Amor Mundi 2/14/16

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-upLet ‘er Rip

bernie sandersTo all those “adults” in the press and the chattering classes who are telling kids who “feel the Bern” to grow up, Holly Wood has something she’d like to share: “If Millennials are coming out in droves to support Bernie Sanders, it’s not because we are tripping balls on Geritol. No, Sanders’s clever strategy of shouting the exact same thing for 40 years simply strikes a chord among the growing number of us who now agree: Washington is bought. And every time Goldman Sachs buys another million-dollar slice of the next American presidency, we can’t help but drop the needle onto Bernie’s broken record: The economy is rigged. Democracy is corrupted. The billionaires are on the warpath. Sanders has split the party with hits like these, a catchy stream of pessimistic populism. Behind this arthritic Pied Piper, the youth rally, brandishing red-lettered signs reading ‘MONEYLENDERS OUT.’ If you ask them, they’ll tell you there’s a special place in Hell for war criminals who launch hedge funds…. If anything concerns me at this pivotal moment, it’s not the revolutionary tremors of the youth. Given the Great American Trash Fire we have inherited, this rebellion strikes me as exceedingly reasonable. Pick a crisis, America: Child poverty? Inexcusable. Medical debt? Immoral. For-profit prison? Medieval. Climate change? Apocalyptic. The Middle East is our Vietnam. Flint, the canary in our coal mine. Tamir Rice, our martyred saint. This place is a mess. We’re due for a hard rain. If I am alarmed, it is by the profound languor of the comfortable. What fresh hell must we find ourselves in before those who’ve appointed themselves to lead our thoughts admit that we are in flames? As I see it, to counsel realism when the reality is f–ked is to counsel an adherence to f–kery. Under conditions as distressing as these, acquiescence is absurd. When your nation gets classified as a Class D structure fire, I believe the only wise course is to lose your sh-t.”

Truth to the Party

donald trumpFor all those “adults” moaning about the unhinged popularity of Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson has something he’d like to say. “Not everyone finds it funny. On my street in Northwest Washington, D.C., there’s never been anyone as unpopular as Trump. The Democrats assume he’s a bigot, pandering to the morons out there in the great dark space between Georgetown and Brentwood. The Republicans (those relatively few who live here) fully agree with that assessment, and they hate him even more. They sense Trump is a threat to them personally, to their legitimacy and their livelihoods. Idi Amin would get a warmer reception in our dog park. I understand it of course. And, except in those moments when the self-righteous silliness of rich people overwhelms me and I feel like moving to Maine, I can see their points, some of them anyway. Trump might not be my first choice for president. I’m not even convinced he really wants the job. He’s smart enough to know it would be tough for him to govern. But just because Trump is an imperfect candidate doesn’t mean his candidacy can’t be instructive. Trump could teach Republicans in Washington a lot if only they stopped posturing long enough to watch carefully…. It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too. On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good. Apart from his line about Mexican rapists early in the campaign, Trump hasn’t said anything especially shocking about immigration. Control the border, deport lawbreakers, try not to admit violent criminals–these are the ravings of a Nazi? This is the ‘ghost of George Wallace’ that a Politico piece described last August? A lot of Republican leaders think so. No wonder their voters are rebelling.”

The Hunt for Hypocrites

hypocritesThis is the most exciting presidential primary season in a generation. Six short months back, we were resigned to the drumbeat of the dynasties. No doubt, Hillary Clinton is the most experienced and qualified candidate for President in decades. And Jeb Bush seems earnest, polished, and smart. But the prospect of choosing between a third Bush or a second Clinton was simply demeaning to democracy. Sadly, it seemed we had no choice. Oh how things have changed. Ted Cruz just became the first Latino candidate to win a major state primary or caucus. Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish American to win a primary. All of this is promising. But nothing comes close to excitement generated by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Both Sanders and Trump style themselves truthtellers. That does not mean they don’t lie or deceive. Trump seems incapable of dealing with facts and repeats falsehoods with the conviction of someone sure in his power to make fiction into reality. And Sanders is offering up a “plan” to raise the share of government spending in our economy from 21% to over 40%, a shift so radical that he either is deceptive in trumpeting it as a plan or he is delusional in believing in his power to bring about the revolution that would make it possible. But such untruths are the bread and butter of politics. No, in styling themselves truthtellers, both Sanders and Trump allude to another kind of truth. They are saying that they speak from conviction. Trump because he is self-funded and Sanders because he refuses to take Super PAC money and has been saying the same thing for 40 years. Both insist that they speak the truth that is in their hearts, and this separates them from Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton who speak the interests of their donors on Wall Street and K Street.

The appeal in truthtelling is that it speaks from the heart; it is founded upon the fear of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, as Hannah Arendt writes, is based upon the Greek word for “play-actor.” The hypocrite “falsely pretends to virtue.” He or she “plays a role as consistently as the actor in the play who also must identify himself with his role.” What distinguishes the hypocrite is that his or her duplicity “boomerangs back upon himself, and he is no less a victim of his mendacity than those whom he set out to deceive. Psychologically speaking, one may say that the hypocrite is too ambitious; not only does he want to appear virtuous before others, he wants to convince himself.” The hypocrite, in convincing himself of his goodness, populates the world with “illusions and lying phantoms” and expunges from the world the incorruptible self, “the only core of integrity from which true appearance could arise again.” This is why Arendt calls the hypocrite “rotten to the core” and says of revolutions that they look like “the explosion of an uncorrupted and incorruptible inner core through an outward shell of decay and odorous decreptitude.” What revolutionaries promise, above all, is to tear “the mask of hypocrisy off the face” of a corrupt society, to tear “the façade of corruption down” and expose “behind it the unspoiled, honest face of the people.”

Arendt worries, however, that the “hunt for hypocrites” and the desire to unmask the hypocrite “would leave nothing behind the mask.” What those truthtellers and revolutionaries who would unmask the hypocrites forget, Arendt writes, is that all persons appear in public wearing a mask. The word “person” from the Latin “persona” means that which sounds through a mask. The Roman “person” was a citizen, someone granted the public mask of citizenship and thus someone in whom the law sounded through. To appear unmasked is to appear naked, exposed in one’s raw humanity–someone reduced to a biological or zoological body without any human qualities. In short, the hunt for hypocrites may not emancipate citizens, but it might reduce all citizens to mere natural humans, shorn of the “protecting mask of a legal personality.”  

The hunt for hypocrites is a symptom of a corrupt society, and there is a reason that the discourse of hypocrisy is so powerful today. Trump and Sanders both are mobilizing the charge of hypocrisy with justification; there is a reason it is proving effective. But the hunt for hypocrites is a dangerous game, not least because no one can stand to have their private motives exposed to the light of day. Even more dangerous, however, is that the hatred of hypocrisy idealizes a kind of ‘natural’ person, someone who is “nothing behind the mask.” Such a nothing, Arendt argues, may help root out deception, but it also obliterates all truth, insofar as truth too can only sound through a mask. –RB

The HAC Is Hiring a Media Coordinator

hacThe Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is looking for a dependable, hard-working part-time Media Coordinator (20 to 25 hours/week) who can supervise the ongoing evolution of the Center’s impact and media presence, both online and in print. While no deep knowledge of Hannah Arendt is required, we seek someone passionate about the power of ideas to provoke thinking and elevate our public discourse. This job may be done remotely, but the Media Coordinator will need to be on campus at Bard College to assist with major events 2-3 times per year. 

Hearing Einstein’s Black Holes

gravitational waveNicola Twilley in the New Yorker does as well as anyone in trying to explain what a gravitational wave is and how it was discovered. “[Rainer] Weiss’s detection method was altogether different from Weber’s. His first insight was to make the observatory ‘L’-shaped. Picture two people lying on the floor, their heads touching, their bodies forming a right angle. When a gravitational wave passes through them, one person will grow taller while the other shrinks; a moment later, the opposite will happen. As the wave expands space-time in one direction, it necessarily compresses it in the other. Weiss’s instrument would gauge the difference between these two fluctuating lengths, and it would do so on a gigantic scale, using miles of steel tubing. ‘I wasn’t going to be detecting anything on my tabletop,’ he said. To achieve the necessary precision of measurement, Weiss suggested using light as a ruler. He imagined putting a laser in the crook of the ‘L.’ It would send a beam down the length of each tube, which a mirror at the other end would reflect back. The speed of light in a vacuum is constant, so as long as the tubes were cleared of air and other particles the beams would recombine at the crook in synchrony–unless a gravitational wave happened to pass through. In that case, the distance between the mirrors and the laser would change slightly. Since one beam would now be covering a shorter distance than its twin, they would no longer be in lockstep by the time they got back. The greater the mismatch, the stronger the wave. Such an instrument would need to be thousands of times more sensitive than any previous device, and it would require delicate tuning in order to extract a signal of vanishing weakness from the planet’s omnipresent din.”

amor_mundi_sign-upWork Harder, Be Better

studentsGillian B. White in The Atlantic writes about new research confirming what many have long known: “For decades, black parents have told their children that in order to succeed despite racial discrimination, they need to be ‘twice as good’: twice as smart, twice as dependable, twice as talented. This advice can be found in everything from literature to television shows, to day-to-day conversation. Now, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that when it comes to getting and keeping jobs, that notion might be more than just a platitude. There’s data that demonstrates the unfortunate reality: Black workers receive extra scrutiny from bosses, which can lead to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss. The NBER paper, authored by Costas Cavounidis and Kevin Lang, of Boston University, attempts to demonstrate how discrimination factors into company decisions, and creates a feedback loop, resulting in racial gaps in the labor force.”

A New Way of Teaching Old Things

history textbookChristine Gross-Loh takes a peek into what might be the history classroom of the future: “One of the reasons American children often appear to struggle in history, Bain says, is because their knowledge is primarily assessed through multiple-choice tests. Multiple-choice assessment, by nature, often privileges factual content over historical thinking. ‘If you’re testing historical content out of context, that might explain why they don’t do so well,’ Bain says. He advocates embracing the use of narrative–even if that narrative is flawed or one-sided. ‘The grand narrative is pejorative to many in the historical profession–people say that it tries to inculcate a particular viewpoint in kids. But having a big picture or story is cognitively critical to historical knowledge.’ Similarly, history textbooks appear omniscient and objective, and tend to gloss over competing narratives. But educators say that understanding whose narrative is being told helps students to engage with it; even if it is wrong or they disagree with it, the narrative provides context and a more effective way to learn and remember. ‘The argument I make all the time is, it’s like if I were to ask someone to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box-top picture of it. You could of course eventually put it together but the effort to match shapes and colors on each piece would be monumental, and you’d likely give up quite quickly. Such is what happens to many kids in school.’… It’s difficult to track down research corroborating the academic benefits of the case method, but anecdotal evidence speaks to its power. Moss tells me he has observed the results of story-based teaching in his classroom. ‘People remember cases incredibly well–and often at a level of detail that’s almost shocking. Stories stick in the mind, and when you learn history with a focus on particular stories it’s much easier to remember the pieces around them.’ David Kaufman, a student who took the course last year, says that discussing history through a series of cases allowed the students to ‘focus a lot more on the process than on, say, the actual legislative result, which I think was much richer.’ It is well known that stories aid learning because of how memory is structured. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of two modes of knowing: paradigmatic and narrative; with the latter, attention and emotion influence the strength of a memory. Stories activate emotion, which helps students stay engaged and remember. They also feed the human need to fit things into a coherent structure in order to make meaning of them.”

Excellent Excellence Excels Excellence

nicholas b. dirksNicholas B. Dirks, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, sent a letter to the Berkeley community informing them of a “strategic planning process designed to ensure our excellence in the face of continuing financial challenges.” Long term changes to preserve excellence include: “Evaluating our workforce in relationship to our changing needs and resources. This will also entail a new mechanism for the monitoring and control of staffing levels”; “Achieving additional revenues through our ‘brand,’ land, and other assets”; and “the redesign of some of our academic structures. Realignment will ensure that we are excellent in all we choose to do, in our research and in our educational mission.” Here is an excerpt of Chancellor Dirk’s letter: “Today, we announce a strategic planning process designed to ensure our excellence in the face of continuing financial challenges. This process is comprehensive, encompassing academic and administrative realignment, investment in our fundraising and revenue-generating activities, and the reexamination of all our discretionary expenditures, including athletics and capital costs. …Accordingly, we are embarking on a comprehensive strategic planning process, the aim of which is to reimagine the fundamental structures and processes of our university. We need to evaluate how best to structure the university so as to maintain, above all, our excellence as an institution. To be sure, ahead of us lie difficult decisions and hard work, but we are fortunate to be taking this on early enough that we have the resources and time necessary to be thoughtful and strategic…. Every aspect of Berkeley’s operations and organizational structure will be under consideration. Our decision-making, however, will be strategic. We are identifying areas in which new investments will both produce additional resources and enhance our strength; and we are identifying other areas in which the expenditure of resources may be less critical to our overall excellence and core mission. Some important campus-level initiatives, such as the Berkeley Global Campus and the Undergraduate Initiative, will be entirely supported by philanthropy and external partnerships (aside from small amounts of seed funding)…. This endeavor must not be interpreted as an abandonment of our commitment to a public mission nor to our efforts to advocate for increased public funding for higher education. We are fighting to maintain our excellence against those who might equate ‘public’ with mediocrity, against those who have lost faith in the need for higher education to serve as an engine of social mobility, and against those who no longer believe that university-based inquiry and research have the power to shape our society and economy for the better. What we are engaged in here is a fundamental defense of the concept of the public university, a concept that we must reinvent in order to preserve.”

Free Urban Style

moscowMasha Gessen, noting Moscow’s recent destruction of almost a hundred buildings housing small businesses, suggests that the tear-downs were as much about style as they were about corruption (and they’re definitely about corruption): “The new Russia is not, at present, a fully fledged totalitarian regime–but it increasingly feels like a totalitarian society, with its unanimity on all matters and suspicion of all difference. It wants to look like one too. Back in the eighties, Moscow and other large Soviet cities (with the exception of part of Leningrad) looked empty and orderly. Their avenues were wider than many American highways, with sidewalks the width of a Manhattan street. Their buildings were imperial architecture on steroids, with courtyards the size of a Manhattan block and arches through which you could squeeze a few townhouses. Façades were impenetrable–buildings were often entered through courtyards–and this, combined with the vastness of distances, kept people from clogging the streets. What humans one did see generally looked the same, dressed in basic gray and more gray. The absence of private business kept what passed for commerce looking uniform too. The first legal private commerce consisted of people standing on the sidewalks. In early 1992 Boris Yeltsin issued a decree legalizing the sale of consumer goods by individuals, and some individuals cut the decree out of the newspaper, pinned it to their clothes to ward off police, and went out to procure scarce goods for resale. Foreigners who happened to visit Russia back then will never forget the spectacle of people standing in the street holding out pieces of raw steak or fried chicken–and, perhaps more shockingly, that of others buying these goods. ‘Fresh meat, I just got it today!’ was the advertising slogan of the era. After a few months, the private traders’ assortment grew, along with their sense of security, and they started putting out folding tables for their wares and folding chairs for themselves. Then they started building makeshift structures out of glass, plywood, and aluminum siding. They were eyesores, though still an improvement over the sight of men with raw meat in their hands and a piece of newspaper on their jackets. The structures, known as kiosks, also provided some protection from dirt and weather for both the merchandise and the people who sold it. The sellers could now continue working late into the night… The proliferation of kiosks also brought the city down to human scale. They filled the vast squares and occupied parts of the too-wide sidewalks. They put objects at eye level, filling what had been an eerily empty field of vision. Being a person in Moscow stopped feeling like being a Lilliputian in the land of Gulliver. Over the years, many of the kiosks grew into more permanent structures, often referred to as pavilions. Successful traders erected one- and two-story buildings that connected to the city’s power and plumbing infrastructure, and soon those buildings housed mini-marts, cell-phone shops, and cafés. Some of them were still ugly, usually in a bland prefab way. Others, like a pyramid-shaped glass structure in one of the city’s most central squares, were ostentatiously ridiculous. A few used scaled-down elements of the architecture of surrounding buildings to serve as attractive bridges between larger-than-life Moscow and its people.”

High Score

gamesAlfie Bown gets distracted: “Distracting games and websites appear to be totally useless and nothing more than a complete waste of our precious time. But precisely because these distractions are seen as completely wasteful and useless, they make the mundane work we perform for capitalists seem so much the more ‘productive’ and ‘useful’ by contrast. They stimulate a feeling of guilt that sends us back to work eager to make reparations. After we have ‘wasted’ five minutes on Cookie Clicker, we feel like we are carrying out an act that is both productive and reparative when we return to work afterward. Reporting on a recent study, The Entrepreneur, a business magazine, reported that productivity on CRM (Microsoft’s data management server) could be massively increased when workers were allowed to play games. Likewise, the company Snowfly specializes in improving company productivity by employing regulated game use in the workplace. In short, we input data quicker after playing Candy Crush. The idea is the game simply offers a much needed refreshing break, but I think there is more to it than this. By seeming useless and wasteful these distractions not only consolidate our impression that capitalist productivity is comparatively useful and positive, but they also make us feel indebted and keen to make amends. They renew our commitment to capitalist production when we might otherwise be reflecting on how unfulfilling our working conditions are… The usual line would be that a culture of distraction prevents us from concentrating on what is really important and doing truly worthwhile things. This often is nothing more than the age-old generational complaint that young people ought to do something better with their time, and worse, it endorses specific ideas of what ‘worthwhile’ time expenditure consists of, just as Candy Crush does in the very act of distracting us. A culture of distraction doesn’t stop us doing really important things; it makes us believe that there really is something that is really important: capitalist production. Distractions only serve to focus our faith in that myth.”

Graphic Violence

the banality of evilBrad Evans and Sean Michael Wilson have created a short account of Arendt’s banality of evil, one that is illustrated by Chris Mackenzie. They give a short and schematic account of the Eichmann trial from arrest through judgment and then ask how the banality of evil remains meaningful in the modern world. “Errol Morris’ Film ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ emphasized how these U.S. soldiers were not exceptional but following routine standards. It asked: ‘…How could American values become so compromised that Abu Ghraib could happen?’ This sounds very similar to what was asked of Germany in the Nazi Period…. Again it seems too simple to say such soldiers are crazy or ‘bad apples’. Perhaps these problems of cruel acts carried out in positions of power, of following whatever authorities say in blind obedience are still very much with us. Perhaps the banality of evil is something that, in the wrong circumstances, could touch us all.”



amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

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

What Is Political Theory?

political theorySheldon S. Wolin (August 4, 1922 – October 21, 2015) was one of the most important American political theorists of the 20th century. Wolin authored critical works such as Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Hobbes and the Epic Tradition of Political Theory, Presence of the Past: Essays on State and the Constitution, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life, and Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, Wolin was the founding editor of the influential journal democracy (1981-1983), with the help Nicholas Xenos. In memory of Wolin, we discuss the work of political theory with Nicholas Xenos.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 5:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Lunchtime Talk with Klemens von Klemperer Post Doctoral Fellow Jana Schmidt

jana schmidt

In the Shadow of Forgetting: Iconic Thinking

In one of Oliver Sacks’ “clinical tales,” the popular neurologist describes a man whose identity is threatened by the perpetual dissolution of his self. “He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds.” Afflicted with a severe case of Korsakoff’s syndrome, a neurological condition brought on by alcoholism, the unfortunate man appears hardly human to Sacks for he lacks all sense of relation and reality. Thus, in reading his patient’s “mythomania,” his prolific production of stories and images, as an illusory substitute for a genuine connection to the world, Sacks’ musings on what remains when forgetting takes hold reach beyond the confines of clinical diagnosis toward a theory of forgetting, imagination, and “iconic” thinking.

It is not by accident then that Sacks was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind when he was writing the narratives of neurological disability, of amnesia and aphasia that populate his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it, Sacks develops a model of iconic thinking that furthers some of Arendt’s own ideas on the interrelation of thought and the making of images; ideas she herself at least partly borrowed from thinkers in the life science (Adolf Portmann, Konrad Lorenz, and Rudolf Arnheim). My talk will revisit these mutual influences to explore whether forgetting, rather than the “other” of thinking, might itself be considered an operation of thinking, and in particular of “iconic thinking.”

BIO: Jana V. Schmidt’s research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including “continental” philosophy and critical theory), and literature’s relation to violence.

RSVP to Christine Stanton at

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm

HAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #18

vrg banner headingHAC 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, March 4, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

Now Hiring Two Post-Doctoral Fellows for the 2016-2017 Academic Year!

1The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.

To apply for the fellowship, please apply through at: with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.

The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

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

Learning 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 Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

vita activaThe Film Forum in New York City will be screening the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, directed by Ada Ushpiz, later this spring.

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 CampusOn 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

Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Ian Storey looks to the Iowa Caucuses to wonder at what point electoral politics is reduced to the manufacture of crisis in the Quote of the Week. Anne Frank reflects on the irrevocable right to have an opinion in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Arendt’s annotations with regards to how trust factors into Locke’s Two Treatises of Government in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 7/19/15

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-upRevisiting a Fairy Tale

harper leeHarper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an industry and a cultural icon that has been read by millions of white Americans as a tale of courage and racial color blindness. Now, with the publication of Lee’s original manuscript Go Set A Watchman–in which Atticus Finch is depicted as a somewhat typical if also honorable and generous man of the south–it is time to revisit our energetic worship of Atticus as well as our generations-long misreading of To Kill a Mockingbird. Randall Kennedy reminds us that Monroe Freedman had already in 1992 written–in an obscure law journal–that Finch was depicted in the book as a reluctant hero and someone who was at home with the racism and segregation of the South. For Freedman, it was wrong to see Finch as a model for lawyers. Kennedy argues that the Go Set a Watchman now proves Freedman right and requires that we ask ourselves how, and why, we got it so wrong–why for so long we have been satisfied with the fairy tale when a more nuanced and less comforting truth was staring us in the face. In Hannah Arendt’s vocabulary, we should ask why and how is it that we have contented ourselves to embrace the coherent and pleasing fantasy of an exceptional white man fighting for racial justice in the 1960s south despite all the facts that show such an ideal to be a fantasy? Kennedy writes: “Generations have admired Finch for his fidelity to due process even at the risk of unpopularity and personal harm. Freedman noted, however, that Finch did not volunteer to represent Robinson; he did so only upon assignment by the court, saying that he had ‘hoped to get through life without a case of this kind.’ Freedman also pointed out that Finch abstained from challenging the obvious illicit racial exclusion of blacks from the jury that wrongly convicted Robinson and the racial segregation in the courtroom itself, where blacks were confined to the balcony. At the time of this fictional trial, there would have been good strategic reasons for forgoing objection to these customs. Confrontation would have had little chance at success and a large likelihood of provoking retaliation against the defendant. In Freedman’s view, however, those considerations were not decisive in influencing Atticus Finch. Rather, Freedman inferred that Finch failed to oppose Jim Crow custom because he was at home with it. He told his children that the Ku Klux Klan was merely ‘a political organization’ and that the leader of the lynch mob was ‘basically a good man’ albeit with ‘blind spots along with the rest of us.’ To Freedman, Finch’s acts and omissions defined a lawyer who lived his life as a ‘passive participant’ in ‘pervasive injustice.’ This column by a legal academic, published in a relatively obscure trade journal, so enraged admirers of Atticus Finch that this newspaper published an article about the column and the impassioned responses it provoked. Dismissed by some as the ravings of a curmudgeon, Freedman’s impression of Atticus Finch has now been largely ratified by none other than his creator, Harper Lee herself…. In America in 1960, the story of a decent white Southerner who defends an innocent black man charged with raping a white woman had the appeal of a fairy tale and the makings of a popular movie. Perhaps even more promising, though, was the novel Lee first envisioned, the story of Jean Louise’s adult conflicts between love and fairness, decency and loyalty. Fully realized, that novel might have become a modern masterpiece.”

Go Set a Lawyer

go set a watchmanClaire Suddath looks into the questions surrounding the release of To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set A Watchmen, which appears to be just a different, earlier draft of the former book: “Watchman is the most preordered book in HarperCollins’s history. Its first print run is two-thirds larger than the final Hunger Games book and more than twice that of the last Game of Thrones installment. HarperCollins is selling the book for up to $20 to bookstores, which means a sold-out first printing could rake in close to $40 million. The novel’s topped’s best-seller list since its release was announced in February and is the website’s most preordered book of any genre in the last four years. Monroeville’s two-room bookstore has presold almost 7,000 copies and is trying to find a loading dock big enough to accept them the night before they go on sale. ‘This Watchman publication is what physicists call a singularity. There has been nothing like it before now, and there never will be again,’ says Daniel Menaker, a former editor at Random House and, before that, the fiction editor at the New Yorker. ‘You couldn’t plan for this if you tried.’ But someone did plan for this, although it might not have been Harper Lee. Ever since Watchman was announced, rumors have persisted that a younger, more mindful Lee–the one who swore not to publish anything again–wouldn’t abide any of this. At one point, the state of Alabama even got involved to assess a claim of possible ‘elder abuse.’ How aware is Lee, really, of this new book? Does she, as her publishers insist, approve of its publication? The answers lie with Lee’s lawyer, friend, and confidante, Carter. So I traveled to Monroeville to talk with her.”

Machines, Information, and Post-Capitalism

capitalism endPaul Mason argues that the information economy is creating new material conditions that enable a post-capitalist economy based on sharing and zero-marginal cost production to emerge. What is more, he argues that all this was foreseen by Karl Marx in a little known fragment on Machines from 1858. “The scene is Kentish Town, London, February 1858, sometime around 4am. Marx is a wanted man in Germany and is hard at work scribbling thought-experiments and notes-to-self. When they finally get to see what Marx is writing on this night, the left intellectuals of the 1960s will admit that it ‘challenges every serious interpretation of Marx yet conceived’. It is called ‘The Fragment on Machines’. In the ‘Fragment’ Marx imagines an economy in which the main role of machines is to produce, and the main role of people is to supervise them. He was clear that, in such an economy, the main productive force would be information. The productive power of such machines as the automated cotton-spinning machine, the telegraph and the steam locomotive did not depend on the amount of labour it took to produce them but on the state of social knowledge. Organisation and knowledge, in other words, made a bigger contribution to productive power than the work of making and running the machines. Given what Marxism was to become–a theory of exploitation based on the theft of labour time–this is a revolutionary statement. It suggests that, once knowledge becomes a productive force in its own right, outweighing the actual labour spent creating a machine, the big question becomes not one of ‘wages versus profits’ but who controls what Marx called the ‘power of knowledge’. In an economy where machines do most of the work, the nature of the knowledge locked inside the machines must, he writes, be ‘social’. In a final late-night thought experiment Marx imagined the end point of this trajectory: the creation of an ‘ideal machine’, which lasts forever and costs nothing. A machine that could be built for nothing would, he said, add no value at all to the production process and rapidly, over several accounting periods, reduce the price, profit and labour costs of everything else it touched. Once you understand that information is physical, and that software is a machine, and that storage, bandwidth and processing power are collapsing in price at exponential rates, the value of Marx’s thinking becomes clear. We are surrounded by machines that cost nothing and could, if we wanted them to, last forever. In these musings, not published until the mid-20th century, Marx imagined information coming to be stored and shared in something called a ‘general intellect’–which was the mind of everybody on Earth connected by social knowledge, in which every upgrade benefits everybody. In short, he had imagined something close to the information economy in which we live. And, he wrote, its existence would ‘blow capitalism sky high’.”

amor_mundi_sign-upYour Home Is Your Transparent Castle

arne svensonArne Svenson, an artist, used a telephoto lens to take pictures surreptitiously of everyday people in their apartments. He then exhibited these photos in an art gallery, obscuring the faces, seeking, in his telling, “to comment on the ‘anonymity’ of urban life, where individuals only reveal what can be seen through their windows.” Photos included a half-naked young girl dancing in a tiara. Svenson’s neighbors, recognizing themselves and their children, sued Svenson for a violation of their privacy. Two New York State Courts have now upheld Svenson’s rights to artistic expression and denied that the neighbors had their privacy rights violated. This is how Justice Dianne Renwick of the New York Appellate Court summed up the decision. “In this action, plaintiffs seek damages and injunctive relief for an alleged violation of the statutory right to privacy. Concerns over privacy and the loss thereof have plagued the public for over a hundred years. Undoubtedly, such privacy concerns have intensified for obvious reasons. New technologies can track thought, movement, and intimacies, and expose them to the general public, often in an instant. This public apprehension over new technologies invading one’s privacy became a reality for plaintiffs and their neighbors when a photographer, using a high-powered camera lens inside his own apartment, took photographs through the window into the interior of apartments in a neighboring building. The people who were being photographed had no idea this was happening. This case highlights the limitations of New York’s statutory privacy tort as a means of redressing harm that may be caused by this type of technological home invasion and exposure of private life. We are constrained to find that the invasion of privacy of one’s home that took place here is not actionable as a statutory tort of invasion of privacy pursuant to sections 50 and 51 of the Civil Rights Law, because defendant’s use of the images in question constituted art work and, thus is not deemed ‘use for advertising or trade purposes,’ within the meaning of the statute.” Justice Renwick does recognize that the violation of privacy in this case is real, but she calls upon the legislature to address it. “To be sure, by our holding here–finding no viable cause of action for violation of the statutory right to privacy under these facts–we do not, in any way, mean to give short shrift to plaintiffs’ concerns. Undoubtedly, like plaintiffs, many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken in this case. However, such complaints are best addressed to the legislature–the body empowered to remedy such inequities. Needless to say, as illustrated by the troubling facts here, in these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and ever more invasive technologies, we call upon the legislature to revisit this important issue, as we are constrained to apply the law as it exists.”

Getting Out

re-entry movementUsing two ex-cons who pick recently released prisoners up from jail and get them to wherever they need to be going as a way in, Jon Mooallem peeks in at the lived experience of reentering a changed world: “It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming ‘prisoner re-entry crisis’ became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the ‘re-entry movement.’ The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens. In a recent study, the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western describes a woman who ‘frequently forgot to eat breakfast or lunch for several months because she was used to being called to meals in prison.’ I met one man who explained that, after serving 15 years, he found himself convinced that parked cars would somehow switch on and run him over. So many years inside can leave people vulnerable in almost incomprehensibly idiosyncratic ways, sometimes bordering on helplessness: ‘Like that little bird, getting his wings’ is how one man described himself on Day 1. Many spill out of prison in no condition to take advantage of the helpful bureaucracies the re-entry movement has been busily putting in place.”

The Euro on the Left

euroJames K. Galbraith makes a prediction about the end of the Euro and where that end might come from: “SYRIZA was not some Greek fluke; it was a direct consequence of European policy failure. A coalition of ex-Communists, unionists, Greens, and college professors does not rise to power anywhere except in desperate times. That SYRIZA did rise, overshadowing the Greek Nazis in the Golden Dawn party, was, in its way, a democratic miracle. SYRIZA’s destruction will now lead to a reassessment, everywhere on the continent, of the ‘European project.’ A progressive Europe–the Europe of sustainable growth and social cohesion–would be one thing. The gridlocked, reactionary, petty, and vicious Europe that actually exists is another. It cannot and should not last for very long. What will become of Europe? Clearly the hopes of the pro-European, reformist left are now over. That will leave the future in the hands of the anti-European parties, including UKIP, the National Front in France, and Golden Dawn in Greece. These are ugly, racist, xenophobic groups; Golden Dawn has proposed concentration camps for immigrants in its platform. The only counter, now, is for progressive and democratic forces to regroup behind the banner of national democratic restoration. Which means that the left in Europe will also now swing against the euro. As that happens, should the United States continue to support the euro, aligning ourselves with failed policies and crushed democratic protests? Or should we let it be known that we are indifferent about which countries are in or out? Surely the latter represents the sensible choice. After all, Poland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Romania (not to mention Denmark and Sweden, or for that matter the United Kingdom) are still out and will likely remain so–yet no one thinks they will fail or drift to Putin because of that. So why should the euro–plainly now a fading dream–be propped up? Why shouldn’t getting out be an option? Independent technical, financial, and moral support for democratic allies seeking exit would, in these conditions, help to stabilize an otherwise dangerous and destructive mood.”

On The Frontlines

avant-gardePaul Stephens wonders if avant-garde poetry may help us work through the flood of information we carry around in our pockets and on our wrists: “Avant-garde poetry may have a small role to play in our understanding of global information flows–on the other hand, the avant-garde has always aspired to be predictive, to keep up with the present, to stay ahead of history. The avant-garde’s attempts to maintain critical distance from mainstream bourgeois values may be grandiose and hyperbolic, but the questions raised by avant-garde movements should not be dismissed as nihilistic or unrepresentative of larger social developments. To adapt a question posed by Lyn Hejinian-‘Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical?’–I would ask: ‘Isn’t the avant-garde always technological?’ Much of the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde was extremely self-conscious of the rapid changes in technologies of communication and data storage. From Dada photomontage to hypertext poetry, avant-garde methodology has been deeply concerned with remediation and transcoding–the movement from one technological medium or format to another. As Brian Reed has recently written, ‘poetry is a language-based art with a penchant for reflecting on its channels of communication.’ For Reed, poetry ‘offers unparalleled opportunities for coming to grips with the new media ecology. Poets, as they experiment with transmediation, serially bring to light each medium’s textures, contours, and inner logic.’ While poetry may seem the most non-technological of literary genres, over the past century poets have frequently been obsessed with the changing nature of information and its dissemination. The news that there is more news than we can process is not so new; while avant-garde poetry may not figure prominently in the global information glut, the global information glut figures prominently in avant-garde poetry.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #11

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, July 31, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



why privacy mattersSAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference,Why Privacy Matters,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses how in The Human Condition Arendt at one point refers to a type of monument that complicates the process of creating historical memory through a common world in the Quote of the Week. Lao-Tze traces how thoughts translate into an individual’s destiny in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we relate the history of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Collection in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 5/17/15

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-upBeing Toward Death

death maskDeath today has been medicalized and marginalized. But this has not always been the case. To illustrate, Deborah Lutz has explored the way the Victorians approached death and has found a much different and worthy approach to the dying body. “What I came to realize was that the Victorians cared about the mortal body; its very mortality mattered profoundly to them. Today we try to deny the body’s movement toward death, its inevitable decay. The Victorians, instead of fearing the process of dying and the corpse, felt reverence. These were stages in the life of a beloved body and should be treasured. Indeed, the image of the corpse was worthy of fixing with the art of the death mask, painting or photography. A snippet of hair was often turned into jewelry. What was beautiful–and tragic, but more lovely for all that–was the body’s ephemerality, its being always on the way to disappearing. The Victorians recognized that death’s presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings. Religion, of course, played a role in this attitude. Evangelical revivals early in the 19th century reinvigorated the tradition of the good death, in which God called believers to him. Even the sinful might be saved in the end, and this salvation could be seen in the face of the dying and heard in their words. Dying was something to be watched–a triumph even…. What we have lost is not only a savoring of ephemerality, but also an appreciation of the way that time marks the body. We try too hard to keep the terminally ill alive because we can’t admit to finality. This has begun to change with the rise of the hospice movement and the work of a handful of artists, like Ishiuchi Miyako and Sophie Calle, who are interested in documenting the dying of loved ones. Even so, the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s lament in the 1930s about death still rings true. By avoiding the sight of the dying, he felt, one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending. The denial of death then leads to the demise of the art of storytelling. He called his contemporaries ‘dry dwellers of eternity’ because they ‘live in rooms that have never been touched by death.'”

The Wrong Stuff

death chamberJeffrey E. Stern reports on a recent botched execution in Oklahoma and on the source of the problem, namely, the difficulty of finding the right drugs: “What many people don’t realize, however, is that choosing the specific drugs and doses involves as much guesswork as expertise. In many cases, the person responsible for selecting the drugs has no medical training. Sometimes that person is a lawyer–a state attorney general or an attorney for the prison. These officials base their confidence that a certain drug will work largely on the fact that it has seemed to work in the past. So naturally, they prefer not to experiment with new drugs. In recent years, however, they have been forced to do so… The problems began at a pharmaceutical plant in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The Food and Drug Administration discovered that some of the drugs made there were contaminated and in April 2010 sent the manufacturer, Hospira, a warning letter. Hospira stopped producing, among other drugs, a barbiturate called sodium thiopental. No other company was approved by the FDA to make sodium thiopental, which was the anesthetic of choice for almost all of the states that carried out executions.” Stern doesn’t editorialize. But the horrific facts of the case themselves seem to ask whether or not this punishment fits any crime.


thingsRussell Jacoby is critical of the academic fashion for studies of objects, books on golf balls, paper clips, and doorknobs. This kind of microscopic approach can be done well–Jacoby offers the excellent example of the Sigfried Giedion’s 1948 Mechanization Takes Command. But in the current iteration of object studies, Jacoby discerns an empty, consumerist, apolitical desire expression of exhaustion. “The tendencies here reflect new academic fashions that seem to move in two opposite directions–fields get larger and subject matter smaller. We have new fields of global studies or material culture–allied to object theory–which seem to cover everything; but they frequently serve as licenses to study very small things. The connections, in any case, between larger fields and microstudies are hardly addressed. A recent issue of the Journal of Material Culture, for instance, has an article on energy shortages in an African city (‘Infrastructure turned suprastructure: Unpredictable materialities and visions of a Nigerian nation’) and the incompatible standards of electrical plugs in Western Europe (‘Plugging in: Power sockets, standards and the valencies of national habitus’). There is nothing wrong with this–except that after all the theoretical panting we are left gawking at unrelated items in the display case of history. For all the references to Lukacs, object study bespeaks reification, turning social relations into things. Perhaps an awkward French translation for reification, ‘chosification’–‘thingification’ in English–captures something of Lukacs’ concept. Historical material subject to potential change gets transmuted into things subject to passive viewing.”

Design Within Reach

homelessAndrea DenHoed applauds an undergraduate design class project which is aimed at alleviating the problem of homelessness in New York City: “Perhaps it’s fanciful to be discussing beautiful design in the face of horror stories about the city’s neglected, dilapidated shelters. Or perhaps the project of reconceptualizing what it means to house the homeless goes hand in hand with the project of finding sustainable approaches to homelessness. (In an area where the best practices seem wholly inadequate to the problem at hand, and where departures from orthodoxy–such as a Utah experiment that simply gave homeless people houses–can be notably fruitful, the idea of radical reconceptualization is particularly attractive.) But the ability to conceive of and implement beautiful design with scarce resources is a great test of skill and talent, and it’s worth wondering whether top-tier designers would even be interested in these tight-budget contracts. (‘My passion still goes to high-end residential spaces,’ which allow for extensive customization, one student said.) But from the working designer’s point of view, designing for a low-income demographic might offer another kind of freedom. Walz said that he’s observed a growing discontent among interior designers with some of the changes that economic trends have wrought on their profession. ‘Everybody has sort of had it with the sense of entitlement in certain parts of the population,’ he said. ‘But nobody wants to talk about it–you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upArendt’s Moral Groundwork

hannah arendtCorey Robin has a long essay on Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann controversy in the latest Nation. Robin’s article has the virtue of length and breadth, allowing him to explore Arendt’s critics and their errors but also to search for meaning in the recurring conflict. He asks, “What is it about this most Jewish of texts that makes it such a perennial source of rancor among Jews, and what does their rancor tell us about Jewish life in the shadow of the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel? What does the wrongness of Eichmann‘s readers reveal about the rightness of its arguments?” Robin takes on Arendt’s critics on many levels, and in the end argues that Arendt’s account of the Eichmann trial, was, as Arendt once wrote, “the groundwork for creating new political morals.” Robin writes: “If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps. As Susan Neiman explains: ‘Arendt was convinced that evil could be overcome only if we acknowledge that it overwhelms us in ways that are minute. Great temptations are easier to recognize and thus to resist, for resistance comes in heroic terms. Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.’ Return the coat of collateral at night; take the eggs, not the bird; give a hunted Jew a truck. Jerusalem, then–not the Athens of the Greeks or the Königsberg of Kant–may be not only the site but also the spirit of Arendt’s text. The intransigence of her ethic of everyday life, her insistence that every action matters, that we attend to the minutes of our practice–not the purity of our souls but the justness of our conduct and how it will affect things; if not now, when all is hopeless, then in the future, when all will be remembered–that kind of mindfulness is reminiscent, too, of the Hebraic ethos described by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: ‘this energy driving at practice’ that ‘would not let the Hebrew rest till, as is well known, he had at last got out of the law a network of prescriptions to enwrap his whole life, to govern every moment of it, every impulse, every action.’ On December 21, 1962, two months before the first of her articles would appear in The New Yorker, Arendt gave her friend, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, a copy of the manuscript. The next day, he finished it. Overwhelmed by ‘the stink of so much evil,’ he went out for a walk. He ‘walked and walked,’ he writes in his journal, ‘shivering to get the wintry pure air into my lungs.’ Then he was hit by a realization: ‘Hannah in her imperious yecke [a Yiddish term for German Jews] way is one of the just.’ ‘This is the lightning in her to which I always respond. She has the fundamental sense of value. She still believes in the right. Oddly enough, she still believes in the Ten Commandments.'”

In Search of a Human Humanities Conference

humanities conferenceChristy Wampole poses a simple question many of us ask regularly: Why are academic conferences so boring? “We are weary of academic conferences. We are humanists who recognize very little humanity in the conference format and content. We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn’t look up once, wondering why we couldn’t have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption. We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk. Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood. We have been one of two attendees at a panel…. Academic conferences are a habit from the past, embraced by the administrativersity as a way to showcase knowledge and to increase productivity in the form of published conference proceedings. We have been complicit. Until now. We believe it is time to ask ourselves: What is the purpose of the conference?” It is an excellent question, and one that should spur experimentation. Hannah Arendt Center Conferences are one attempt to re-imagine the tired academic conference by bringing academics together with students, the engaged public, artists, business people, and public intellectuals to explore present concerns in politics through the humanities. If you haven’t attended one of our events, join us at our next conference: Private Life: Why Does it Matter?

Drugs, Babies, and Poverty in America

muskogeeReflecting on poverty and the unrest in Baltimore, Thomas B. Edsall offers a comparison with Muskogee, Oklahoma. “Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for ‘methamphetamine arrest’ on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local newspaper, produces 316 hits. In 2013 just under two-thirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6 percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee, it’s 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7. The Baltimore poverty rate is 23.8 percent, 8.4 points above the national rate, but below Muskogee’s 27.7 percent. The median household income in Baltimore is $41,385, $11,661 below the $53,046 national level, but $7,712 above Muskogee’s $33,664…. Why am I talking about Muskogee? Two reasons. The first is that the Baltimore riots have become a vehicle for conservatives to point to the city as an emblem of the failure of liberalism and the Democratic Party. The current state of affairs in Muskogee suggests that the left does not deserve exclusive credit for social disorder. The second reason is that worsening conditions in working-class white Republican communities indicate that the conservative moral agenda has not decisively won the battle for the hearts of America’s youth…. If conservatives place responsibility on liberal Democrats, feminism and the abandonment of traditional family values for Baltimore’s decay, what role did the 249 churches in and around Muskogee play in that city’s troubles? The fact is that the poor and working classes of both races were not well equipped to adjust to changes in behavior driven by the sexual revolution and the second demographic transition–a collection of forces that are inexorably changing the family, marriage patterns and child rearing worldwide.” On the left there is a conviction that racism lies behind the problems in Baltimore. On the right, they blame feminism, gay rights, and the loss of religious order. Edsall focuses on the similarities between the breakdown of society in both Baltimore and Muskogee, arguing that they reflect a more widespread demographic and moral collapse.

Critical Miss

computerJon Peterson remembers a moment just before the internet when fiction seemed like it might be intruding on truth, networks and hacking struck fear in the heart of the government, and the Secret Service thought it was protecting the public good by confiscating the manual to a tabletop role-playing game: “In hindsight, it’s difficult to explain how esoteric computers appeared to the mainstream in the 1980s. The Internet existed–but even in 1990, few had any inkling of the prominence it would soon attain. It was just one of several communications networks, largely confined to university environments and overshadowed by closed monolithic information services like CompuServe. The web as such didn’t exist either, and even functions like email and newsgroups depended on a patchwork of interconnected systems with limited standardization. The promise of an open, global network for commerce, entertainment, and personal communications remained in the realm of science fiction… But in 1990, the territory where these stories played out remained imaginary: the Internet lingered on the cusp of becoming habitable. Only a marginal community of hobbyists spent any significant fraction of their lives online, in various bulletin boards, newsgroups, and chat services where they communicated with like-minded explorers of the electronic frontier. Perhaps the closest you could get at that time to an experience of Gibson’s future was in the role-playing games that tried to capture the flavor of that world, known by the genre label ‘cyberpunk.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #9

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, June 5, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference,Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Hans Teerds reflects on how we understand architecture as a political concern and, by extension, understand Karl Jaspers’ spatial approach to thinking in the Quote of the Week. We share a link to a broadcast by Deutschlandfunk Radio that provides some coverage of “Can We Have Some Privacy?,” a conference we sponsored earlier this month. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, reflects on writing, thinking, and life in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Bethany Zulick, a HAC student fellow, recounts artist Jeanne van Heeswijk’s lecture for our spring 2015 “Courage to Be” dinner/speaker series. Finally, we appreciate two annotations Arendt made to her copy of “Black Reconstruction in America” in this week’s Library feature.

bill t. jones On Tuesday, May 5th, we had the pleasure of talking with American choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones and with members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company following a rehearsal for their upcoming world premiere performance, “Analogy/Dora: Tramontane.” We will be uploading a recording of our Q&A session with Jones and company to our Vimeo account in the next few weeks. Please stay tuned!

little rock

Cassandra in Little Rock

(Federal troops escorting the Little Rock Nine into Central High for the first time. Photo credit: Bettman/CORBIS; Source: ABHM)

By Nicholas Tampio

“Liberals fail to understand that the nature of power is such that the power potential of the Union as a whole will suffer if the regional foundations on which this power rests are undermined.”

– Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock”

In a January 2015 Nation article entitled “Black Lives Matter—at School, Too,” George Joseph explains how education reformers have been able to disempower urban black communities. Students in these communities take standardized tests and get low scores. Politicians use these results to justify transferring power from elected school boards to for-profit charter school chains such as KIPP that transform schools into “totalizing carceral environments.” Children who do well in such environments are prepared for low-wage jobs in manufacturing and retail, but charters are quick to expel disobedient children, thus contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Unfortunately, parents and community members cannot protest these policies because charters are privately run and thus unresponsive to democratic school boards. Continue reading


Video Archives – “Revenge and the Art of Justice” (2011)

Thursday, April 7, 2011: “Revenge and the Art of Justice”


Roger Berkowitz – Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights; Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College.

Roger Berkowitz gave a talk at Haverford College in April 2011. Focusing in on the conceptual relationship between revenge and justice, Berkowitz begins his talk with the story of the Massie trial, a 1932 criminal case which drew national attention. Thomas Massie’s wife was gang-raped by five men who were released by a hung jury in a Hawaiian court. After the trial, Massie conspired with his mother-in-law to kidnap and torture one of the rapists, who died during his violent interrogation. Clarence Darrow himself traveled to Hawaii to defend Massie from the subsequent charges brought against him. Darrow, in the course of his defense, makes two claims about revenge: first, though illegal, it can be just; and second, it is sourced in our animal nature and as such is a fundamental part of human life itself. Continue reading


Amor Mundi 11/23/14

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.

On Loneliness

lonelinessIn The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes about the deadening impact of loneliness and how it can ravage our body and our brain. She traces modern interest in loneliness to Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a psychoanalyst whose “1959 essay, ‘On Loneliness,’ is considered a founding document in a fast-growing area of scientific research you might call loneliness studies. Over the past half-century, academic psychologists have largely abandoned psychoanalysis and made themselves over as biologists. And as they delve deeper into the workings of cells and nerves, they are confirming that loneliness is as monstrous as Fromm-Reichmann said it was. It has now been linked with a wide array of bodily ailments as well as the old mental ones. In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer – tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.” The turn toward biology situates loneliness as a mental and a physical illness, one to be combated with public health programs. Shulevitz traces the efforts to medicalize loneliness, as well as programs to treat loneliness as a problem of inequality. And yet, in the end, she suggests that humans have incredible resources to fend off loneliness: “[T]here’s something awe-inspiring about our resilience, too. Put an orphan in foster care, and his brain will repair its missing connections. Teach a lonely person to respond to others without fear and paranoia, and over time, her body will make fewer stress hormones and get less sick from them. Care for a pet or start believing in a supernatural being, and your score on the UCLA Loneliness Scale will go down. Even an act as simple as joining an athletic team or a church can lead to what Cole calls ‘molecular remodeling.’ ‘One message I take away from this is, “Hey, it’s not just early life that counts,”‘ he says. ‘We have to choose our life well.'”

Arendt and the “Mass Man”

arendt lonelinessLoneliness was a constant theme in Hannah Arendt’s work. In her most pregnant attempt at a definition of totalitarianism, published in 1950, Arendt writes: “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated, individuals.” Totalitarianism depends upon “the masses [who] grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.” Shorn of family and national and class connection, the modern atomized individual becomes a mass man. “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.” Stripped of the political, social, and intellectual traditions that historically bound people together in publically meaningful institutions and networks, mass men turn to racism or consumerism to give their lives meaning. Both are dangerous in different ways. As Paul Morrow writes, “Loneliness can result from formal prohibitions on expression or action, as seen in totalitarian societies; but it can also result from informal standards and patterns of life which disvalue political – and overvalue social or commercial – interactions.” And Bill Dixon adds: “To be lonely is to be deprived of both the public and the private realms and therefore to feel utterly abandoned by other human beings, to finally lose one’s place in the world completely. The mass production of loneliness is closely linked to the experiences of ‘uprootedness’ and ‘superfluousness’ that have unevenly afflicted peoples across the earth since the industrial revolution and European imperialism. Pervasive loneliness as a modern way of life therefore amorphously anticipates the emergence of the totalitarian form, but it also serves to structure and vivify its psychic violence once underway. Loneliness perversely tends to intensify when felt in the presence of others, that is, when one is not strictly speaking alone.”  

Integrity and Privacy

snowdenDavid Bromwich reviews Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and argues that it shows Edward Snowden to be a modern hero, a courageous conscientious objector in the war on privacy: “An incidental strength of Citizenfour is that it will make such casual slanders harder to repeat. Nevertheless, they are likely to be repeated or anyway muttered in semiprivate by otherwise judicious persons who want to go on with their business head-down and not be bothered. It must be added that our past politics give no help in arriving at an apt description of Snowden and his action. The reason is that the world in which he worked is new. Perhaps one should think of him as a conscientious objector to the war on privacy – a respectful dissident who, having observed the repressive treatment endured by William Binney, Thomas Drake, and other recent whistle-blowers, does not recognize the constitutional right of the government to put him in prison indefinitely and bring him to trial for treason. His action constitutes a reproach to the many good citizens who have learned what is happening and done nothing about it. That, too, is surely a cause of the resentment that has a hard time finding the appropriate adjectives for Snowden.” Bromwich is right that listening to Snowden in the movie is to be in the presence of someone of integrity: “The undeclared subject of Citizenfour is integrity – the insistence by an individual that his life and the principle he lives by should be all of a piece. Something resembling an aesthetic correlative of that integrity can be found in the documentary style of Laura Poitras.” What Snowden, Poitras, and Bromwich show is that the core of privacy is integrity. It is thus the integrity of the person that is under attack in the age of surveillance.

Learning and Teaching

teachingIn an essay about how it is for teachers, both now and in the past, Jonathan Zimmerman says he thinks he’s figured out what’s happened to teaching in America: “the federal Race to the Top program sponsored by the Obama administration encouraged schools to use students’ test scores in evaluating individual teachers. The primary responsibility of teachers is no longer to encourage good behavior in future citizens, as Horace Mann insisted. Instead, it’s to ensure that they get the right answers on a high-stakes test. The shift in goals has unfortunately done nothing to alter the tedious, anti-intellectual practices of American teaching. If anything, the strong commitment to ‘academic’ goals has probably made teaching less academic – so far as the quality of learning is concerned – and more routinized than it was before. When teachers were hired for their inborn ability to ‘nurture’ schoolchildren, many derided or disregarded their intellectual capacities. Now we’ve created a system that is so firmly tied to scholastic achievement – as narrowly defined by standardized tests – that no serious scholar would want to teach in it.”

Rereading Without Revising

readingIn the New York Times, seven writers reread some of their old work and write about how they feel about it all this time later. Marilynne Robinson, for example, tries to recall what it was like to write Housekeeping: “In writing ‘Housekeeping’ I was trying to recover the appearance and the atmosphere of a very particular place, northern Idaho. When I wrote it, I had not spent much time there for almost 20 years. So it was very much an exploration of memory that I was engaged in. I thought I was writing an unpublishable book, so I was undistracted by other considerations than my own interest in the workings of memory and the ability of language to evoke what I ‘saw’ in memory. I found that the common old question ‘What was it like?’ stimulated recollection and recruited words and images that made my sense of the thing remembered, a place or a smell or the glint of light on water, much more accessible to me than I could have anticipated. It became a discipline for me, always to keep a scene before my eyes and to be ready to value and explore any detail that presented itself to me with an especially pungent or plangent specificity. I wrote much of the book in a darkened room. This was not intended as part of the experiment, but it may have contributed to it. My memories were often as bright as dreams and often as highly detailed. Only the place is actually remembered in the book. None of the characters or events are real. The point was to let my imagination take on the colorations of memory and interpret the place, as music might do.”

Not The Absence of Fear

cornel westIn an interview with Questlove Thompson, an interview that’s as much about music as anything else, Cornel West defines courage: “But we all live in fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the working through and overcoming of fear. Brother Martin had fear. He just wouldn’t allow fear to determine his behavior. As human beings, everyone has stuff coming at them, and a certain kind of fear. But courage is being true to yourself, true to a sense of integrity. And that’s what is more and more difficult.”

At the Intersection of Art and Commerce

ursula le guinIn her National Book Awards acceptance speech, Ursula K. Lu Guin explains why she loves, and fears for, literature: “Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

On Ethics and Reporting

bill cosbyIn a piece about the resurfaced allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that he, like all writers, lives in history, with his own context and biography. Knowing that is a kindness – one, he suggests, that an ethical journalist must transcend: “The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else’s salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby’s moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written. It was not enough. I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality – and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible. I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.”

Featured Events

Film Screening & Director’s Discussion: Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt with Nazis

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, 5:00 – 8:00 pm

Roundtable on Academic Freedom

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bard College Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm


From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Johannes Lang discusses Arendt’s critique of obedience in political and moral matters in the Quote of the Week. Carl Sagan provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we remember a talk George Kateb gave at our 2011 annual fall conference on the ideal of governmental transparency. And we appreciate Arendt’s impressive collection of Goethe’s works in our Library feature.


Amor Mundi 9/28/14

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.

A Vacuum Floating on Air

carmen_segarraIf you want an example of why distrust of American institutions is at epidemic proportions, listen to the investigative report of the New York Federal Reserve based on secret tapes made by one of their Senior Bank Examiners, Carmen Segarra. Segarra, a lawyer with impeccable credentials, was hired by the Federal Reserve after the financial crisis as part of an effort to bring in new personnel who were more willing to stand up to the banks they were charged with regulating. Segarra’s story is told jointly in a hour-long radio show by Ira Glass on “This American Life” and in an investigative article by ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein. Here is one exchange between Bernstein, Segarra, and David Beim, author of a once secret report commissioned by the Federal Reserve to study why the Fed had failed to adequately regulate banks in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis.

David Beim: So I could just read the fear of speaking up list of quotations. And it goes like this: “Don’t want to be too far outside from where management is thinking. The organization does not encourage thinking outside the box. After you get shot down a couple of times, you tend not to go there anymore. Until I know what my boss thinks, I don’t want to tell you.”  

Jake Bernstein: According to Beim’s report, this culture of fear paralyzed the Fed in the years leading up to the financial crisis and prevented it from taking action. It’s not that the Fed regulators didn’t notice the problems accumulating in the financial system that eventually brought it down.  

David Beim: They were aware of those problems coming. There were lengthy presentations on subjects like that within the organization. It’s just that none of those meetings ever ended with anyone saying, “and therefore let’s take the following steps right now.”  

Carmen Segarra: I mean they’re meetings without a clear agenda, they’re meetings without clear objectives. 

Jake Bernstein: Carmen was used to the private sector, where she says meetings ended with specific action items. People knew what they were supposed to do.  

Carmen Segarra: None of that happens at the Fed. It’s like the information is discussed, and then it just ends up in like a vacuum floating on air, not acted upon. And the mere act of having this meeting, for them, is almost like akin to having done something about it.  

You can read more about Segarra and also about George Packer in this week’s Weekend Read.

The Undignified Nudge

sunsteinJeremy Waldron in the NY Review of Books raises important questions about the “libertarian paternalism” of nudging as social policy. Nudging is the idea that government encourages healthy or rational behavior not by commanding it but by changing default choices. Instead of banning large sugary drinks, for example, the government could require that restaurants serve diet soda in medium cups unless the customer expressly asks for a large sugary drink. Customers remain free to fill themselves with sugar, but, nudged by the default choice, more customers will consume less. Waldron admits such nudging helps many live healthier. But he worries: “I am afraid there is very little awareness in these books about the problem of trust. Every day we are bombarded with offers whose choice architecture is manipulated, not necessarily in our favor. The latest deal from the phone company is designed to bamboozle us, and we may well want such blandishments regulated. But it is not clear whether the regulators themselves are trustworthy. Governments don’t just make mistakes; they sometimes set out deliberately to mislead us. The mendacity of elected officials is legendary, and claims on our trust and credulity have often been squandered. It is against this background that we have to consider how nudging might be abused. There are deeper questions, too, than these issues of trust and competence. As befits someone who was ‘regulation czar’ in the Obama White House, Sunstein’s point of view is a rather lofty one and at times it has an uncomfortable affinity with what Bernard Williams once called ‘Government House utilitarianism.’ Government House utilitarianism was a moral philosophy that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use, even though in the commissioner’s bungalow it was known that the use of these rules would not always be justified. We (the governors) know that lying, for example, is sometimes justified, but we don’t want to let on to the natives, who may not have the wit to figure out when this is so; we don’t trust them to make the calculations that we make about when the ordinary rules should not be followed. Williams saw the element of insult in this sort of approach to morality, and I think it is discernable in Sunstein’s nudging as well.”  

Political Creativity

thatcherIn an interview, Hillary Mantel compares Thomas Cromwell, the subject of her books Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, and Margaret Thatcher, the subject of the only new story in a collection that’s about to be released: “Creativity in politics is rare but I think she had it… Cromwell did too. But there are big differences. He was a negotiator and she detested consensus-she saw herself as an Old Testament prophet delivering the truth from on high. Cromwell used history to pretend the new things he was doing were old and thus to soothe the English temperament. Mrs. Thatcher despised history as a constraint.”

Do We Want Our Artists Mad?

artistsIn a survey of the state of the essay about research into the relationship between madness and creativity, Tom Bartlett suggests that maybe we want our artists to suffer a little bit: “The depressed writer is a stock character, like the ditzy cheerleader or the slick salesman. It’s something we believe almost without thinking about it, in part because that pathetic figure so frequently appears in books and movies, and because we can point to historical examples of artists plagued by mental illness. John Berryman leapt from a bridge. Virginia Woolf walked into a river. David Foster Wallace, a fairly new addition to this sad list, hung himself. We mull the meaning of their deaths, divine clues from the works they left behind. We do the same with other artists. After Robin Williams’s recent suicide came the predictable musings about whether his comedic brilliance was fueled by his apparent depression. Was his manic humor a tool to keep the darkness at bay? Our readiness to accept the connection between mental illness and creativity makes Andreasen’s research all the more palatable: It is approval from on high of what we already feel in our guts. Perhaps it’s perversely comforting to us nongeniuses that artists, in a sense, pay dearly for their cultural accomplishments. Maybe you’ll never produce a great American anything but at least you’re not nuts. At the same time, it’s nice to think that the mentally ill harbor some special skill, and to argue otherwise seems unkind.”

Thinking Without Bannisters

thinking_without_bannistersHannah Arendt’s call to think without banisters has captured the imagination of political thinkers. Within a symposium on Tracy Strong’s important book Politics Without Vision: Thinking without a Banister in the Twentieth Century, Patchen Markell offers a definition of thinking without a banister: “I’ll begin with a terminological question: What are ‘visions’ and ‘banisters,’ exactly? Often, Strong’s uses of these terms, and especially the latter, seem to refer to what we used to call ‘epistemological foundations.’ He begins his book by saying that the phrase ‘thinking without a banister,’ for Arendt, ‘meant for her that humans no longer could rely on any transcendental grounding to finalize their thinking’ (1, emphasis added). What this amounts to is the idea that action cannot be underwritten by ‘complete’ knowledge of the world, not because there are things we should know but cannot, but because ‘human understanding [is] not exhausted in the act of knowing.’ Absent the banister of knowledge, we are compelled to relate to the world aesthetically, which means we acknowledge the ‘presence of the incomprehensible’ and, consequently, we recognize that ‘what one says about it is necessarily in and only in one’s own voice,’ a recognition that ‘necessarily opens and relates one to others making a judgment of their own’ (13). What sets Strong’s authors off from the tradition that precedes them, it seems, is that all take up the challenge of thinking without banisters in this sense, radicalizing Kant’s critique of knowledge under the weight of their anticipation or experience of the horrors of the twentieth century.” The Symposium has essays by Markell, Linda Zerelli, Mary Dietz, and a response by Tracy Strong. The entire symposium can be found in the journal Political Theory.

Education at the Vanguard

Leon BotsteinIn a profile of Bard College president Leon Botstein, Alice Gregory reveals the sound and fury that he finds necessary to running a small liberal arts college with relatively few resources (the Arendt Center is housed at Bard). In Botstein’s case, it often means taking risks and fostering innovation with the faith that the funding will follow. Gregory suggests that the key to Bard’s recent success is a series of attempts at revising the traditions of secondary education, specifically mentioning the college’s revolutionary programs in prisons, it’s acclaimed high school early college programs, and its innovative ways of admitting new students. People ask how Botstein does so much with so little. Gregory writes that Botstein turns the question around: “Botstein, who has accused other college presidents of doing nothing more than ‘running something that is somewhere between a faltering corporation and a hotel,’ seems genuinely baffled by what he sees as the financial conservatism of most well-endowed liberal-arts schools. ‘I’m a little mystified about what they do with their money,’ he said.” For Gregory, Botstein has created Bard in his “polymath image”: “Classes are small and seminar style. Freshmen arrive on campus three weeks before the fall semester starts, not to river-raft or play getting-to-know-you games but to study philosophy, literature, and religious texts for five hours a day. In January, they are required to stay on campus and work in science labs. Unlike many colleges today, Bard still has distribution requirements. Before declaring a major, sophomores must present and defend papers before a board of professors. All seniors must write theses.The school remains small-there are fewer than two thousand students-and resources are scarce. But Botstein has built Bard, which saw a thirty-per-cent increase in applications this year, into an academic center that punches far above its weight.”


Featured Events

milgramHuman Rights Course, Studies in Obedience, hosts Dr. David Mantell

As a Fellow at Max-Planck Institute of Psychiatry, in Munich, Mr. Mantell replicated the Milgram experiment.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm

congressBard College Public Debate

Resolved: “Individualism is an American value worth fighting for.” 

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Campus Center Multipurpose Room, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm


October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Want to know more about the schedule of the conference? Please click for details here!

Learn more about the conference here.



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Anne O’Byrne discusses Arendt’s reaction to a Matisse exhibition and what “stripping away the face” means for our humanness in the Quote of the Week. Athenian historian Thucydides provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We look back on a 2010 Lunchtime Talk with Bill Dixon on a new critique of globalization in our Video Archives. In our Library feature, we discover a Bible in Hannah Arendt’s library and wonder whether she herself owned it. And Roger Berkowitz discusses Carmen Segarra and the “unwinding” of America in the Weekend Read.

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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October 9-10

The Hannah Arendt Center’s annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

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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.

Talking through the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Prison

As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.

A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?

I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.

But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.

And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.

Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.

On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).

I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?

I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?

Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.

-Jeff Jurgens

A Milestone Election

The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.

President Obama’s re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama’s presidency and his re-election.

There are some who don’t see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.

Election Results 2012


There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.

This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don’t see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal“:

The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. … This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This is all good news.

And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.

Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.

More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.

And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:

[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:

Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.

What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation’s penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.

Mead’s essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.

Image taken from The American Interest

The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,

the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.

As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.

The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:

At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.

The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.

The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate’s race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.

One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.


Prisoner of Time

Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.

Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.

This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.

Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:

“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”

My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.

Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.

Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.” And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.

We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.

There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.

-Jeff Jurgens

Bringing Thinking to our Prisons

The Bard Prison Initiative is one of the most inspirational and also practically important programs that make a difference in our world. It is also one dedicated to the idea that thinking deeply about oneself and one’s world is at the core of responsible and engaged citizenship. Every year one of the Hannah Arendt Center fellows teaches courses in prisons through BPI. These fellows report what other Bard colleagues also say, that the students in prisons are inspirational and brilliant.

Watch the PBS Newshour show on the Bard Prison Initiative that aired last week: