broken now, as do the colleges that honored it. Deresiewicz tells them to stop cooperating with commercial college-ranking systems; to base affirmative action on class, not race; to discard preferences for legacies and athletes; to weight SAT scores for socioeconomic factors; to discourage résumé stuffing by curbing extracurriculars and by counting financial-aid service jobs as service. And he makes his grand, sweeping calls for change. But how to summon the will to fight for these worthy goals? Beyond his exhortations and potted invocations of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, the preacher hasn’t a clue.”

From the Archives: Eichmann in Jerusalem

new_yorkerThis past week, The New Yorker put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we’ll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. In the meantime, it seems like there are two good places to start. The first, of course, is Hannah Arendt’s dispatch from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, published in the magazine in five parts and then published separately as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a piece of journalism and philosophy that remains important and controversial. There are a lot of rumors about what Arendt said and about what she didn’t say– this is an opportunity to read the work and then judge for yourself as it first appeared.

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From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Arie Amaya-Akkermans explores the sources of Arendt’s indebtedness to storytelling in the Quote of the Week. French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand provides this week’s Thought on Thinking. We look back on a racism lecture Robert Bernasconi delivered in 2011 in our Video Archives. As a special treat, we learn about a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar that was taught on Arendt at Bard this summer. And Roger Berkowitz celebrates the memory of author Nadine Gordimer and recognizes mankind’s ability to change the world in the Weekend Read.


Irony and Theodicy: Laughing out Loud about the Gravest of Moral Disorders

“Israeli citizens, religious and nonreligious, seem agreed upon the desirability of having a law that prohibits intermarriage, and it is chiefly for this reason…that they are also agreed upon the undesirability of a written constitution in which such a law would embarrassingly have to be spelled out. … Whatever the reasons, there was certainly something breathtaking in the naiveté with which the prosecution denounced the infamous Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which had prohibited intermarriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans. The better informed among the correspondents were well aware of the irony, but they did not mention it in their reports.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 7

There are, I believe, three things about this surprising and discomforting passage from the very early moments of Arendt’s “report on the banality of evil” that are worth thinking about again. The first and most important of these is Arendt’s (very conscious) use of the term “irony” in the concluding sentence. Second is the explicit reference to the Nuremburg Laws and the very clear suggestion that Israel’s refusal to recognize civil marriages precisely because it opens the door to public acknowledgement of inter-confessional relationships echoes one of the most infamous legacies of National Socialism. Third is that Arendt here deigns to provide an account of why it is that Israel lacked—and lacks!—a written constitution, and to stress that the ground for this is and ought to be embarrassing to Zionists (like herself, it is crucial to stress). I’d like to discuss these with you in reverse order. Continue reading


Arendt and Exceptionalism

“I am not disturbed at all about being a woman professor, because I am quite used to being a woman.”

–Cited in Arendt obituary, New York Times, 5 December 1975

For most readers of Hannah Arendt, the intellectual and personal commitments that motivated Arendt’s pithy response to a reporter’s question about her reaction to being the first woman to be offered the rank of full professor at Princeton University are clear. Arendt saw in this and other attempts to be exceptional in one’s community a narrative in which the exceptional individual removes herself from the shared fate of the community. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt offers a powerful critique of those she called “exception Jews” whose wealth allowed them to be “exceptions from the common destiny of the Jewish people,” as well as “Jews of education,” who felt themselves exempted from “Jewishness” by virtue of having become “exceptional human beings” in their education.

In this post, I focus not on the issues that arise from the relationship between the exception individual and the community he attempts to leave, which was Arendt’s focus, but on those surrounding the relationship between the individual and the community he attempts to join. I do so by exploring two contemporary examples of exceptionalism—the exceptional immigrant or minority student and the extraordinary father figure. While the example of the exceptional student largely tracks Arendt’s case of the exception Jew whose exceptionalism gestures toward a relatively powerful community, the case of the exceptional father reveals the potential dangers of appropriation and invisibility that arise when the relatively powerful gesture toward the relatively powerless through claims to exceptionalism. Both allow me to expand on Arendt’s critique and explore the various ways in which power is exercised in an individual’s claim to exceptionalism and the community’s acceptance of such claims. Continue reading


Who Does Tenure Help?

A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.” Continue reading

Islamic and Liberal Intersections


Over the course of the past two decades, the political idiom of liberalism has substantially expanded its global reach and dominance. In the vast majority of the world’s existing states, principles of individual rights and collective recognition have been or are being enshrined in constitutions and other legal codes, and actors in the public sphere and the realm of civil society are adopting liberal discourse in order to press their claims for equality and freedom. The recent Arab Spring is only one of the most recent instantiations of this larger trend.

Yet even as we acknowledge liberalism’s dominance, we should not overlook those settings where it still (and ironically) carries a counter-hegemonic charge. One such locale is the Republic of Turkey, ostensibly one of the most stable and democratic states in the wider Middle East. Here a variety of Islamic organizations have relied on liberal imaginings in their efforts to challenge the state’s anti-clerical model of secularism.


This Islamic recourse to liberalism is the central concern of Jeremy Walton’s intriguing article in the most recent American Ethnologist, “Confessional Pluralism and the Civil Society Effect.” Walton pays particular attention to the work of four Islamic NGOs in Istanbul and Ankara, all of which have adopted the language of confessional pluralism in their efforts to obtain recognition from the state and secure their inclusion in Turkish public life.[i] These organizations define “religion” as a nonpolitical, voluntary mode of social and ethical life that legitimately, indeed necessarily, takes different forms. They also insist that these varied modes of life deserve acknowledgement and protection on the basis of “the ostensibly universal values of liberty and equality.”

When viewed from the perspective of Turkey’s party politics, these NGOs make strange bedfellows. Three of the organizations analyzed by Walton represent Alevism, a syncretic minority tradition that can be broadly defined by its emphasis on Twelver Shi’a history and belief, its incorporation of Central Asian mystical and shamanistic practices, and its distinctive ritual performances. Alevis have typically supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP, the party established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) because its staunch secularism has appeared to offer a bulwark against Sunni majoritarianism and discrimination. The fourth organization, meanwhile, is a Sunni association inspired by the contemporary Turkish theologian Fethullah Gülen and his project of universal religious dialogue. It also epitomizes the recent emergence of the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie, the constituency that has played a pivotal role in the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Thanks to its overwhelming success in local and national elections over the past decade, the AKP has effectively supplanted the CHP as Turkey’s preeminent political party.

Yet as Walton rightly notes, these NGOs’ seemingly obvious political differences belie their common turn to the liberal rhetoric of pluralism and collective recognition. All of them desire public acknowledgement of their own (and others’) communities and identities, and all thereby challenge the presumption of ethnolinguistic and religious homogeneity that has prevailed in Turkish governmental discourse since the founding of the Republic in 1923. In addition, all of these organizations question the state’s long-standing effort not only to define and regulate the legitimate practice of religion (especially Sunni Islam), but also to limit religious expression to the private sphere. These rather paradoxical governmental imperatives, which remained largely unchallenged in Turkey until the 1990s, can be traced to the laicist model of secularism that the Republic adopted from the French Jacobin tradition.

In subtle or dramatic ways, all of these NGOs seek to divert Turkish secularism from its previous path. One of the Alevi organizations, for example, seeks a mode of pluralism that would grant to Alevis the same privileges—state funding for houses of worship, inclusion in the mandatory religion classes taught in public schools—that the state has historically allocated to Sunni Islam. Another Alevi association, by contrast, favors an “American-style” secularism that would limit or even prohibit state intervention in religious affairs. The Sunni organization, meanwhile, seeks to promote tolerance and public dialogue across confessional boundaries in a manner that departs markedly from the state’s efforts to privatize religious expression. Significantly, the idiom of liberalism is flexible enough to accommodate these varied and not always compatible projects.

At the same time, the liberal language of confessional pluralism creates tensions and dilemmas for the very organizations that seek to mobilize it. Above all, claims for collective recognition presume coherent and “authentic” (i.e., long-standing, non- or pre-political) religious identities as the necessary ground for communal acknowledgement and equal protection. As Walton convincingly relates, it is precisely such coherence and authenticity that prove elusive for many Islamic NGOs. Alevi associations in particular are defined by intense arguments over the very definition of Alevi identity. Does Alevism constitute a distinct and more or less uniform tradition of its own? What precisely is its relationship with Islam? Does Alevism even constitute a “religion” as the concept is commonly understood, or is it rather a body of folklore, a philosophical and political orientation, or an ethnicity? Alevi associations disagree sharply on the answers to these questions, even as they share a common discursive logic.


Walton is somewhat less persuasive, however, when he turns to Islamic NGOs’ relationship to the state and state governance. In his reading, these associations engage in a form of “nongovernmental politics” that does not aspire to occupy the position of a governing agency. In fact, they contribute to what Walton, drawing on the work of Timothy Mitchell, calls “the civil society effect”: the romantic notion that civil society constitutes “a self-evident domain of freedom and authenticity” wholly autonomous from the state. I follow Walton’s reasoning when he notes that the NGOs he analyzes have displayed an increasing skepticism toward Turkey’s dominant model of secularism and its major political parties, including the CHP and the AKP. I believe he oversteps, however, when he suggests that many if not all of these associations dismiss political society and the state. To my mind, the very language of liberalism adopted by these NGOs indicates that they care a great deal about the state and its policies. Very much in the spirit of Arendt’s celebrated pronouncements in The Origins of Totalitarianism, they grasp that rights and recognition, if they are to have real substance, must be backed and warranted by the state’s governmental power.

This wrong turn notwithstanding, Walton’s argument makes for stimulating reading. Perhaps above all, it offers a sharp challenge to the still common presumption that Islam and modern politics are hermetically separate, fundamentally irreconcilable domains. Instead, as Walton subtly demonstrates, they “authorize, animate, challenge, and contextualize each other in contextually specific ways.”

-Jeffrey Jurgens


[i] For the sake of easy reading, I do not dwell on the NGOs by name, but the Alevi associations include the Cem Foundation, the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation, and the Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. The Sunni association aligned with Gülen is the Journalists and Writers Foundation.

The Great Divide

In this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard D. Kahlenberg lifts (or rips) the band-aid off a wound that has been festering for decades. For much of the 20th century, class animated campus Marxists. Since the 1970s, race and gender have largely supplanted class as the source of youthful protest. But the pendulum is swinging back. Studies find that “being an underrepresented minority increased one’s chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever.” Will racial and gender politics give way to a renewed interest in class? Will there be a divide on the left between class and identity politics? In either case, the debate is beginning.

Here is Kahlenberg:

Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.

This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation’s economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.

Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.

In the 1960s and 70s, that narrow class focus was rightly challenged by civil-rights activists, feminists, and advocates of gay rights, who shined new light on racism, sexism and homophobia. Black studies, women’s studies, and later gay studies took root on college campuses, along with affirmative-action programs in student admissions and faculty employment to correct for the lack of attention paid to marginalized groups by politicians and academics alike.

Somewhere along the way, however, the pendulum swung to the point that issues of class were submerged. Admissions officers, for example, paid close attention to racial and ethnic diversity, but little to economic diversity. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, and his colleagues reported in 2005 that being an underrepresented minority increased one’s chances of admissions at selective colleges by almost 28 percentage points, but that being low-income provided no boost whatsoever. Campuses became more racially and ethnically diverse—and all-male colleges began admitting women—but students from the most advantaged socioeconomic quartile of the population came to outnumber students from the least advantaged quartile at selective colleges by 25 to 1, according to a 2004 study by the Century Foundation.

 Read the whole article here.

Kahlenberg’s inquiry into the return of class to debates on campus cannot be seen outside the context of rising inequality in the U.S. Just this week Anne Lowrey reports in the New York Times that incomes are rising briskly for the top 1% but are actually stagnant or falling for everyone else:

Incomes rose more than 11 percent for the top 1 percent of earners during the economic recovery, but not at all for everybody else, according to new data.

It may be true that prices are declining and the middle class, despite its wage stagnation, is still living well. But we cannot ignore the increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. Not to mention the poor.

This was the topic of an op-ed essay in Monday’s New York Times by Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, who writes, “The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider.” Stiglitz, like Kahlenberg, sets the question of class inequality against increasing racial equality:

While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.

Many on the left will respond that race and class are linked: minorities, who are poor, they say, suffer worst of all. That may be true. But race, gender, and identity have dominated the conversation about equality and oppression in this country for 50 years. That is changing. This will be hard for some to accept, and yet it makes sense. Poverty, more than race or gender, is increasingly the true mark of disadvantage in 21st century America.



Some Reflections on Anoka-Hennepin

“And do we intend to have our political battles fought out in the school yards?”

—Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”

Within the last two years, nine teenage students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin public school district have committed suicide (and many more have attempted to). The driving force behind this “epidemic” is the persecution, by other children at the district’s middle and high schools, of students perceived to be gay.

The persecution is encouraged by prominent local individuals and organizations, and until recently was allowed to continue by virtue of a school district policy of nonintervention.

That much was reported, in much greater and highly affecting detail, in Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s February 2 article in Rolling Stone, “One Town’s War on Gay Teens.” The most recent developments were taken up by The New York Times: the federal government has finally intervened in the name of civil rights, forcing the Anoka-Hennepin district to adopt new anti-harassment policies and to agree to five years of monitoring by the departments of Justice and Education.

Setting aside the particular minority group concerned, the immediate question in Anoka in 2012 is the same as in Little Rock in 1957: can a socially unwanted minority be excluded, by a combination of official policy and casual intimidation, from public education? Hannah Arendt’s difficult answer to the Little Rock question (difficult because prejudice had nothing to do with it, and she thus had no common cause with those who answered in the same way) was: yes, because the school is a social space subject to the laws of free association, not a political space subject to the laws of equality. What Arendt insists on is that the government must not “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults … have confessed being unable to solve themselves.” Hence her outrage that the push for desegregation had begun in the schools, rather than where she urgently wanted to see racial equality realized, namely in marriage law. (Would her insistence on the fundamental political right “to marry whom I please” extend to gay marriage? An interesting but tangential question.)

I do not think Arendt would be similarly able to dismiss the situation in Anoka as not politically relevant, because the social conflict playing itself out there is inseparable from a set of political conditions to which Arendt’s own thoughts on government call our urgent attention. In scenes reminiscent of her Origins of Totalitarianism, the public sphere has been so utterly vacated of authority that the social has become the political to dizzying effect, and even the official agents of the government appear as just another social interest group struggling to exercise power on the ground. Local officials act in accordance with whatever group happens to have the upper hand at the moment; the prevailing law is not written down; and in the midst of this, a new tactic of political violence emerges with startling effectiveness.

Children make the ideal agents of this violence, not because they do not realize the violence they are doing—on the contrary—but because, being children, they instinctively know how to carry out this violence against other children, which adults never could, and because they lack the moral impulse to stop it, in other words, the ability to think for themselves. In harrying those of their peers who have been designated as “gay,” they are precisely not thinking for themselves.

They are being cruel, as children will be, but in order for their cruelty to take on the degree of directedness and organization that it has—for it to become conscious of “gays” as a group to be eliminated—adults logically have to be thinking for them. Indeed, the decision to remove homosexuality from the schools came from parents and from the prominent local antigay movement. At first it was merely a decision to remove any talk of homosexuality, to silence anyone who might defend homosexuals. There was no need for the adults in question to envision the violent path things would take from there. There was no conspiracy to speak of. Once the objective of removing “gay influence” was in place, the children themselves knew how best to achieve it; among them, as Erdely documents, there was never any doubt that the object of the game was to force “gay” kids to kill themselves.

Thus a peculiar combination of town hall strategy and schoolyard tactics spontaneously generated a form of organized, fatal violence for which, amazingly, nobody is directly responsible. Besides the parents and the children, the third set of  (non)agents in this scenario is of course the school employees. I’d like to focus in on the particular reasons for their inaction, because they reveal the heart of this problem, the baffling failure of authority and of political structure.

The district policy that specifically prevented school staff and teachers from intervening to stop the antigay harassment in school was referred to as a “neutrality policy.” In official language, “neutrality” consisted in the stipulation that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.” The vagueness of this language notwithstanding, the real effect of the “neutrality” policy consisted in its becoming an unwritten law. The official language was never published in any official district policy handbook, never conveyed to employees in writing at all; after its adoption, the policy was promulgated purely by word of mouth. This already incredible circumstance allowed the interpretation of the policy to expand even further, to the point where it was understood that adults in the schools were not to mention homosexuality in any context whatsoever, under the threat of losing their jobs. This meant that when confronted with instances of anti-gay harassment, they would reliably err on the side of inaction, out of concern that any action they might take could be held against them.

What governed the teachers’ conduct was thus more rumor than policy, but the enormous influence that the antigay movement wields over the Anoka-Hennepin school board, not to mention the broader local community, meant that the threats were real. The “neutrality” policy was drafted by the antigay movement, submitted to the school board, and adopted with no changes. At no point, then, did elected officials engage in legislating this policy. There are, to be sure, strong ties between the local antigay movement and the region’s congressional representative, Michelle Bachmann, but these ties do not lead through the political structure; they stem from Bachmann’s involvement in private organizations.

This means that a public official had both the motive (sympathy with the antigay movement) and the means (though, I must note, there is no extant allegation that she exercised them in this case; probably, she did not have to) to act upon local school policy as a private, interested party. All the while, the proper local authority over this type of policy—the elected district school board—functioned at every turn not as an independent deliberating and decision-making body but as a symbolic functionary. That they voted, five to one, to accept the recent agreement with the Department of Justice only underscores the total helplessness of their proceedings, since they had also voted to institute the “neutrality” policy in the first place. They merely perceived that for a moment, the Justice Department had the upper hand, and aligned themselves with the temporarily prevailing authority.

In this light, statements such as that of the district superintendent that “[w]e have people on the left and the right, and we’re trying to find common ground on these issues” can be rephrased as: we have no way of deciding between our public duties and the demands placed upon us by private interest groups. In fact, the federal government is perceived in Anoka-Hennepin as just another private interest group, included among the “people on the left.” The reaction to the recent Justice Department settlement was to immediately frame it in terms of the local power struggle: an effort to “abolish conservative moral beliefs,” as a local activist told the Times. This points to another weakness of the government’s intervention: what is the likelihood that a future Department of Justice (perhaps under the administration of a conservative Republican president, say) will decline either to follow up on this agreement or to take similar action should the situation in Minnesota replicate itself elsewhere?

To reiterate: what ultimately allowed political violence to enter the schools was the fact that the teachers declined to intervene, and the teachers did so because if they acted in accordance with their public duty (which would obviously be to protect their students’ physical safety), they risked real retribution at the hands of private groups wielding effective power over them. Faced with a choice between their own financial security and the physical security of their students, teachers tended to prioritize their own interests. This is a perfect concrete instance of the phenomenon of “polycracy” that Greg Moynahan discussed in a recent essay on this site. Polycracy, which Arendt described in The Origins of Totalitarianism, arises when multiple instances of authority place demands on a person to act in multiple different ways, and the person in question is unable to discern which authority has the higher claim on her obedience. In general, when one’s public office calls on one to act in a way that might be damaging to one’s social position, one ought to be able to declare without much hesitation that the public good has the higher claim on one’s obedience. But under conditions of polycracy, such criteria for deciding vanish, replaced in every particular instance by an unspoken calculation of which authority wields de facto power over the others. In Anoka-Hennepin, the power was with the antigay movement. The fact that it has just now shifted to the federal government—where it seems unlikely to remain for long—does not address the underlying vacuum of authority, especially of local authority.

One final remark. The persecution of “gay” students in Minnesota, as elsewhere, was never really about their sexuality as such. Not all of the targeted students were “really” homosexual—as if teenagers’ sexual orientations were that stable to begin with. As Arendt emphasizes in “Little Rock,” a minority group must appear as such within a larger body politic; it is quite literally their perceptible appearance (voice, skin color, etc.) that determines their separate status. What marks so-called “gay” kids as different is obviously not their sexual activity. It is other kinds of behavior: the way they dress, talk, and otherwise express their individuality. The victims of antigay harassment are almost always described in terms that have nothing to do with sexuality as such: they are “sensitive,” “offbeat,” “stylish,” “bookish,” “musical,” etc. These are the attributes that other children use to identify them as targets. I wonder if what antigay movements really want to eliminate from the public sphere is not precisely these qualities, which can be found in individuals of all sexual preferences, and which together point to the more fundamental qualities that Arendt most prized in human beings: individuality and thinking.

Thinking is connected to fundamental human difference and individuality, both in that people differ from each other fundamentally with respect to their way of thinking and in that it is by thinking that we puzzle over and come to grips with everything that distinguishes us from one another. “Gay” behavior was, in this case, a visible expression of original thinking. Truly original thought is always found in a minority of people, and the attempt to make minorities disappear is secretly the attempt to make original thinking disappear.

-Stephen Haswell Todd