This morning’s newsletter included a link error in the piece on Steven Glick. The title, “Political Thinking,” now points to the correct content. You can also find it here. We apologize for the hiccup.
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.
Oliver Remaud reflects on the life of the exile. “There is one impression that dominates when you are in the position of being an exile. The impression is of being in a new and different world, one whose unfamiliarity is disconcerting. It is not only others who see the individual in exile as a stranger; in his place of exile, he will also see himself as such. He will be unable to repeat things that he already knows or to extend his former abilities to this unfamiliar milieu. Since, in his new place, he cannot imitate anything on the basis of what he knows of his former situation, he is faced with solitude. Such solitude bears witness to a distance that, so he believes, cannot be reduced. It imprisons him, trapping him in an anxious sensation of disorientation. It cuts him off from most of his unspoken ways of understanding the world. It plunges him into the troubled waters of a limited choice: to live an artificial social life or else to opt for a life that is completely private.Between the enforced assimilation of the stranger who has only just arrived and his solipsistic withdrawal, the exile is faced with the need to acquire a new definition of himself. But how is it possible to believe that you are going to gain anything by frequenting a milieu composed of people who you do not know? How can you believe that it is not preferable to keep your own company within the reassuring cocoon of your memories and erstwhile certainties? You need a special kind of heroism to forge your own identity in exile. It is the mindset of the shipwrecked mariner that is peculiar to the exile and motivates him to recover the flotsam and jetsam of his memory. Ulysses discovered what it was to be shipwrecked as he strove to return to Ithaca. As he narrowly escaped being drowned beneath the waves, he was assailed by visions of death. He recalled concrete details. The tyranny of exile is the tyranny of specific things that come back to haunt you as if they were obsessions.”
Remaud turns to Hannah Arendt to argue that “In exile, the problem is always the same: the fact that you suffer from not being able to appear in public, not being able to show yourself to be naked.” The exile, deprived of his home, exists in a netherworld, possessed of historical existence he must deny if he is to find a home in his new world. The homelessness of exile means that the “exile has a personal history that he cannot proclaim, as if it were a shadow that he has lost and could never hope to recover. This is the complex from which he suffers, one that we may call the Schlemihl Complex.” Discussing Adalbert von Chamisso’s The Wondrous Story of Peter Schlemihl, the Shadowless Man, Remaud argues, “The conclusion, which opposes “living among men” to “living for yourself”, is the ultimate achievement of this tale of the shadow. It provides a practical moral for the reflections of Said and Arendt about the difficulty of drawing any lessons from exile. Chamisso’s story relates the worries and cares of the exile and of any citizen of the world who loses his shadow. Schlemihl is the victim of a process that is beyond his control, one that means that he can never feel at home in this world. He interprets the fact of having lost his shadow as a sign of the endless wretchedness of exile. Favoured by a nameless Providence that watches over his destiny and acts in an ad hoc fashion to assist him, he reconnects with nature through study and solitary travels. Chamisso’s Schlemihl is not just an “unfortunate” in the German sense of the word, he is also an individual who transforms his fate into an opportunity: the chance to undergo within the wider world an inner edification, even though this may be at the cost of a series of disappointments. In the end, he knows what it would be right for him to do. He has acquired a precise knowledge of the social worlds that he has passed through. He can choose how he lives without limiting himself to the kind of world that everyone desires. He has learnt to distinguish between the essential and the inessential, the first stage on the path to renewal.” –RB (h/t Julia F.)
Matthew Van Meter writes in the Atlantic about Judge John Coughenour – a Harley Davidson-riding Federal Judge who is causing controversy by resisting the extreme sentences required by the Mandatory Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Coughenour sentenced Ahmed Ressam to 22 years in prison for an attempted terrorist attack in 1992. Ressam had cooperated with law enforcement after 9/11 and had been held in solitary confinement for years. “The judge felt for the hapless Algerian and thought it would be in the interest of justice to lay off a bit on the penalty’s harshness.” The reduced sentence caused an uproar. So too has Coughenour’s willingness of getting to know the prisoners he has sentenced. “So, twice a year for almost 20 years, Coughenour rode his Harley from Seattle to Sheridan to meet one on one with each of the men he had sentenced. And then, he started visiting prisons all over the country with the same purpose. To ensure candor, he insisted that the prisoners be unshackled and that the meetings be private. A corrections officer stood outside just in case, but in two decades, Coughenour only had to call the officer in once. During these meetings, the judge always asked the same questions: “How much time do you have left? What are you doing to prepare yourself for getting out? Are you dealing with anything you can’t handle? Do you feel safe?” Sometimes, he’d compare notes about motorcycles-word traveled fast that the judge rode a Harley-and sometimes he’d just commiserate about prison food. The next prisoner would be escorted in 15 minutes later, and the judge would start over again. Coughenour resists the implication that his visits-and the hundreds of hours he has spent asking hundreds of prisoners about their lives-have influenced his judicial philosophy. But at the same time, Coughenour insists that the prisoners’ stories all carry a clear moral lesson: Too many people are in prison for too long. One of Coughenour’s favorite anecdotes from these visits is about a man from Everett, Washington, whose wife had multiple sclerosis. In the mid-1980s, the man was laid off from his job and, in desperate need of money, robbed five banks. Coughenour, who was then a young judge, now says, “I gave him a heavy hit.” A few years after he sentenced the man, Coughenour saw the bank robber again, this time in the meeting room at Sheridan. He sat across from him again six months later. And again the next year. “Every time I went back to Sheridan,” he says, “I saw this guy, and I started realizing how long it was that he was doing. And the meaning of time really hits you hard when you see these same guys there, year after year after year, and they’re still there. It’s easy to sit in an office room somewhere and say, ‘Well, you know, you rob a bank, you should get 10 years.'” But watching those decisions play out among real men in real time was something else entirely. This sort of thinking is divisive. Judge Richard Sullivan of New York, the former head of narcotics at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, says, “Judges are generally very good at recognizing the humanity of the person in front of them.” He argues that it’s the humanity of victims that judges too often ignore. “Candidly,” he says, as a counterpoint to Coughenour’s prison visits, “I’m not sure how many judges have walked around Hunt’s Point or some other neighborhood that’s been overrun by drugs and drug violence to get a feel for the impact of these crimes on communities and families.” “Judges,” Sullivan says, “should also have some humility and recognize that we aren’t, and probably shouldn’t be, the only players in this drama.”
Responding to a recent court ruling that the pop singer Kesha has to continue working with the record producer she claims sexually assaulted her, Lena Dunham has had enough: “So let me spell it out for them. Imagine someone really hurt you, physically and emotionally. Scared you and abused you, threatened your family. The judge says that you don’t have to see them again, BUT they still own your house. So they can decide when to turn the heat on and off, whether they’ll pay the telephone bill or fix the roof when it leaks. After everything you’ve been through, do you feel safe living in that house? Do you trust them to protect you? That explanation is really for the judge, Shirley Kornreich, who questioned why – if they could be physically separated as Sony has promised – Kesha could not continue to work for Gottwald. After all, she said, it’s not appropriate to “decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated.” Guess what else is heavily negotiated? The human contract that says we will not hurt one another physically and emotionally. In fact, it’s so obvious that we usually don’t add it to our corporate documents. To be clear, Kesha’s case is about more than a pop star fighting for her freedom, or a $60 million investment in a shiny commercial career. It’s about more than whether Kesha can strap on her cool leotards and make another album, free from a man who she says terrifies her. It’s even about more than the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry, or the way that women in music and film have long been controlled and coerced by abusive Svengalis and entities larger than themselves. (Think: the studio system of the ’40s and ’50s, when starlets were essentially chattel. Think: Ike and Tina Turner.) What’s happening to Kesha highlights the way that the American legal system continues to hurt women by failing to protect them from the men they identify as their abusers.”
Steven Glick explains why he resigned his position as a writing fellow at Pomona College: “Based on these incidents, which have occurred over many months, it has become clear that the Writing Center is harassing me because of my political beliefs. This is unacceptable, just as harassment based on gender, race, religion or any other demographic or ideological construct is unacceptable. My probation is not related to any inadequacy of my work at the Writing Center. Rather, it is due to my political views, which differ greatly from those of the Writing Center leadership. Each time I have been asked to meet with Writing Center leadership, I am asked to talk about controversial political issues that are unrelated to my work at the Center. Soon after each meeting, I have been informed I’ve done something wrong on the job and need to be punished. I had hoped that President Oxtoby’s recent statement in support of free speech at Pomona College would be a game changer, allowing conservative, libertarian, and classically liberal students and faculty to share our honest opinions with our progressively liberal peers who seem to control the sanctioned conversation on campus. Unfortunately, I was naively optimistic. His words carry no meaning if they are ignored and countermanded by Pomona’s faculty and staff.”
Molly Crabapple reports from Aleppo: “Every day more bombs fall on the eastern part of Aleppo, the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, gradually turning neighborhoods into graveyards of rubble and dust. Recently, a member of the Aleppo’s civil defense (also known as the “White Helmets”) told me that airstrikes have targeted the city at least six times a day, concentrating on civil and residential neighborhoods. After bombing runs, he said, planes wait for first responders to gather, then bomb again. This is the notorious “double-tap” strategy that allegedly killed Canadian photojournalist Ali Moustafa and that was used in December against an MSF hospital in Homs. Describing the challenges of his job, the first responder recalled one morning when he and other civil defense employees watched the government helicopters buzzing like insects in Aleppo’s sky. One dropped a barrel bomb on a group of civilian cars. The White Helmets ran over. “I saw a horrific scene when I went to search inside one of the cars, a mother pressing her child to her chest because of the strong explosion and fear. Both bodies were charred,” he said. When asked about the toll of their airstrikes, the Syrian and Russian governments respond as governments always do. They deny killing civilians. According to them, their bombs kill only terrorists-and since 9/11, the Muslim terrorist has become a folk devil in the international imagination, whose existence justifies any torture, military aggression, or crime. As Russian airstrikes displaced tens of thousands of Syrians in mid-February, the Russian Ministry of Defense tweeted: “Near #Aleppo, terrorists are evacuating their families to the north of the province, to the Turkish border due to complicated situation.” Even fleeing women and children become terrorists when seen through the funhouse mirror of military PR. Attacks on civilians are heinous but link civilians to terrorists, and to many people, such actions suddenly become palpable. It’s not just the Russian government that engages in this kind of calculus, either. In December, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said of ISIS, “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Not to be outdone, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has floated the idea that he would fight terrorists by “tak[ing] out their families.” The US is no stranger to attacks on civilian infrastructure in Syria: In February, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that US airstrikes killed 15 when it hit a bakery in an ISIS-occupied town near the Iraqi border. Nor does the US necessarily spare hospitals. In October, a US gunship razed an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 30 staff and patients.”
Nathan J. Robinson, responding to a small scandal that erupted last week when the gossip website Gawker tricked whoever runs Donald Trump’s twitter into retweeting a quote from Mussolini, doesn’t think the Trump jokes are funny anymore: “The stupid Mussolini gag is one small incident in a far larger pattern of hypocrisy among Trump’s opponents. People who don’t like Trump claim that he can be labeled a fascist (this includes Gawker). And there’s a plausible argument for applying that word; policies like banning religious minorities, suppressing press freedom, and shutting down speech are strongly reminiscent of 20th century dictatorships. But if someone truly thinks Trump a fascist, really and sincerely believes this, then they should be arming a resistance militia rather than trying to coax an odious retweet. At the same time as Trump’s opponents insist that he poses a major threat to the country, they behave as if he is a harmless clown to be prodded and mocked. In other words, if he’s not a fascist, then there’s no point to the Mussolini trick, but if he is a fascist, then there’s nothing to be amused about. In fact, even though the vast majority of progressives believe that the election could have a devastating global impact, most Trump coverage is still about the most asinine day-to-day trivia, like the size of his hands or his latest bit of theatrical prop-based insult comedy. Ostensibly serious news organizations run Trump GIFs as stories. Even the New York Times dutifully compiled a database of Trump’s colorful gallery of Twitter insults. In doing so, these organizations help lower our perceptions of the stakes; after all, if politics actually mattered, surely it would be reprehensible to spend even a second replacing Trump’s eyes with lips rather than actually attempting to dissuade his supporters or building up an effective opposition force. By descending to Trump’s level and reveling in gossip and minutiae, any sense of public urgency is steadily muted. This is the way political media operates generally, though. It simultaneously treats politics as both extremely significant and totally inconsequential. Trump is an existential threat to the Earth’s people, yet we can spend our time mocking his hair or watching him make funny faces. George W. Bush was a war criminal who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, yet we could jest about his goofy malapropisms and difficulty handling Segways and pretzels. Liberals laugh at “robo-Rubio” and “fruit salad” fruitcake Ben Carson, but these individuals are competing to have access to a vast arsenal of nuclear weaponry. By being both pervasive and superficial, political media manages to treat political actors as tremendously important and worth obsessing over, while somehow obscuring the fact that bad political decisions actually devastate people’s lives…while disaffection is understandable, a pernicious culture of easy ridicule also diminishes the seriousness of politics.”
Rachel Kaadzi Ghanash visits James Baldwin’s Paris house: “What makes us want to run away? Or go searching for a life away from ours? The term “black refugees” applies most specifically to the black American men and women who escaped in 1812 to the British navy’s boats and were later taken to freedom in Nova Scotia and Trinidad, but don’t many of us feel like black refugees. Baldwin called these feelings, the sense of displacement and loss that many Black Americans ponder, the “heavy” questions, and heavy they are indeed. Sometime in early ’50s, after being roughed up and harassed by the FBI, James Baldwin realized that while he “loved” his country, he “could not respect it.” He wrote that he “could not, upon my soul, be reconciled to my country as it was.” To survive he would have to find an exit. On the train to Baldwin’s house I thought more about that earlier generation and about the seemingly vast divide between Baldwin and my grandfather. They had very little in common, except they were of the same era, the same race, and were both fearless men, which in black America actually says a lot. Whereas Baldwin spent his life writing against a canon, writing himself into the canon, a black man recording the Homeric legend of his life himself, my grandfather simply wanted to live with dignity. It must have been hard then to die the way my grandfather did. I imagine it is not the ending that he expected when he left Louisiana and moved to Watts – to a small, white house near 99th Street and Success Avenue. After his death, I went back to the house in Watts that he had been forced to return to, broke and burned out of his home, and gathered what almost 90 years of black life in America had amounted to for him: a notice saying that his insurance claim from the fire had been denied, two glazed clay bowls, and his hammer (he was a carpenter). My grandfather had worked hard but had made next to nothing. I took a picture of the wall that my grandfather built during his first month in LA. It was old, cracked, jagged, not pretty at all, but at the time, it was the best evidence I had that my grandfather had ever been here. And as I scattered his ashes near the Hollywood Park racetrack, because he loved horses and had always remained a country boy at heart, I realized that the dust in my hands was the entirety of my inheritance from him. And until recently, I used to carry that memory and his demand for optimism around like an amulet divested of its power, because I had no idea what to do with it. What Baldwin understood, and my grandfather preferred not to focus on, is that to be black in America is to have the demand for dignity be at absolute odds with the national anthem. From the outside, Baldwin’s house looks ethereal. The saltwater air from the Mediterranean acts like a delicate scrim over the heat and the horizon, and the dry, craggy yard is wide and long and tall with cypress trees. I had prepared for the day by watching clips of him in his gardens. I read about the medieval frescos that had once lined the dining room. I imagined the dinners he had hosted for Josephine Baker and Beauford Delaney under a trellis of creeping vines and grape arbors. I imagined a house full of books and life.”