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.
Jonathan Rauch notes that the rule of 14–“No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency”–may be coming to an end. Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate 16 years ago. Jeb Bush 18 years ago. Many of the leaders have zero political or military experience. Rauch writes: “Well, there is nothing magical about the number 14. What matters about the rule is not the exact number–14 versus (say) 12 or 16–but its reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job. That is a perfectly sensible preference–but one that appears to be declining, at least on the Republican side. A real break with the rule’s inner logic would be the election not of someone with two or four too many years of political experience, but of someone with no political experience at all. That day seems to be drawing closer. The chart below shows the experience level of presidential winners and losers from 1960 to 2012. (For the purposes of this graph, experience equals years between first election to a governorship, a Senate seat, or the vice presidency and election to the presidency; the trend lines do not change much if House experience is included.) Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing. Moreover, as the trend lines show, the inexperience premium has increased over time. That makes some sense: As voters have grown angrier with government, they have become more receptive to outsiders. Republicans, in general, are especially angry with government, so no one will be surprised to learn that since 1980 their presidential candidates have had, on average, three to four years’ less experience than the Democrats’ candidates…. Two generations ago, in 1962, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a prescient book, The Amateur Democrat, in which he pointed out that political amateurs who were unyielding in their righteousness had begun supplanting the political professionals who were willing to make deals and compromise. The ascendency of amateurism, he predicted, would cause social friction and governmental gridlock: ‘Political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.’ That is a disagreeably accurate description of where we find ourselves today. It suggests why amateurism is a much better qualification for The Apprentice than for high political office. Being fresh is one thing. Half-baked is another.” The lack of experience in political leaders is now a well-worn truism. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each had singularly thin resumes for the office of President. In New York, Michael Bloomberg was a neophyte, as is Bill de Blasio. At a time when we want the next new thing for the holidays and we are easily bored if we can’t watch an entire TV show in two nights of binge watching, we want our political leaders new and fresh. Experience is out. The ingénue is in.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, who traveled to Albania to witness a kind of brain surgery that needs to be performed while the patient is awake, describes what it was like to look at a human brain. He sees a kind of visceral beauty–the article’s title calls it “terrible beauty”– in the brains he observes, extraordinarily delicate and yet responsible for all he knows. He looks into the joints and muscles of thought, all of which enable a body to move through the world: “I bent over the microscope again. The view this time was quite different. It was as if I were looking into an enormous grotto, at the bottom of which lay a pool filled with red liquid. Sometimes water came splashing in from the right, as if from a huge hose. I had never seen anything like it, for the walls of this grotto were so obviously alive, made of living tissue. Along the edges of the pool, above the red surface, the walls were ragged. Behind the innermost wall, seeming to swell out slightly, like a balloon about to burst, I glimpsed something purple. When I stepped aside to make room for Marsh again, I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy. I had looked into a room, unlike any other, and when I lifted my gaze, that room was inside Hasanaj’s brain, who lay staring straight ahead under the drape in the larger room, filled with doctors and nurses and machines and equipment, and beyond that room there was an even larger room, warm and dusty and made of asphalt and concrete, beneath a chain of green mountains and a blue sky. All those rooms were gathered in my own brain, which looked exactly like Hasanaj’s, a wet, gleaming, walnutlike lump, composed of 100 billion brain cells so tiny and so myriad they could only be compared to the stars of a galaxy. And yet what they formed was flesh, and the processes they harbored were simple and primitive, regulated by various chemical substances and powered by electricity. How could it contain these images of the world? How could thoughts arise within this hunk of flesh?”
Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel was recently translated into English as Submission. One of the novels I read over the holidays, Submission offers a no-holds-barred attack on agnostic, academic, Enlightenment values. The reason seems to be that Houellebecq is convinced that the Enlightenment is dead and that life without religion may not really be possible. Hence the title and the main plot point that a moderate Islamic Party led by a charismatic and brilliant leader could become President of France in 2022. Houellebecq articulates some of his views in a revealing interview with Sylvain Bourmeau in the Paris Review.
“PR: I don’t see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.
MH: Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot’s ticket who wore the veil, there’s a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.
PR: But I don’t understand the connection with racism …
MH: That’s because there is none. Objectively speaking, there is none. When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of ‘racism’ by inventing the crime of islamophobia.
PR: The word may be badly chosen, but there do exist forms of stigma toward groups or categories of person, which are forms of racism …
MH: No, islamophobia is not a kind of racism. If anything has become obvious, it’s that.
PR: Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because it’s against the law.
MH: I think that’s just false. I don’t agree.
PH: You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.
MH: I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …
PR: No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
MH: But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
PR: But since, from a biological point of view, ‘races’ don’t exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
MH: But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.
PR: Or because his values or his culture are …
MH: No, that’s a different problem, I’m sorry.
PR: Because he is polygamous, for example.
MH: Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let’s go back to anti-Semitism, because we’ve gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It’s not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory–there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there’s an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it’s because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks … It’s a conspiracy theory.
PR: But in Soumission, isn’t there a conspiracy theory–the idea that a ‘great replacement,’ to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?
MH: I don’t know much about this ‘grand replacement’ theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That’s not the subject.
PR: It’s not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.
MH: No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.
PR: You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?
MH: Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.”
For Houellebecq, there is a novelist’s delight in watching the Enlightenment implode. But it is not the delight of the nihilist, the one who avows nothing and takes joy in destruction. Perhaps even scarier to many, especially those defenders of the Enlightenment, Houellebecq welcomes what he calls a necessary return of God to politics and to life–he even welcomes Islam as a regenerator of values in Western society. He accepts this fact and all its consequences. Above all, he argues, “feminism is demographically doomed.” Submission is fearless, which makes it worth reading.
Hua Hsu considers what he calls the “imaginary college student,” the one at the heart of all the fretting about what is or is not possible to talk about at colleges and universities: “Consider the trajectory of the typical twenty-something, born in the early nineties, a product of the test-oriented No Child Left Behind educational model. This hypothetical student came of age during the Obama era, with a new understanding of America’s future demographics, at a moment when the narrative of a red and blue America was firm orthodoxy. This student’s first Presidential election may involve Donald Trump. Identity politics, in the world this student knows, are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party. Within this context, where large swaths of the so-called real world have already surrendered to cynicism, perhaps direct action and protests, even in the name of seemingly minor causes, are the only politics that still makes sense. It is tempting to conclude that what is happening is simply a rerun of what always happens, this time in the age of aggregation. But I’m not sure what we accomplish by insisting that nothing new is going on, or by suggesting that students simply try harder to belong. It seems similarly unhelpful to belittle an archetype, questioning the sources of their esteem or reading their motives in bad faith. The imaginary college student is a character born of someone else’s pessimism. It is an easy target, a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what’s often called the millennial generation. But perhaps it goes both ways, and the reason that college stories have garnered so much attention this year is our general suspicion, within the real world, that the system no longer works. Their cries for justice sound out of step to those who can no longer imagine it. Maybe we’re troubled by these students’ attempts to imagine change on so microscopic a level. Maybe they interest us as a litmus test for the political future–one with different frontiers and more vociferous demands. There is a naïve idealism at the heart of student protest, which might be desperate or loud but never as cynical as the world that necessitated it. Today’s youth should be understood in terms of the choices available to them, not the world they’ve inherited. Let college kids be, many of us say, for they are no weirder than we were. It’s a comparison meant to be generous, since past generations, we think, turned out more or less O.K. This flatters the old, not the young.”
In an article written by Sheila Heti, the children’s musician Raffi wonders aloud whether making music for children is that different than make music for adults: “Raffi doesn’t have any grand theories about why his music has been so successful, but he credits a group called the Babysitters as early inspiration. While researching children’s albums in the mid-’70s, he noticed that ‘what I liked best as an adult listener was music that was not cloying and overly syrupy. I knew that I wanted to sing with love and respect and also be playful. You’re not going goo-goo ga-ga. Why would you? I just tuned in to my own compassion for the little boy I had been when I was very young. I think compassion guided me through the music and my career.’ This also affected his choice of songs; on his Christmas album, he decided not to include ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ because of the lyric ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good.’ ‘I mean, it’s a cute song lyric, but it’s not okay in terms of how we ought to see children. Everybody’s good and bad. It doesn’t mean you don’t get presents at Christmas.’ Although he doesn’t sing much for adults anymore, it wouldn’t be hard to switch. He says the main difference between singing for adults and children is ‘the material, obviously. If I’m singing a love song, I treat that the way the song needs to be treated. You go with the repertoire. But I am who I am when I’m singing, that doesn’t change.'”
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 8, 2016
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Jazz, 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, 4:30 pm – 9:00 pm
“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.
Thursday, March 31, 2016
Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
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
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
This holiday week on the Blog, Samantha Hill discusses how Arendt’s The Human Condition forces us to ask the question “What does it means to be at home in the world?” in the Quote of the Week. Also, Sherwood Anderson comments on the suppression of a human being’s “deep well of thinking” in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.