Amor Mundi 1/10/16

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-upWhat We Cling To

the beatlesAdam Gopnik investigates why some pasts are more available than others: “The most persistent mistake that historians and politicians have made in analyzing the modern world is to imagine, again and again–a fallacy shared by liberals and Marxists alike–that people will pursue their own economic interests in preference to their ideological fixations. They don’t. They never will. Nationalist ideology has been a much stronger force in the modern world than class interest. This dates at least to the memorable moment when the Great War began and socialists throughout Europe were sure that transnational class-consciousness would trump nationalist war fever. It didn’t. It never has. The better question may be what divides our past so radically between the things we remember and the things we don’t. It may be that the general force of anxiety that affects everything in modern life is also responsible for the way our pasts get divided. The truth about modern life is that it creates enormous anxiety at every moment. It’s like a traumatic force that suppresses some memories and refuses to suppress others at all. Our past is divided between the archival and the available exactly because it is so quickly past–so rapidly dissolved in confusion. We all want to stop the process of traumatic change from happening, and sometimes we do it by forgetting everything, sometimes by remembering almost too much. The Beatles linger; other bands unduly fade. (Do we really need to remember ‘Mr. Moonlight’ or ‘Don’t Pass Me By?’ We do, though.) When he was running for President the first time, Barack Obama got into some trouble for saying that people in small towns that had lost manufacturing jobs ‘cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them’ as a way to explain their frustrations. It was impolitic, but, with a crucial proviso added, true: we all are clinging to something, if no more than an app at our Beatle-loving fingertips.” Gopnik is right that people cling to fantasies over and above their interests. Nationalism is at times one of those fantasies, but as Hannah Arendt points out, nationalism, while dangerous, is nevertheless limited by national boundaries. As bad as nationalism is, the real danger in the modern world is when coherent fantasies are ideological and transnational. This is part of what she means by the total domination of totalitarianism, when fantasies expand eternally with the aim of overrunning the world.–RB

The Critic-in-Chief

obamaEdward Mendelson praises President Obama’s college-age criticism of T.S. Eliot: “Obama sees that Eliot’s conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder. Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed. Behind this insight into Eliot’s conservatism is Obama’s sense that the goal of partisan politics is not the success of one or another party or program, but the means by which private morality can be put into action in the public sphere. So the liberal Obama can respect the conservative Eliot, because both seek what are ultimately moral, not political, ends… Obama asks his friend, ‘You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?’ Instead of isolating Eliot in some social, ethnic, or sexual category, instead of hearing in him the voice of political or ideological error, Obama finds a deep ambivalence that might be felt by anyone, just as Kermode sees Eliot’s ‘shudder’ as a special case of something felt by everyone. And instead of making an assertion to his friend about her own ambivalence, Obama asks her a rhetorical question, because no one can be certain about someone else’s inner life, though sympathy makes it possible to guess. Having first placed Eliot in his historical and literary context, then having pointed to what is unique in him, Obama ends by showing how he speaks to any individual reader who pauses to listen. This is what the finest literary criticism has always done.”

The Color of the Sky

claudia rankineDai George writes about the upcoming T.S. Eliot Prize and Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “The T. S. Eliot Prize carries serious money (£20,000, the most of any single poetry prize in the UK) and serious bragging rights. The list of its past winners doubles as a one-stop index of poetic celebrity on this side of the Atlantic: David Harsent, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, John Burnside, and Sinéad Morrissey take their places alongside a host of other stars in the contemporary British firmament. In recent years the prize has also acted as a lightning rod for minor controversy. David Harsent’s win last year led some observers to suggest that an oligarchy was rigging the system, dishing out prizes among its members while a growing constituency of smaller presses and their poets are effectively disenfranchised. One doesn’t have to travel too far down the road of conspiracy and recrimination to recommend the sober, factual analysis of Fiona Moore, a poet and blogger who has done valuable work crunching the numbers to prove how far British poetry prizes have to go before they can claim to represent the full breadth of an increasingly vibrant and diverse publishing ecosystem. The representation question feels particularly urgent this year since the favorite has to be Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that scrutinizes how black men and women–particularly black American men–are diminished and violated every day. It would seem a woeful category error to invite comparison between the serious, insidious brutality exposed in Citizen and this rarefied anxiety over how a book by a black woman will fare in competition for a literary prize that reflects the white cultural establishment–would seem so, were it not for the fact that Citizen confronts the white British literary establishment in its very text. In a passage titled ‘August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,’ Rankine restages an encounter between her multivalent ‘you’ and ‘A man, a novelist with the face of the English sky–full of weather, always in response, constantly shifting, clouding over only to clear briefly.’ They are talking at a party in an expensive house in Hackney, the borough that erupted into violence during the 2011 London riots. The casus belli for the riots was, ostensibly, the police execution of the unarmed Duggan, and our craggy, well-meaning novelist wants to know if Rankine would ever write about this moment of specifically British racism. His question, apparently innocent and engaged, turns into one of those flare points of estrangement that Rankine captures with gut-churning precision: Why couldn’t he write about it himself? ‘How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?’ Rankine pulls off a great, and slightly risky, technical feat when she turns the novelist by degrees into first ‘the man made of English sky’ and then simply ‘the English sky.’ By conflating him with the low-key melodrama of English weather, Rankine risks demeaning the novelist as an exotic ‘other’ himself, an object defined by the clichés of his homeland. But this transition to ‘sky’ works precisely because it enacts the inverted prejudice that prejudice provokes: the blankness, the zoning out from particularities, the reflexive withdrawal that occurs when someone feels unexpectedly isolated by racial assumptions.”

Rage in America

rageOver at Esquire, they have published one of the most fascinating surveys of the year. (OK, it is only January.) “American Rage” is an exploration of how angry we are and who is angry at whom. The results are worth considering: “LET’S BEGIN WITH THE BIG REVEALS: Half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all. And black Americans are more optimistic about the future of the country and the existence of the American dream. There are depths and dimensions, dark corners and subtle contours to our national mood, and setting aside the issue of who actually has a right to be angry and about what–these pages are neutral territory; everyone is allowed their beef–we found three main factors shaping American rage. EXPECTATIONS: Are you disappointed? Do you feel stifled and shortchanged and sold a bill of goods? Then you’re probably pretty angry. Consider the white men and women in our survey: From their views on the state of the American dream (dead) and America’s role in the world (not what it used to be) to how their life is working out for them (not quite what they’d had in mind), a plurality of whites tends to view life through a veil of disappointment. When we cross-tabulate these feelings with reports of daily anger (which are higher among whites than nonwhites), we see the anger of perceived disenfranchisement–a sense that the majority has become a persecuted minority, the bitterness of a promise that didn’t pan out–rather than actual hardship. (If anger were tied to hardship, we’d expect to see nonwhite Americans–who report having a harder time making ends meet than whites, per question three–reporting higher levels of anger. This is not the case.) Indeed, despite having what many would consider a more legitimate case for feeling angry, black Americans are generally less angry than whites. Though they take great issue with the way they are treated by both society in general and the police in particular, blacks are also more likely than whites to believe that the American dream is still alive; that America is still the most powerful country in the world; that race relations have improved over the past eight years; and, most important in the context of expectations, that their financial situation is better than they thought it would be when they were younger. Their optimism in the face of adversity suggests that hope, whatever its other virtues, remains a potent antidote to anger.” And one further note: “Seventy-three percent of whites say they get angry at least once a day, as compared with 56 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans get angry at least once a day, as compared with 67 percent of Democrats. The least angry household-income brackets: the very rich ($150,000-plus) and the very poor ($15,000 and less). The most angry: the middle of the middle class.

amor_mundi_sign-upFrom the Mouths of Babes

gargoyleMark Edmundson wonders at the fact that profanity seems to have the most power when children are the ones with the foul mouths: “I suspect that the swearing of kids cracks open illusions for adults. When a mom overhears her beloved child swear for the first time, her heart contracts until it feels like it will disappear. But imagine how she feels when she overhears a son or daughter who not only curses, but is truly adept at profanity–someone who summons up what Shakespeare might have been, if he decided to become practiced in the art of the headlong cursing symphony. And who knows, lover of language that he was, he may actually have created such compositions from time to time. What if mom hears her little boy, not long out of Pampers, still in shorts, reel off a euphonious string of curses that sounds like the work of a top sergeant in rage at his recruits? What’s lost then is the myth of innocence. Suddenly your child has become a kid. And what better way for the child to rebel against his period of confinement as a child than to become an adept curser? It’s not like having sex just at puberty, or holding up the neighbors with a wooden gun and scampering away with a wallet and a purse. But it really can create a gap, a true facture, between the self that was and the self that now is. The first time you hear your beloved 10-year-old say motherfucker: well, on that day something changes. Why does it disturb us so? I suppose something called parental narcissism is involved. We want the child to be perfect. We want the child to avoid all the wounds and disappointments that we suffered. We want the child to be without flaws. (For surely we had our flaws.) The child is a sort of second chance for us–a way to approach life another time and this time to get it right.”

We’re Gonna Make It Through This Year

new year's resolutionMensah Demary praises the New Year’s Resolution: “New Year’s resolutions attempt to correct that which has gone awry. It often doesn’t, in part because New Year’s resolutions are abandoned so often that their abandonment is woven into American culture. A local newscaster speaks over stock footage of round bellies jiggling on treadmills in gyms, and, at the end of the segment, offers a reminder that it’s okay if resolutions are forgotten, because there’s always next year, and no one achieves their resolutions anyway. Failure is assured, or implied. But while New Year’s resolutions are absurd, they are not without value. That the tradition even exists at all engenders a frame of mind necessary for personal change: Thinking about resolutions means I’m thinking about improving myself. I do need to return to the gym to remove the flab once and for all; I could also resolve to call my mother more often, or take a flight south to see her for the first time in four years; I might decide to write difficult essays that take me out of my head, my comfort zones, even if they won’t garner any immediate shares, or likes, or favorites. Expanding my reading tastes is a worthwhile resolution; I could certainly stand to read more often, which would mean less time for other things, such as Twitter, but this would be a small loss, a trifle to relinquish, since social media has become anathema to my artistic pursuits. (I would rather be known as a bad writer than a good tweeter; this is a realization that is so baffling to me, and unexpected, that I’ve been unable to do anything about it except to sit with it, turn it over, and find the lie in it, if it exists.) I could be a better sibling to my brothers and sister, as well as a better uncle to their children; I could turn to God as I deal with my mortality; I could stop wasting my money on the latest gadgets and take-out lunches, and any money saved could then be used to see more of the world with my partner. We could go to South America, or Central America, and I could peck out some words on my laptop at the beach, brushing sand away from my keyboard; I could look at the tapestries and churches, the sculptures and the jewelry, all the details my partner sees and points out; we could forget to take photos and instead resolve to remember it all, to use both of our minds to remember this one, singular trip for ourselves, and keep all of it in our heads and offline; I could finish my book, and make a note in the acknowledgements that the book was written on a trip with my partner, who reminds me of black love, of black friendship, of black power, black excellence, black family, Blackness with a capital B; I could resolve to taste more varieties of bourbon, to give gin another chance (but only one more chance), and to continue to laugh at all the wrong times, at all the wrong things; I could resolve to be even more absurd.”

Non-Professors Teaching Non-Students

student lifeRon Srigley offers yet another condemnation of the modern university. But unlike most, he identifies what kind of universities he is writing about. “A word about which universities I have in mind, because not all universities are the same. I wish to speak about third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions. Historically, these schools have had few graduate programs and have focused their curriculum on the liberal arts and sciences. Today they are abandoning this tradition at an alarming rate in favor of professional programs like engineering, nursing, education, and business. As they stand, these schools are about as similar to, say, the Claremont Colleges as pickled eggs are to Coquilles Saint-Jacques. They’re both universities, but … So just to be clear about my subject, I’m going to be talking about the pickled eggs.” Srigley writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, which raises the following question: Why should we readers of the LARB care about the failure of lower-tier Canadian colleges? He answers that one, too: “But one more thing before I begin: Why should you, parents of students at Claremont or Stanford or one of the UC schools, care? What’s it to you how these universities are faring? Perhaps you shouldn’t care. But I think it might be good for you, for two reasons. First, it’s always good to think about the less fortunate. It can make you more merciful, because you see how fickle fate can be and how, social capital notwithstanding, one or two slight turns of the screw either way could have caused things to turn out quite differently. It can also build community and even create more equity because seeing others’ misfortunes tends to make us less inclined to add to them. But second, and more to the point, the disease from which my university suffers, yours does too. It’s not as bad where you are, stage one or two as opposed to stage four, but it is recognizably the same disease, and its just as aggressive: administrative bloat, student illiteracy, lots of ‘student experience’ but very little ‘student intelligence,’ dumb and dumber no longer a bad Hollywood joke but the unacknowledged consequence, if not the principle, of higher education. If you think I exaggerate, please read on. The university education you save may be your child’s.” And this is too good not to include: “During one class a couple of years ago, I dimmed the lights in order to show a clip of an interview. The moment the lights went down I saw dozens and dozens of bluish, illumined faces emerge from the darkness. That’s when I understood that a lecture or discussion is now only one of several entertainment options available to students in the university classroom. Given the way the game is played, lectures and discussions rank well below Facebook or Tumblr. You can’t get mad at them for this, not like in the old days. ‘Hey, you, pay attention! This is important.’ Say that today and you won’t hear anger or shame. You’ll hear something like: ‘Wha…? Oh, sorry sir. My bad. I didn’t mean anything.’ And they don’t. They don’t mean anything. They are not dissing you; they are not even thinking about you, so it’s not rebellion. It’s simply that the ground has shifted and left you hanging there in empty space, like Wile E. Coyote. Just a few more moments (or years) and down we’ll all tumble. These people look like students. They have arms and legs and heads. They sit in a class like students used to do; they have books and write papers and take exams. But they are not students anymore, and you are not a professor. And there’s the rub.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

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, February 5, 2016, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

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

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning 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 activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Wolfgang Heuer notes how it is worth analysing the different forms of violence and asking why and how they transgress various boundaries to approach omnipotence in the Quote of the Week. Sir Joshua Reynolds comments on the lengths to which a man will go to avoid the real labor of thinking in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We are pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 student opinion contest. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of Nisbet’s “Social Change and History” in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 12/27/15

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-upMay I Buy Your Groceries?

walmart holidaysFor the holidays, Catherine Wilkinson, aka Bosscook, offers an inspiring idea for gift-giving: “Rather than buy ourselves and our young adult children gifts this Christmas, we decided to walk the walk. You know. That walk where you stop indulging yourself with increasingly frivolous items and actually reach out to help others not as fortunate. We bought several Walmart gift cards with funds we would have used to buy our gifts for one another and our kids. Then our daughter and daughter-in-law (who is pregnant with twins, our 10th and 11th grandchildren, so yes, we have more than enough blessings in our life), Mr. Wilkinson and I went to our local Walmart yesterday, a beautiful Sunday morning. Not quite knowing how to do what we wanted to do, just praying we’d get it right and not embarrass anyone or get arrested. Our girls decided on an approach, took the gift cards, and my husband and I stood at a distance, ready to help if needed. The girls walked along and watched the check-out lines, and when they felt a tug at their kind hearts, they went up to people ready to check out and asked, ‘May I buy your groceries?‘ The initial responses were ones of shock and disbelief. No one was rude, or dismissive. They just wanted to know why. The girls answered that they were part of a family who decided this was the way they wanted to celebrate Christmas. Then a few asked if they were with a church or an organization. No, the girls said, we are just a regular family and this is our gift to you! No strings attached! From us! Then the miracles came. The first one, a young Mom, with a cart of food and just a couple of tiny presents for her little son, broke down in sobs, confiding that she ‘didn’t know how I could afford any of this’. Her hugs and her tears washed away all the nervousness our girls felt at first. They helped her bag her groceries and they all held one another for a long time, before this young woman left the store, trying hard not to sob.” There are more miracles here that will warm your heart. h/t WRM. –RB

Unmasking America

braddock streetAziz Rana writing in n+1 takes on the American Creed, which he argues is simply inconsistent with racial equality. “The intensity of this paradox–of superficial equality amid widespread deprivation–has sustained a year of protest. It has drawn activists’ attention toward questions not of intentional bias–the Bull Connors of the 1960s, the Donald Trumps of today–but of structural racism. This turn to structure is evident everywhere. Where Ta-Nehisi Coates once presented Obama’s election as the culmination of the civil rights movement, completing the legacies of Martin and Malcolm, he now calls for reparations for slavery and presents white supremacy as constitutive of the republic. For Coates and countless others, racism is now about deep-rooted hierarchies, the living legacies of centuries of economic exploitation and state-sanctioned violence that have endured despite the end of legal discrimination. The emphasis on structure speaks to a remarkable development in American public discourse. Today, the ‘creedal’ story of national identity–according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea–finds itself in profound crisis. This story has been unmasked, not for the first time, by the problem of race. So has the vision for reform with which it is associated–the steady opening of equal opportunity to all. The creed is so central to American identity that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative, similarly grounded in a strong political tradition. Finding and defending such a tradition is the difficulty of the present moment, but also its promise.” Rana’s claim that racism demands we abandon the liberal American creed and attack the liberal structures of American society is one widely heard amidst the protests over police violence and college racism. It is, in the words of Shelby Steele in his new book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, part of a fundamental fallacy that sees America as an inherently evil country that was never actually a good or fair nation. Steele calls this argument “characterological evil:” namely, that the country’s past sins have made all attempts at reform futile. It is also analogous to an ad hominem argument, one against the person or nation itself absent an argument. Such characterological arguments make “anti-Americanism a precondition for the nation’s redemption from its past.”  

Rana’s worry that America itself is fundamentally oppressive is, as he writes, based on the rhetorical strategy of ‘unmasking.’ Unmasking, as Peter Baehr writes in the latest issue of HA: The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center, “refers to a mode of exposure that accuses a person, argument or way of life of being fundamentally defective. It may be claimed, for instance, that a person is an imposter.” For Rana, America has been unmasked as such a fake. It is not a country of freedom, equality, and justice but a nation built on the hypocrisies of racism, sexism, and economic oppression. Unmaskers argue that they see through illusions to a stark truth. As Baehr writes, “Unmaskers do not simply claim to see what others have missed; they claim to see through–a person or object. ‘Things are not what they seem. They reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated–at which point they make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme.'” Baehr traces unmasking back to the terror of the French Revolution: “Traitors,” Robespierre urged, “must be unmasked and struck without pity.” What unmaskers forget, he writes, is that the word ‘person’ is from the Latin ‘persona’ which is that which sounds through a mask. To be a person is always to wear a mask, to present oneself in public as a citizen or in a chosen role. All of us are hypocrites if we lay bare the hidden vices of our hearts. To demand that we strip off our mask and appear in public as naked selves is as impossible as it is totalitarian. It is a search for authenticity that can never be achieved except by a constant ratcheting up of the charge of hypocrisy so that today’s radical unmasker is tomorrow’s unmasked hypocrite. Once the process of unmasking asserts itself, there is no place for refuge. Which is why the demand that the American Creed be unmasked leads, inevitably, to the conclusion that America itself is evil and needs to be undone. That is the logic of Rana’s argument that the American Creed has been unmasked. And it is the reason that Hannah Arendt repeatedly stated that once hypocrisy is unmasked, rage replaces virtue as the spirit of the people. –RB

A Public Voice for the World

snowy hac 2The Hannah Arendt Center is now preparing our Fall 2016 conference, “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex, and Religion on Campus.” While college is a safe space for difficult questions, free and collegiate inquiry rests on rules of civility. We raise our hands to speak, listen to those who disagree, and make sacred the space of collective inquiry. Asking difficult questions in a respectful way structures our search for truths and prepares us for the activity of democratic citizenship. The emergence of the seemingly unbridgeable divides separating republican and democratic truths, black and white truths, male and female truths, secular and religious truths is that nearly all of us are increasingly so committed to the absolute truth of our partial story of reality that we find opposing truth and opposing stories existentially threatening. At a moment when difficult questions are evacuated from public spaces, we must strive to maintain the idea of college and university life as a safe space for difficult and contested thinking. Bringing together academics, business people, artists, and intellectuals, we ask the following: how can we protect the spirit of the university while honoring our unshakable commitment to justice and equality? Talking about hard questions of race, sex, and religion takes courage today. When Arendt writes, “Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world,” she says that the imagination of and preservation of the common world is of greater meaning than our individual lives. And when she continues, “Courage is indispensable because in politics not life but the world is at stake,” she reiterates that all who engage in politics must strive to act in ways that elevate the glory of our common world above ourselves. One reason to keep returning to Arendt’s writing and thinking is because she so forcefully reminds us that the public world is always endangered and in need of political actors with the courage to act and speak in ways that are surprising, captivating, and unnerving. The Hannah Arendt Center is dedicated to bringing Arendt’s bold and provocative style of thinking about important political and ethical questions to a broad audience. You can read about what we do here. Please consider becoming a member and supporting our work. –RB

Whither the Annotation?

annotationS. Brent Plate considers what the role of marginalia is in a digital world: “The margins are sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and, to stretch it tenuously further, between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive–alive because they’ve been read and responded to. Modern democratic society itself, which arguably would have been impossible without books and print, is based on interactions that both produce, and are produced by, a collapsing of power. This occurs not just through the mass production and consumption of literature, pamphlets, and the news of the world–making knowledge accessible to more people–but engagement with the production of knowledge. Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility’ exalts the rise of the Letters to the Editor section of newspapers so that ‘at any moment the reader is ready to become a writer.’ Marginalia operates in a similar matter, turning readers into writers, and upsetting the hierarchy of the author as authority. How New Media alter and resituate these power dynamics is part of what is at stake in the current debate…. What we find in marginalia is not simply a place of intellectual disputation, two minds duking it out, but a site for the body to awaken from its long sleep and dispute the mind. In reality, reading is sensual: we read with our eyes, or in the case of braille and other practices, with our fingers. But the rational page (carefully kerned and serifed typeface, fully justified blocks of text) cuts off the sensate body, channeling our mindful intentions into its rectilinear prison, making us feel we have direct communication, jacked in. The rigid text has its uses, though messy bodies need not apply.”

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Things on the Outskirts

knausgaardIn an interview, author Karl Ove Knausgaard discusses the importance of objects to his thinking: “When I wrote my last novel, I discovered how much goes on outside the narrative, or just on the outskirts of the story–objects and actions that aren’t really stories but are still a part of everyday life. When I write, I’m just as concerned with creating some kind of presence as I am with narrating a story. It’s not a stylistic trait, but a longing of some kind, and it’s that presence I seek when I write and when I read. I’m not really present in the real world, obviously. I’m closed off inside myself. Ironically, the only way I can feel present, feel that I belong, is through writing, which is really about turning away from the world. In these texts I’m not directing attention to my own presence but to the presence of objects. I’ve wanted to look at everything in the same manner, whether it’s high or low, ugly, bad, good, beautiful. A beer bottle receives the same attention as the concept of love–as much space and as much care. I’m interested in the idea of looking at things without hierarchy, in the world as it is before we start categorizing it.”

The Entitlement of Victims

victimArthur C. Brooks writes in the NY Times that we are becoming a culture of victimization and that this trend matters. “So who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We all should. To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take–the very concept of good-faith disagreement–turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them). Consider a 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which examined why opposing groups, including Democrats and Republicans, found compromise so difficult. The researchers concluded that there was a widespread political ‘motive attribution asymmetry,’ in which both sides attributed their own group’s aggressive behavior to love, but the opposite side’s to hatred. Today, millions of Americans believe that their side is basically benevolent while the other side is evil and out to get them. Second, victimhood culture makes for worse citizens–people who are less helpful, more entitled, and more selfish. In 2010, four social psychologists from Stanford University published an article titled ‘Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly’ in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers randomly assigned 104 human subjects to two groups. Members of one group were prompted to write a short essay about a time when they felt bored; the other to write about ‘a time when your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone.’ After writing the essay, the participants were interviewed and asked if they wanted to help the scholars in a simple, easy task. The results were stark. Those who wrote the essays about being wronged were 26 percent less likely to help the researchers, and were rated by the researchers as feeling 13 percent more entitled. In a separate experiment, the researchers found that members of the unfairness group were 11 percent more likely to express selfish attitudes. In a comical and telling aside, the researchers noted that the victims were more likely than the nonvictims to leave trash behind on the desks and to steal the experimenters’ pens. Does this mean that we should reject all claims that people are victims? Of course not. Some people are indeed victims in America–of crime, discrimination or deprivation. They deserve our empathy and require justice. The problem is that the line is fuzzy between fighting for victimized people and promoting a victimhood culture. Where does the former stop and the latter start? I offer two signposts for your consideration.”


rock-paper-scissorsKatharine Schwab cuts into the history of rock-paper-scissors: “The earliest known references to finger-flashing games are a tomb-wall painting at the Beni Hasan burial site in Middle Egypt (dated to around 2000 B.C.E.) and centuries later on a scroll from Japan. Versions of rock-paper-scissors can be found in cultures around the world, but outside of North America it remains most ubiquitous in Asia. In Japan, the game is called jan-ken or jankenpon, and uses the same rock-paper-scissors finger positions, though a variation features a tiger, a village chief, and the village chief’s mother (who beats the chief). In Indonesia, the game is earwig-man-elephant, where the earwig overcomes the elephant by crawling up his trunk and eating his brain. But whatever the interpretation, the game is pervasive, combining everyday utility with basic human psychology. People tend to think that it’s a random (and thus fair) way of making trivial decisions, but the game’s simple structure still allows for an element of strategy, making it an unlikely but fitting subject for a worldwide competition. While your best chance of winning would be to choose your moves completely at random, humans are naturally terrible at behaving randomly. Well-trained players who think of the game as a psychologically driven battle can use this fact and other influencers to increase their chances of winning. Ironically, children are actually the most difficult to play against because they’re the most random in their choices, while adults who are inclined to overthink their moves tend to be more predictable, Simmons says. More skilled players use gambits, which are pre-decided sets of three throws that help reduce the chance that you give away your next move. The Great Eight Gambits, the most common strategies employed, have names like ‘Bureaucrat’ (for three papers used in a row) and ‘Fistful o’ Dollars’ (for rock, paper, paper). ‘It’s about choice and the power of suggestion,’ Simmons says. ‘The game itself almost disappears and it becomes this rarified force of will between two competitors when they both know what they’re doing.'” Best two out of three?

Levinas’ Absent God

levinas absent godOn the 20th anniversary of Emmanuel Levinas’s death, the Levinas Society is making available for one week the new documentary film “Absent God – Emmanuel Levinas and Humanism of the Other.” What better way is there to spend your holiday?





Santa Also Rises

christmas treeFinally, The New Yorker reaches way back into its archives to find James Thurber doing his best Ernest Hemingway impression: “It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them. The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mamma and I were in our beds. Mamma wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.”





amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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, January 8, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, will be participating in the opening of the new film, VITA ACTIVA – THE SPIRIT OF HANNAH ARENDT, Directed by Ada Ushpiz, taking place at the Film Forum in New York City.

About the Film: A brand new documentary about one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt caused an uproar in the 1960s by coining the subversive concept of the “Banality of Evil” when referring to the trial of Adolph Eichmann, which she covered for the New Yorker magazine. Her private life was no less controversial thanks to her early love affair with the renowned German philosopher and Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. This thought provoking and spirited documentary, with its abundance of archival materials, offers an intimate portrait of the whole of Arendt’s life, traveling to places where she lived, worked, loved, and was betrayed, as she wrote about the open wounds of modern times. Through her books, which are still widely read and the recent release of Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic Hannah Arendt (also a Zeitgeist Films release) there is renewed interest in Arendt throughout the world, especially among young people who find her insights into the nature of evil, totalitarianism, ideologies, and the perils faced by refugees, more relevant than ever. Watch the Trailer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA

How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on CampusSAVE THE DATE – 2016 FALL CONFERENCE

On OCTOBER 20-21, 2016 we will host our ninth annual fall conference: “How Do We Talk About Difficult Questions?: Race, Sex and Religion on Campus“. We’ll see you there!

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This holiday week on the Blog, Laurie Naranch explains how rage may authorize momentary violence as a legitimate, if for Arendt, antipolitical response to injustice in the Quote of the Week. Also, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno reflects on what it means to think anymore in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.


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

Violence, Hypocrisy, and Scientific-Administrative “Laws”


“Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes likely to transform engagés into enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first, but hypocrisy. … To tear the mask of hypocrisy from the face of the enemy, to unmask him and the devious machinations and manipulations that permit him to rule without using violent means, that is, to provoke action even at the risk of annihilation so that the truth may come out—these are still among the strongest motives in today’s violence on the campuses and in the streets.  And this violence again is not irrational.  Since men live in a world of appearances and, in their dealing with it, depend on manifestation, hypocrisy’s conceits—as distinguished from expedient ruses, followed by disclosure in due time—cannot be met by so-called reasonable behavior.  Words can be relied on only if one is sure that their function is to reveal and not to conceal.  It is the semblance of rationality, much more than the interests behind it, that provokes rage.”

On Violence (65-66)

In On Violence (1970), Arendt argues for political action and power as opposed to violence.  According to her conception, power is political, and it is an end in itself.  It is brought into being through the political and public “acting in concert” of a plurality of human beings.  Violence, on the other hand, is instrumental in two senses of the word:  it can only be carried out through the use of external instruments, and it is a means that cannot supply its own end.   Rule by violence becomes a possibility wherever real power is being lost, and while violence may destroy power, it can never produce it.  Violence relies on goals external to itself for its justification, yet it is also a means that can devour its own ends.

More particularly, and to place the passage in the proper late-1960s context, she is interested, on the one hand, in the extreme potential for violence produced through twentieth century technological developments and, on the other, the question of violence perpetrated by and against oppositional student groups in the western world.  The two are, of course, related in complex ways.  Arendt is worried about the unleashing of a vicious cycle of violence, in which students actively seek to provoke the police with the express purpose of bringing an underlying “fascism” or naked state violence to the fore.  Similarly, she writes, in the 1930s, fascism’s opponents had at times even celebrated its victory because it would reveal the internal contradictions of a “civilized society” that held violence and repression at its core.  “We saw how that turned out,” is the implied conclusion.

What is at the root of this cycle of violence?  From the outset, Arendt rejects biological explanations based on some innate human aggressiveness emerging from our animal selves.  According to the bio-psychological line of analysis, human impulses towards violence can be so dangerous because they have been blocked and severed from their original “natural” purpose of species preservation.  They have become redirected in a way that makes them irrational.  Arendt rejects this characterization and instead seeks to identify the rationale behind violence.  She finds it partially by examining rage against injustice, which arises “only where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not…” (63).  She goes so far as to recognize that “… under certain circumstances violence—acting without argument or speech and without counting the consequences—is the only way to set the scales of justice right again.” (64)

That rage and violence against injustice can be rational, though, in no way makes them political.  Indeed, they are “without argument or speech,” and she explicitly characterizes them as “antipolitical.”  What Arendt describes, then, is an unpolitical cycle of violence, which forms a synthetic dialectic.  She additionally reveals that, despite themselves, the two parties to the dialectic are, by essence, largely the same.  The students rebel against the Establishment and the System, but they fail to recognize what these have become or their own role in their operation.  They romantically cling to the Marxist notion of a bourgeois-proletarian dialectic of class conflict when 1) the embourgeoisement of the post-war working class had stymied its revolutionary potential, and 2) this was in no small part due to scientific advances that made the intellectuals and the scientists the new mandarins, over and above the class warriors of the bourgeoisie.  And who are the future intellectuals and scientists if not the students, themselves?  The students are raging against the machine of technical conquest that produced the bomb and napalm, but they are simultaneously reproducing the machine, through their very being.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Violence emerges when political power is lost, and political power dissipates when there is no space for human action in which power can be renewed.  Arendt writes:

I am inclined to think that much of the present glorification of violence is caused by severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world.  It is simply true that riots in the ghettos and rebellions on the campuses make ‘people feel like they are acting together in a way that they rarely can.’ (83)

Violence is, then, a false politics that serves to placate the frustrated political actor.  It becomes an outlet for a political impulse that has been blocked, according to Arendt, especially by our belief in modern progress.  Progress as “growth, the relentless process of more and more, of bigger and bigger” increases demand for administration.  Bureaucratization, in turn, increases the appeal of violence precisely because it is unpolitical:

In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one can present grievances, on whom the pressures of power can be exerted.  Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.  The crucial feature in the student rebellions around the world is that they are directed everywhere against the ruling bureaucracy.

Bureaucratization and the ideal of progress block politics because the idea of politics, the notion that human beings might initiate the radically new and unexpected in the world, is fundamentally alien to them.  They are, instead, built upon the idea that everything can be accounted for and made predictable through the universal dictates of objective science and technique.

Bureaucracy is also a key source of the very hypocrisy Arendt identifies above as a catalyst of rage and violence.  It presents itself as the impartial bearer of technical truths, but bureaucracy is instrumental just like violence, which means it relies on external, political ends to provide its operating justification.  Despite claims to neutrality, it must, by definition, serve political ends.   Though also like violence, it constantly threatens to overflow its own bounds, overwhelming the ends with meaningless means.


The current dialectic in Europe, between a sometimes-violent populist revival and a technocracy claiming only to implement neutral economic truths, illustrates anew the dynamic Arendt identified in 1969-1970.  The populist aims to reveal the hypocrisy of the technocrat by existing as the technocrat’s opposite, by declaring himself the true representative of the people’s good.  But in being his opposite, he reproduces the same problem in mirror image.  Both deny politics and attempt to substitute some form of absolute reason in its place.  Thus, we ‘deal with’ our freedom by simultaneously declaring absolute control—via either technique or rule by populist incarnation—and giving up control absolutely—to the self-contained system of scientific principles or the populist leader.  In Arendt’s examples, the enraged reaction against hypocrisy ends up producing the very violence against which it fights, most obviously when students force the government to react with open violence in order to prove that the violence had been there all along.  Similarly, contemporary populism produces the negation of politics while fighting against the same negation of politics in another form.  Technocracy completes and perpetuates the cycle as it explicitly aims to combat populism and discipline the popular will in favor of “impartial truths.”

In this context, the popular explosion of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is interesting in (at least) two ways: 1) Piketty justifies and provides fuel for populist rage against inequality.  He demonstrates the magnitude of current gross disparities in wealth and shows them to be the result of policies that have been presented as the only sound technical reactions to contemporary economic truths.  2) He also dethrones the notion of the economic law.  He reveals the fallacies of the postwar technocrats who believed their economic situation had been the natural result of the unfolding of “natural” economic developmental laws.  Instead, we now know that their unprecedented situation, characterized by high levels of growth and employment along with historically low levels of inequality, came as a result of historical contingency mixed with deliberate and free political action.  Their mistake was to reify their circumstances and then try and understand this “given” and “natural” phenomenon via scientific theory.


Thomas Piketty

Arendt’s analysis of this very same time period, however, suggests that the human activity Piketty highlights was anything but “political action.”  To caricature and simplify, efforts directed towards material well-being cannot constitute politically free action, according to her, because they are determined by the objective circumstance of human need.  One could argue, though, that, in this, she may have fallen for the technocrats’ reification of political choices about material well-being into deterministic laws—even while she denounced their attempts to collapse human experience into behaviorist systems.  The question then becomes whether an Arendtian politics is possible that is nevertheless directed towards the maintenance of the living organism in some way.  In fact, both Arendt and Marx condemned inequality reduction as strictly unpolitical.  Despite extreme differences in their notions of politics, for both of them politics is about human freedom, not life or living.  It is a common misconception that Marx was arguing for the elimination of inequality.  In fact, he denounced all attempts to do so as weakly reformist.  The root of the problem was, rather, lack of freedom in a republican sense:  It does not matter how well or equally you are treated if you are nevertheless a slave.

The characterization of inequality concerns as “unpolitical” seems to go too far, though, if we consider the idea that people cannot act politically and freely if they lack basic security and trust in the world.  This is a point that Arendt makes in On Revolution, among other works, in which she writes that desperation can only produce violence and not politics.  (This point could also work towards providing an Arendtian explanation for populist violence à la Golden Dawn, etc.)  With this in mind, our fight against inequality could actually be understood as political action in the service of political action as an end in itself.

What Piketty has in common with Arendt is the condemnation of social “science” masquerading as natural science.  Arendt shows how this can be a hindrance to freedom, and she understands it as something that is also fundamentally unworkable.  The belief in its predictive power can only exist in denial of the unpredictable results of human action that will always undo the projected image of organized harmony.  Piketty is criticizing the economic establishment on these same grounds, which is why his crusade against inequality challenges Arendt’s sharp dividing line between politics and mere life.  While his data analysis shows that our world will tend towards more and more extreme inequality, Piketty emphasizes the fact that this tendency has been undone before, which implies that we can politically undo it again.  Insofar as they both believe in and endorse the possibility and power of political action, it seems reasonable to assume that Piketty would also endorse Arendt’s important claim that,

If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption.  If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point. … It is the function, however, of all action, as distinguished from mere behavior, to interrupt what otherwise would have proceeded automatically and therefore predictably. (30-31)

–Jennifer M. Hudson

Why Must We Care


Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?


Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.


It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.


Arendt & Gun Control

In The Stone yesterday Firmin DeBrabander references Hannah Arendt to buttress his argument for gun control in the wake of the tragic massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve wanted to avoid turning a true tragedy into a political cause, but DeBrabander’s thoughtful essay merits a response.

The thrust of DeBrabander’s reflection is that the presence of guns in society does not promote freedom. He is responding to the pro-gun argument that, in his words, “individual gun ownership, even of high caliber weapons, is the defining mark of our freedom as such, and the ultimate guarantee of our enduring liberty.” In other words, guns make us independent and give us the power to protect ourselves and thus the freedom to take risks and to live boldly. Against this view he enlists Arendt:

In her book “The Human Condition,” the philosopher Hannah Arendt states that “violence is mute.” According to Arendt, speech dominates and distinguishes the polis, the highest form of human association, which is devoted to the freedom and equality of its component members. Violence — and the threat of it — is a pre-political manner of communication and control, characteristic of undemocratic organizations and hierarchical relationships. For the ancient Athenians who practiced an incipient, albeit limited form of democracy (one that we surely aim to surpass), violence was characteristic of the master-slave relationship, not that of free citizens.

Arendt offers two points that are salient to our thinking about guns: for one, they insert a hierarchy of some kind, but fundamental nonetheless, and thereby undermine equality. But furthermore, guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand parts of this argument. First, yes, “violence is mute.” Arendt does insist that violence cannot create conditions of political power. Power, on the contrary, has its roots in speech and action, by which Arendt means that any political regime lives upon the continuing support of its people, something that only persists amidst freedom. Political support does not issue from the barrel of a gun.

DeBrabander’s last point that guns chasten speech is also suspect. Revolutionaries have long found guns helpful, not only because they can kill, but because they command attention. When weaker elements of society have been overlooked or overheard, they have traditionally found weapons and guns a useful megaphone. There are of course other megaphones like civil disobedience. I may prefer the latter to the former. But that doesn’t erase the fact that guns can equalize an unequal political playing field and can, and often are, symbolically important. Political support may not issue from the barrel of a gun, but attention for one’s platform might very well.

But what does any of this have to do with gun violence like what happened in Newtown last week?  The muteness of violence in politics that DeBrabander highlights does not mean that Arendt thinks it possible or right to exclude all violence from society. Contra DeBrabander, violence can be associated with freedom. The human fabrication of the natural world—man’s freedom to act into and build upon nature—is a kind of violence. And violence is, at bottom, an often justified and positive human emotional response to injustice. As Arendt writes in just one instance:

In private as well as public life there are situations in which the very swiftness of a violent act may be the only appropriate remedy. The point is not that this will permit us to let off steam—which indeed can be equally well done by pounding the table or by finding another substitute. The point is that under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again. (Billy Budd striking dead the man who bore false witness against him is the classic example.) In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong among the “natural” human emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

I am not sure why DeBrabander wants to employ Arendt to oppose violence itself. That is certainly not her point.

What Arendt opposes is the reliance on violence in politics. The massacre in Newtown is not, at least so far as I currently know, an example of political violence. Arendt’s distinction between power and violence and her assertion that mere violence is politically mute seems, quite simply, out of place in the discussion of gun violence.

But Arendt does have something to offer us in our thinking about the excessive dangers of powerful guns. In her essay “On Violence,” Arendt considers the rise of extraordinary new weapons like nuclear and biological weapons and robot warriors. These super-powerful weapons threaten to upend the usual relationship between power and violence. If traditionally the more powerful and hence more free nations were also better able to marshal the implements of violence, the existence of weapons of mass destruction mean that small, weak, and irresponsible nations can now practice violent destruction well beyond their relative power. In short, the existence of excessively destructive weapons elevates the impact of violence over and against power.

The same can be said of the kind of automatic and semi-automatic guns used in the Newtown massacre and other recent attacks. In each of these cases, loners and crazy people have been able to murder and kill with a precision and scope well beyond their individual strength or capacity. Whereas killing 27 people in a school would at one time have required the political savvy of organizing a group of radicals or criminals, today one disturbed person can do outsized and horrific damage.

What might be an Arendtian argument for gun control is based upon the dangerous disconnect between strength and violence that modern weaponry makes possible. When individuals are capable of extraordinary destruction simply by coming to possess a weapon and without having to speak or act in conjunction with others, we are collectively at the mercy of anyone who has a psychotic episode. It is in just such a situation that regulating weapons of mass destruction makes sense (and that is what automatic weapons are).

As for DeBrabander’s larger point about freedom and guns, carrying a gun or owning a gun may at times be a legitimate part of someone’s identity or sense of themselves. It may make some feel safer and may help others feel powerful. Some are repulsed by guns, others fetishize them. I have little stake in a debate about guns since they aren’t part of my life and yet I respect those who find them meaningful in theirs. We should not reject such freedoms outright. What I worry about is not people owning guns, but their owning automatic and semi-automatic weapons capable of mass executions.

Let’s concede that the vast majority of gun owners are good and responsible people, like Adam Lanza’s mother seems to have been. Why in the world do we need to allow anyone to own automatic weapons with large clips holding dozens of bullets? If Adam Lanza had stolen a handgun instead of a semi-automatic, the trail of terror he left would have been shorter and less deadly. We cannot prevent all violence in our world, but we can make political judgments that weapons of mass destruction that put inordinate power in single individuals should be banned.

What Arendt’s thoughts on violence actually help us see is not that we should expel violence from society or that guns are opposed to freedom, but that we should limit the disproportionate and tragic consequences of excessively violent weaponry that dangerously empowers otherwise powerless individuals to exercise massive injuries. We can do that just, as we seek to limit biological and nuclear weapons in the world.