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.
In the wake of the shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo and the correspondent backlash against the manner of certain depictions and the choices of certain subjects, Anthony Lane considers the role of humor in civil society: “But we need to bear in mind that Charlie Hebdo, the target of the murders in Paris, is a satirical magazine. Its raison d’être was to make people laugh. You may disagree, saying that its more substantial mission was to provoke, to outrage, and to scold unreason and prejudice, bringing institutions to account or into disrepute–but many publications do that with an air of frowning solemnity. If Charlie Hebdo sought the truth, it did so by treading the path of the grotesque, littering the ground with jokes, often cheap and silly ones, as it passed along. That path led to catastrophe. Members of staff were exterminated for making fun. Were they sometimes irresponsible? Yes. Is there not something juvenile, or at least eternally adolescent, about men and women who continue to sneer at power and to snicker at the dignified proceedings of high office long after the rest of us, not without regret, have accepted the rites of dullness as the way of the world? Of course. Freedom of speech, that noblest of abstractions, can easily coarsen and shrink into freedom of snort. Nonetheless, a certain rakish splendor hangs over those who refuse to calm down, shut up, or grow up. To claim, as Tony Barber, the Europe editor of the Financial Times, did in an opinion piece yesterday, that ‘some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo,’ is to grasp the wrong end of the stick. One of the joys–more often than not, a joyful embarrassment–of a democracy is that it allows time and room for people who find the whole lark of maturing, whether in politics or in personal conduct, to be overrated. Common nonsense has its place and purpose, too.” If you read Lane’s essay, you’ll also get this provocative and pertinent quotation from Henri Bergson, on the nature of comedy: “We have shown that the comic character always errs through obstinacy of mind or of disposition, through absent-mindedness, in short, through automatism. At the root of the comic there is a sort of rigidity which compels its victims to keep strictly to one path, to follow it straight along, to shut their ears and refuse to listen. In Molière’s plays, how many comic scenes can be reduced to this simple type: A character following up his one idea and continually recurring to it in spite of incessant interruptions! The transition seems to take place imperceptibly from the man who will listen to nothing, to the one who will see nothing, and from this latter to the one who sees only what he wants to see.”
Frederik deBoer is frustrated with the nature of the response to the shootings at the French humor magazine Charlie Hedbo; we are, he says, debating dead questions: “Peter Beinart and Ross Douthat and Jon Chait and hundreds more will take the time in the week to come to beat their chests and declare themselves firmly committed to brave ideas like ‘murder is bad’ and ‘free speech is good.’ None of them, if pressed, would pretend that we are at risk of abandoning our commitment against murder or in favor of free speech. None of them think that, in response to this attack, we or France or any other industrialized nation is going to pass a bill declaring criticism of Islam illegal. In fact, all of them would, if pressed, likely admit that the result will be literally the opposite: that we will become more belligerent against Muslim extremism, not less; that we will become more aggressive in our posture against Islam, not less; that the public mood, already dark towards Islam, will grow only darker. They know all of this. They simply won’t tell you about it. This is a liar’s conversation we’re having right now. It’s built on a foundation of unreality. People debating it rail against an outcome that not one of them think is actually going to happen. And they do it for the same reason they always do it, to avoid talking about the rot underneath their feet. I have no time to debate the immorality of murder, and I see no one who disagrees with me on that immorality with whom I could debate. There are real questions that this lurching, violent country should ask itself, and won’t.” He is right. It is unlikely we will pass laws making the criticisms of Muslims or Jews illegal. What Charlie Hedbo responded to with satire was a cultural and social unwillingness to speak certain opinions, a kind of self-censorship that limits critiques not only of Muslims but also of other minorities and so too of powerful interests. There is a place for those who speak up to power, including for those who do so irreverently and, yes, sometimes rudely and stupidly.
Seyla Benhabib responds to the Charlie Hebdo massacres: “No, I don’t think that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the ensuing violence is just a reaction to the offense to Prophet Mohammed or to Islam; neither do I think that it is about what the Koran says or does not say about blasphemy and apostasy. At its root, it is driven by Muslim rage and Arab Muslim civilizational despair. Islam’s current-day reformers are few and far between, while itinerant and fiery preachers like al-Madoudi have captured global audiences. But even if there were a significant reform movement within Islam, I don’t believe that this would be enough. What is needed is a regional or international effort on the scale of a Marshall plan for the Arab Muslim world that will invest in infrastructure, communications, agriculture, industry, medicine and education. Just as Europe was pulled out of its devastation after WWII, so too this region which is almost bleeding to death, needs to be resuscitated.”
David Brooks adds an insight to the discussion about irresponsible satire of the kind practiced by Charlie Hedbo. For Brooks, such satire is juvenile, and yet it has an important role to play. “In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher, are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying. Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.” Even in monarchies, the importance of the fool was recognized, the one person who could say the truth that others were afraid to utter. To make the truth palatable, it had to be vulgarized and hidden in humor.
Ayana Mathis has a beautiful essay in Guernica on her struggles with faith. “For many years I was a lion. I answered to no one, really. And I was free. There were periods in which my freedom was a terror, as though I were untethered and floating off into the high thin air. And there were times my freedom made me ferocious and strong. I have lived, for the most part, as I wanted to, and I have had the liberty to attempt, always failing, to become a person I admired. I am not sure what this has cost me. I am not sure now of what I mean by freedom. I do know that I have doggedly refused to belong–to a community, to a family, to a religion. It seems to me now that this is naïve and foolhardy, the idea that I could somehow outwit the nature of being alive.” For Mathis, faith has a faceted and deep history, but it is also importantly political. “In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, a young girl named Bettie Mae Fikes sang ‘This Little Light of Mine’ in a church in Selma, Alabama. Fikes was sixteen and a member of the Freedom Singers, the musical arm of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She sang with the soul of a warrior, improvising the lyrics of the second verse, ‘Tell Governor Wallace [the rabidly pro-segregation governor of Alabama], I’m gonna let it shine…’ The song rose out of her like trumpets sounding before battle. And indeed young Fikes was going into battle, armed with, among other things, the theology of freedom. We have diminished the spiritual aspects of, as it was called at the time, The Struggle. History has transformed Martin Luther King Jr. into an activist first and a minister second, when in reality it was the other way around. The movement he led, along with his stance against the Vietnam War and his Poor People’s Campaign in the late 1960s, was a spiritual one to its very roots. He referred often to the establishment of what he called ‘the beloved community,’ a global fellowship based on the dignity of all humankind as creatures of God and the eradication of poverty and racism through nonviolent protest. At the heart of that community, in King’s theology, was love: Christ’s commandment that we love one another. Love, not as a toothless feel-good sentiment, but love in all its ferocious and transformative possibility. Paul Tillich defines it thusly: ‘Love is not an emotional but an ontological force.’ Buoyed by this theology, ordinary people summoned extraordinary courage in the name of liberation. They were spat on at lunch counters from Greensboro to Montgomery, beaten bloody with batons and zapped with cattle prods in jail cells. All the while they sang those old church hymns I thought so insipid when I was a teenager. They sang ‘We shall overcome… The Lord will see us through…’ and ‘…like a tree that’s planted by the waters, we shall not be moved.’ They fought for their freedom and, in a radical interpretation of Jesus’s admonition to turn the other cheek, their struggle would also liberate the whites who had so terribly oppressed them. They aimed to cut out the rot so as to save the whole body, not just its parts. What happened to that church? Where is the movement’s radical spirituality when we so desperately need it?”
Glenn Loury opens a debate on the legacy of Ferguson in The Boston Review: “Once again a high-profile but disputed encounter on the streets of an American city has become the site for a national debate over issues of race, order, and social justice. This is, in my view, an unfortunate and unproductive state of affairs. The case of Michael Brown should not frame our deliberations on racism and public order. A stark conflict of narratives in an unavoidably ambiguous factual context may set the stage for considerable drama but is unlikely to yield progress toward the reconciliation of two irrefutably legitimate claims: first, all American communities must be kept secure from the depredations of violent criminals; second, all Americans must be treated with dignity and respect by the law enforcement officers they encounter on the streets where they live. Both claims express fundamental requirements of social justice: the residents of disadvantaged and marginal communities, too often people of color, also deserve public order and individual protections. But, as a practical matter, these imperatives are in tension. Maintaining order in dangerous communities is bound to engender some conflicts between the police and the residents of these places. Achieving social justice today means both acknowledging the moral force of these claims and remaining open to the complex and troubling social realities to which they apply. We are a long way from doing either. Our current ways of thinking involve a series of binaries that, in my view, preclude a reasoned weighing of the two basic moral imperatives. A precondition for having a serious and effective deliberation about policies, laws, and practices is, on this argument, to dispel such simplistic ways of thinking.” For one thing, Loury argues that the protests following Ferguson are ineffective because they don’t target laws: “[Rosa] Parks’s protest targeted a law. Responsibility for changing that law was clear, as was the moral conviction at stake. Brown’s death under ambiguous circumstances provides no such path to change. Indeed, the reactions to it have every prospect of leading to further entrenchment of the status quo–not just because Brown seems to have been the aggressor, but also because issues about crime, policing, and poverty cannot be addressed in the ways that traditional civil rights issues could.”
In the same issue of The Boston Review, Danielle Allen responds to Loury by defending Al Sharpton’s focus not on policies but on highlighting inequality. “But two generations of scholarship in history and political philosophy have shown that the inclusion/exclusion paradigm is inadequate to reality. Our problem is not exclusion, to be solved by inclusion. Our problem is domination, to be solved by non-domination. Liberal institutions in America were built on documents and principles that provided liberty for some and domination for others. These differential statuses were not accidentally but intrinsically connected to each other. Those who enjoyed liberation and the benefits of domination, which we have come to call white privilege and male privilege, mistakenly understood themselves to be experiencing equality. Thus began the mis-education of our people. We have not yet learned what it means and feels like to live with one another, with the many and different others among whom we find ourselves, on the footing of equality. Sharpton’s network relentlessly spotlights this fact. In order to achieve our egalitarian aspirations, we need not so much include the excluded as reconstitute our social order. In this sense our project is no longer one of racial justice, of fixing something for a part of the population, as the image of inclusion suggests. Instead we need an egalitarian order for everyone.”
Katrina Forrester, in a review of Edmund Fawcett’s book Liberalism: This History of an Idea, suggests that liberalism’s history does not start with Locke and liberty but as a way of finding alternatives to a certain other competing idea: “The liberal dream, Fawcett writes, was ‘a myth of order in a masterless world.’ Crucially, for liberals, this was only a dream. What distinguished them from conservatives was their belief that progress toward such a world was possible; what distinguished them from socialists was their belief that they would never get there. Conflict was intractable; there was no utopia in which politics would cease. The aim of liberalism was to manage conflict, while still treating people with ‘civic respect’–a catchall phrase for the various kinds of legal and political equality owed to citizens of liberal societies… To do so, they turned to whatever institutions worked best. In the German case, Bismarck’s antisocialist strategy resulted in the national welfare schemes hailed as the origins of the welfare state. But the best institutions were not always those of the state: while philosophers tended to describe state authority as coherent and unitary, in reality its power was messy and diffuse. As a result, liberalism in the age before the fully centralized state was highly experimental. It looked to all sorts of institutional arrangements–national and local, collectivist and individualist. The mid-nineteenth century saw a proliferation of voluntary associations, self-help cooperatives, unions, mutual banks, friendly societies for insurance and other forms of collectivism, both in theory (the writings of Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and the German theorist of ‘mutualism’ Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch) and in practice. Though these associations are usually thought of as more socialist than liberal, they were often first imagined as alternatives to state socialism.”
Ian Storey made the case for satire in an essay published last year: “Some are suspicious of jokesters and satirists in moments of political crisis, on the one hand because they seem to rarely offer any positive way forward, and on the other because they work to make light of things that, in their graveness, ought not be made light of. Arendt herself emerged from the pale of the events that offer our best examples of horror’s power to make us resist its translation into humor (though it should be remembered that one of her first pieces after the war was the darkly witty ‘We, The Refugees’). In that, we risk becoming horror’s willing agents, but perhaps in some cases it has already won its victories and we can only subsequently mourn. It’s a difficult question, which terrible things can be made funny, and those who would play in the languages of politics should be granted a measure of leniency for those times when they traipse over the line. In their defense, that line is one that can never be drawn in advance, because it comes bearing ever-shifting whens and whoms that can always be pushed further back by an extraordinary gift that not even the most talented satirists can live up to in every moment. The line can be pushed back, and should be pushed back, because when undertaken by the most talented, satire and seriousness have never been opposites, but on the contrary are what allow each other to do the utmost that they can do. This is what made Orwell, for all his limitations, one of the great political writers of and on the English language: in the face first of empire and then of anti-semitic totalitarianism, he staked his artistic life on a faith in the power to express what is most utterly serious better through wit, to join the sustaining narrative power of sad mirth to the deepest and most inexpressible of pains. The lesson of ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ always seemed to me to be something along the lines of an idea that horror must be swallowed just long enough to give us sustenance, if we are to go once more into the breach against it. It’s a difficult and contentious thought, but worth swallowing.”
Everywhere people are aghast that terrorists killed in response to cartoons. But the reason to defend satire is precisely that such speech can be radical, revolutionary, and dangerous. Thus there is something heartening in the anger at Charlie Hedbo, the discomfort that so many express with the magazine’s juvenile satirical stance. To be effective, satire must discomfort. It must grate and piss off. Indeed, the great danger in a decadent society is when satire loses its ability to infuriate. This is the danger that Arendt saw in Weimar Germany, specifically in the popularity of Berthold Brecht’s satirical classic, the “Threepenny Opera.” Here is how Hannah Arendt describes the arrival and reception of Brecht’s play: “‘The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral’ [First comes the animal-like satisfaction of one’s hungers, then comes morality], was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elite applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior, wonderful fun.’ According to Arendt, Brecht hoped to shock not only with his portrayal of corruption and the breakdown of morality, but by his gleeful presentation of Weimar decadence. However, the effect of ‘Threepenny Opera’ was exactly the opposite since all groups in society reacted to Brecht’s satire with joy instead of repulsion. Arendt has little hope for the mob or the bourgeoisie, but she is clearly cut to the quick by the ease with which the elite felt ‘genuine delight’ in watching the bourgeoisie and the mob ‘destroy respectability.’ As Arendt explained, the ‘members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it.’ Because the elite had largely rejected their belief in the justice and meaningfulness of the moral and common values that had supported the edifice of civilization, they found more joy in the ironic skewering of those values than they felt fear at what the loss of common values might come to mean.”
Satirical cartoonist Joe Sacco draws his response to the killings in Paris: “My first reaction was sadness. People were brutally killed, among them several cartoonists–my tribe.” Sacco knows that “tweaking the noses of Muslims might be as permissible as it is now believed to be dangerous.” He thinks it is also “vapid.” Satire, he writes, “is meant to cut to the bone. But whose bone? What exactly is the target? And why?” He struggles to figure that out and writes: “But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is… And what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image. And if we answer ‘Because something is deeply wrong with them’–certainly something was deeply wrong with the killers–then let us drive them from their homes and into the sea. For that is going to be far easier than sorting out how we fit in each other’s world.”
Ulrich Beck died on New Years Day. The German sociologist was best known for his book The Risk Society. He is eulogized here in the Financial Times: “In Risikogesellschaft, published in Germany in 1986, Beck, who died aged 70 on New Year’s Day, argued that the theme of freeing humanity from its traditional constraints was being eclipsed by a new imperative; the need to manage the risks created by mankind’s technological advances. Mads Sørensen, an academic at Aarhus university and author of an introduction to Beck’s work said: ‘Beck knew very well that we can’t avoid taking risks. That risk-taking is part of life. However, some of the “new risks” that were the focus of his analysis–radioactivity is perhaps the best example–have the potential to destroy us.’ The only way to avoid such risks, in Beck’s view, was, for example, to shut down nuclear power plants; the social scientist praised Germany’s plans for an accelerated nuclear exit after the Fukushima disaster. Other risks, such as climate change or terrorism, had to be managed rather than avoided entirely. Beck pointed out that these risks were transnational, cutting across old boundaries between nations. ‘There is therefore no way around increasing transnational co-operation if we want to protect ourselves against them,’ Mr Sørensen said.”
The Hannah Arendt Center announces three post-doctoral fellowships for the 2015-2016 academic year.
To learn more about the fellowships, including how to apply, click here.
Application Deadline: Thursday, March 5, 2015
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Eyal Press
The Courage To Refuse
Monday, February 9, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Keith Haring Fellow in Art and Activism, Jeanne van Heeswijk
Monday, February 16, 2015
Kline Faculty Dining Room, 6:00 pm
Courage To Be: Lecture and Dinner Series, with Uday Mehta
Putting Courage at the Centre: Gandhi on Civility, Society and Self-Knowledge
Monday, March 30, 2015
Manor House Cafe, 6:00 pm
Property and Freedom: Are Access to Legal Title and Assets the Path to Overcoming Poverty in South Africa?
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and The University of The Western Cape
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, Time TBA
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, “Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015!
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin investigates Arendt’s claim that the racist Nazi government and Soviet communist government both followed a deeper underlying idea in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We appreciate a testament to Arendt’s interest in Jewish historiography in our Library feature. And Seyla Benhabib has written an essay explaining what the Charlie Hebdo attacks mean to the West’s negotiation with Islam in the modern world.