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.
Yuval Levin argues that our basic understanding of liberty today is wrong. Both liberals and libertarians see liberty as the absence of constraint, the liberty to do and to choose as one wants. He suggests that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in the 1992 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey encapsulates the modern bi-partisan version of liberty: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Opposed to what Levin calls this thin version of liberty (what is usually referred to as negative liberty) is a thicker liberty bound up in institutions that demands that individuals not only be free to choose, but that they be free to choose well. This, what is usually called positive liberty, assumes that we humans are not simply willful beings but that we are also rational, and that rationality means something. It contains standards and truths. For Levin, one element of this rational liberty of limitation is the family: “The long way to liberty begins unavoidably with marriage and the family, and the case for the short way begins as a case against their necessity. The family is above all the nursery of the next generation, which enters the world incapable of exercising liberty and plainly in need of both protection and moral formation. The family is proof against the notion that all human relations can be turned into matters of choice.” Another is work: “Work is another crucial element of the long way to liberty. Like the family, it, too, has an obvious economic utility, enabling us to support ourselves and our families financially. But work also buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability. It can help form us into better human beings and better liberal citizens. To see only its material utility is to imagine that work, like family, could be replaced by more efficient forms of distribution.” In other words, liberty requires we embrace not only our free will but also the common truths made palpable by our rational reflection upon the institutions and the world we live in. The real difference between liberals and conservatives today is that liberals see all claims to rational or institutional truths as a threat to freedom, whereas conservatives see all attacks on institutional truths as a threat to morality and authority. Both are correct. At times, in a liberal mood, we reject convention in the name of progress. At other times, in a conservative mood, we insist on common truths and traditions that give meaning to our lives. Liberals and conservatives both make essential contributions, but in making their arguments in absolute terms that insist either on progress or tradition, they risk undermining both freedom and authority.
Jeddediah Purdy writes that Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-first Century was only partially helpful. It helped put hard numbers on the inequality of our times and on the historical connection between capitalism and inequality. But, writes Purdy, Piketty “does not say where economic inequality comes from: uneven bargaining power, political corruption, globalized labor and capital markets, the ineluctable progress of technology, or what? Piketty only waves his hands around the all-important question of whether economic inequality undermines democracy. He has nothing to say about how much inequality is too much, or which kinds of inequality are worst–in access to education, for instance, or health care, or political power? Without answers to these questions, Piketty’s work illuminated a vast landscape but left his readers with no compass to navigate it.” In response, Purdy gathered students from Duke University to read the classics of liberal political economy and philosophy from the 18th and 19th centuries–Smith, Marx, Locke, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Nietzsche. What he learned: “For all of these figures–meaning for serious people across the time when they wrote–economic and political life were the two great and inseparable problems. Each was a frontier of new human powers–technological mastery and growing wealth on the one hand; collective mobilization, self-government, and equal citizenship on the other. These powers could come into conflict: politics could dampen the economy, as Smith argued, or economic inequality could override the possibility of real democracy, as Marx insisted. The question they all asked, in different versions at different times, was how these great domains of change could be knitted together–and, the other side of the same coin, how they most gravely threatened each other. The second lesson is that no one writing before the twentieth century holds a key to our problems. Our time is so vastly different in its particulars that the parallels work only in broad strokes. Neither Smith nor Marx can carry us far into the guts of globalized financial capitalism. Neither de Tocqueville nor Mill can sort out the prospects of democracy–or even the proper meaning of the term–in North Africa and the Middle East, China, or the European Union and the United States. How could they? When we can barely illuminate our own world, it would be superstitious to imagine that dead men could do it for us. But these old works do invite us to live questions that they lived, which many of us had complacently forgotten, and which Pikettymania was an effort to remember. These are the inescapable questions of a world where the economy, including global ecology, does not take care of itself, and where it may come into conflict with democracy. They are questions for a world where we need to get clearer on what we mean by democracy, and what we lose when we neglect or betray it.”
Fritz Schwarz, who once served as chief counsel for the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee’s investigation of U.S. intelligence agencies under six presidents–Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon–argues that the Senate’s recently released torture report made a mistake in placing all the blame on the CIA. “[P]lacing blame almost exclusively on the CIA is neither accurate nor fair. The Church Committee initially risked going down the same path in its investigation of CIA assassination plots. Senator Frank Church speculated to the press that the CIA may have acted like a ‘rogue elephant on a rampage.’ Other senators, also speculating, opined the CIA ‘took orders from the top.’ But, after extensive investigation and when the committee released its Interim Report on Assassinations, it declined to adopt either theory. Instead, the Church Committee presented substantial evidence for both views, saying the conflicting evidence made it impossible to be certain whether or not Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy authorized the assassination plots. Then, in its final reports issued six months later, based on facts from six administrations and review of many more programs and many more agencies, the Church Committee was ready to fix responsibility at the top. Yes, some agency programs were concealed from higher authority, but more frequently it was senior officials themselves who through pressure for results created a climate for abuse, failed to assure compliance with the law, and demanded action without carefully providing for future oversight. In the case of torture, the Bush-Cheney White House was clearly involved. It pushed for and approved the program; it was complicit in obtaining the deeply flawed legal opinions that redefined the ban on torture to meaningless nothings. White House officials forgot that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln barred torture in perilous times when Americans were hard pressed in their fight to create the nation or to save it. They also forgot that after World War II the United States led the way in drafting the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture and other forms of inhumane treatment. They locked out voices of experience from the State Department and the military who would have warned of harm to America’s reputation and risks to American captives. They failed to listen to FBI experts on interrogation who could have explained we were getting important intelligence through interrogation techniques other than torture. And they forgot, or nobody told them, that after World War II we had prosecuted Japanese officials as war criminals for using on American soldiers the same torture techniques the White House authorized and the CIA implemented after 9/11.” Schwarz’s Democracy in the Dark: The Seduction of Government Secrecy will appear this year, and Schwarz himself will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2015 fall conference on privacy.
David Bromwich sees important connections between the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA and the Staten Island grand jury that chose not to return an indictment for the police killing of Eric Garner. They both, Bromwich suggests, begin with Dick Cheney and the war on terror: “Cheney worked hard to eradicate from the minds of Americans the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘suspect’. Due process of law rests on the acknowledged possibility that a suspect may be innocent; but, for Cheney, a person interrogated on suspicion of terrorism is a terrorist. To elaborate a view beyond that point, as he sees it, only involves government in a wasteful tangle of doubts.” The continuation of the Cheney doctrine into the Obama Presidency means that aside from a more humane face, there remains no effort to hold responsible those who break our laws: “The promise of impunity that has greeted the lawless conduct of government officials obeys the ancient maxim fac et excusa. The deeds in fact are free to recur because the excuses are potentially limitless. We are all patriots–Obama’s word for CIA interrogators–and under enemy attack, we respond as patriots do. The truth of course is that we know nothing about the motives of the torturers or the motives of those who wrote up the exculpating rationale for torture before the fact. Selfless patriotism may be part of it. Sadistic self-indulgence may also be part of it. Who can say in what proportions they were mixed? A principle such as an unconditional ban on torture is tested precisely by its observance in a fear-engendering crisis. If your belief in the principle gradually disintegrates, it was never a solid belief.” And it is the disintegration of our strong convictions against torture and police violence that Bromwich worries is undermining our democracy: “The object of torture is a slave as long as the infliction lasts; a slave has no recourse against torture so long as the master chooses to inflict it. To suppose that slavery is a matter of ownership is a half-truth that misses the political basis of the oppression. The evil consists in the ability to dominate other persons without check, the ability to do with them what you will, armed with assurance of impunity. Such a custom of acquittal or habit of non-accountability may have broad consequences in the treatment by the state of its own people–the treatment, for example, of a large black man on the streets of New York by a huddle of police who are determined to subdue him. The suspect becomes a rightless subject and not a person who bears the inalienable rights of a citizen.”
Roland Kelts talks to graphic designer Chip Kidd about how the latter illustrated Haruki Murakami’s novella The Strange Library: “Kidd’s visual accompaniment is a sheaf of blowups–insect motifs collide with origami paper and the face of a geisha; a spectral half-moon is completed by one half of a donut (the only graphic that didn’t come from his collection of Japanese ephemera; he purchased it from a food card in front of the Knopf offices and ‘stuck it into a scanner.’) Kidd wasn’t trying to graphically tell the story. Instead, he said, his goal was to ‘graphically play around with form and content so it surprises you.'”
Etgat Keret hopes that the upcoming elections in Israel will force alienated Israelis back to the ballot boxes and, in turn, will bring the country closer together: “There’s no better time than a new election campaign to bring my left-wing neighbor and his dog down to earth again. Instead of burying his head in a good book, he will be forced to look reality in the eye and drop a ballot into the box in what might be the most important elections in Israel’s history. And if he chooses not to, he will be partly responsible for any injustices that follow. Deep down, every citizen in this country knows that the coming elections will determine not only our political and economic future, but first and foremost, the social and moral future of this country. Do we aspire to be, as the original formulators of the Jewish State bill demand, a country that is first of all Jewish and only then democratic, or will we seek to be an egalitarian society that while keeping its Jewish identity does not distinguish between and discriminate against citizens who hold different religious beliefs? Some will say that if we don’t choose the Third Temple we will find ourselves in Sodom and Gomorrah. Others will claim that if we don’t hold onto the Western model, we’ll end up in Iran.”
The forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are made possible by the radical disjunction between those who authorize the wars and those who fight them. James Fallows points to how the average Americans citizen’s estrangement from the military makes it easier for us to go to war: “If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.”
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 email@example.com.
Friday, January 9, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
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
Lunchtime Talk with Angela Maione, our Klemens Von Klemperer Post-Doctoral Fellow
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 6:00 – 7:00 pm
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
Lunchtime Talk with Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen, a Hannah Arendt Center Doctoral Fellow
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 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
The Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Aspinwall Room 302, Bard College, 6:00 pm
Translating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar
Monday, May 4, 2015
Location and 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 holiday week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa reflects on Arendt’s observation that thinking acquires political significance when we think beyond our own limitations in the Quote of the Week. Edgar Allan Poe provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. And we appreciate Arendt’s possession of one of J. E. Erdmann’s investigations into the history of philosophy in our Library feature.
This coming Friday, January 9th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the third session of its new Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapter Two, Sections 4, 5, and 6 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more!