Amor Mundi 5/4/14


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.

The Black Notebooks

442This week in The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman writes about the recent scandal over Heidegger’s antisemitism and reports on the recent discussion at the Goethe Institute between Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director of the Arendt Center; Babette Babich, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University; and Peter Trawny, director of the Martin Heidegger Institute at the University of Wuppertal. You can watch the discussion here. Trawny has just edited three volumes of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, philosophical notebooks Heidegger kept from 1931-1941. In these notebooks, Heidegger works out his ideas of what he calls a “spiritual National Socialism” which he distinguishes from a “vulgar National Socialism.” Alongside these edited volumes, Trawny has published a slim companion volume, Heidegger and the Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy. In it, Trawny seeks to evaluate Heidegger’s antisemitism and to ask to what extent that antisemitism contaminates Heidegger’s philosophy. Rothman begins by recounting his own magical encounter with Heidegger’s texts. “If I had to rate the best intellectual experiences of my life, choosing the two or three most profound-a tendentious task, but there you are-one of them would be reading Heidegger. I was in my late twenties, and struggling with a dissertation on the nature of consciousness (what it is, where it comes from, how it fits into the material world). This had turned out to be an impossible subject. Everything I read succeeded only by narrowing the world, imagining it to be either a material or a spiritual place-never both.” For Roger Berkowitz’s commentary on Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, check out the Weekend Read.

A More Powerful Hatred

444Anka Muhlstein reviews Georges Prochnik’s The Impossible Exile in the NY Review of Books, a chronicle of the life, exile, and death of Stefan Zweig. “On February 23, 1942, Stefan Zweig and his young wife committed suicide together in Petrópolis, Brazil. The following day, the Brazilian government held a state funeral, attended by President Getulio Vargas. The news spread rapidly around the world, and the couple’s deaths were reported on the front page of The New York Times. Zweig had been one of the most renowned authors of his time, and his work had been translated into almost fifty languages. In the eyes of one of his friends, the novelist Irmgard Keun, ‘He belonged to those that suffered but who would not and could not hate. And he was one of those noble Jewish types who, thinskinned and open to harm, lives in an immaculate glass world of the spirit and lacks the capacity themselves to do harm.’ The suicide set off a surge of emotion and a variety of reactions. Thomas Mann, the unquestioned leader of German-language writers in exile, made no secret of his indignation at what he considered an act of cowardice. In a telegram to the New York daily PM, he certainly paid tribute to his fellow writer’s talent, but he underscored the ‘painful breach torn in the ranks of European literary emigrants by so regrettable a weakness.’ He made his point even clearer in a letter to a writer friend: ‘He should never have granted the Nazis this triumph, and had he had a more powerful hatred and contempt for them, he would never have done it.'” Thus does Mann give voice to the strange and human power of hatred not only for evil, but also for good.

Botched Executions

445Last week in the Boston Globe, Austin Sarat wrote of his research into botched executions: “Over the course of the last 125 years we have actively tried to find new ways to impose death without unnecessary pain, and to transform execution from dramatic spectacle to cool, bureaucratic operation. My research shows that we have fallen far short of attaining this aspiration.” Two days later in Oklahoma–on the publication day of Sarat’s new book Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty–Clayton Lockett suffered one of the 7% of American lethal injections that go badly. Sarat writes, in The Guardian, that botched executions show that the dream of painless deaths is just that: “Over the course of the last century, while blotched executions have fueled movement from one execution method to another, they have not posed a serious challenge to the continuing viability of death as a punishment. In both law and popular culture, they have been dismissed as isolated accidents and aberrations, as symptoms of a system that is merely temporarily ‘out of order’, not irrevocably flawed.”

Seeing Yourself

446In an interview, Nick Yee, a research scientist at video game developer Ubisoft and author of the new book The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us-And How They Don’t, notes that, even given the fantastical possibilities the online games provide–fighting dragons, flying spaceships, even as something as banal as recreating yourself as a wealthy playboy or a famous celebrity–players tend to create online extensions of themselves rather than make an online persona that’s wildly different than their offline one: “But what’s surprising in ‘Second Life’ is it tends to be a really stereotypical version of suburban [life], like kind of Malibu, where everyone’s shopping for Abercrombie & Fitch knockoffs and living in these very modern houses on the beachfront, that it becomes this hyper-materialistic version of the physical world…. Rather than allowing us to reinvent ourselves, virtual worlds tend to preserve the status quo and perpetuate it in powerful ways.” What lies on the other side of this observation is the possibility that we could use social engineering in video games to affect change in the real world. As long as people continue to use virtual reality to escape their own lives, even if that escape, bizarrely, means by and large replicating those lives, they will prove resistant to being changed by what they encounter online.

Heroes and the Public in Pakistan

442Saim Saeed turns to Hannah Arendt to think about the declining impact of heroic actions in Pakistan: “But what good are heroes if they die alone, without consequence, without anyone remembering them? Their stories of extraordinary valour have hardly brought about the ‘tipping point’ many in this country anticipate to fight the many evils that plague us. Despite their own sacrifices to better the Pakistan they live and work in, society has not replied in kind.” One reason, Saeed argues, comes from Arendt’s insight that “action, in order to matter – to exist – needs to take place in the public domain. It needs to be perceived. And Arendt’s own opinion is that action is mattering less and less. According to her, action is being reduced to a statistical aberration because the public sphere, in which action is to be perceived, is shrinking. Arendt has her own explanations for why that is, but for altogether different reasons, this trend is also true in Pakistan. Public places and institutions are being destroyed. Places of worship are being targeted. It is increasingly dangerous for people, especially minorities, to express their religious sentiments in public. The breakdown of law and order in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi, Balochistan and other parts of the country do not even make it conducive for people to leave their homes. Even free expression online is being curbed. The PTA recently restricted access to QueerPK, one of the only websites facilitating an open forum for the queer community of Pakistan. Women are being raped on the streets. Journalists are being attacked. Girls’ schools are being destroyed. People have been hounded in public parks.This has meant greater isolation. People are frightened into staying at home, have been blocked from accessing public forums online; their space to act is receding.”

A Different Kind of Plutocracy

444Amy Davidson, noting a poll that shows that 69% of Americans think that too many presidential candidates are coming from the same two families, wonders why it is that the consolidation of political capital hasn’t received the same attention as the accretion of financial capital: “Why isn’t all that investment yielding us any truly interesting products in the candidacy sector? It is as if our entire political portfolio were put into the same few stocks that had been there forever. Maybe it is money that, perversely or purposefully, stifles political entrepreneurship and innovation; maybe other factors are at work. In either case, the current situation can’t be for the best, if it serves to make politics seem like a deadened realm rather than a place to bring and work out grievances. We are stretched out, paralyzed, in the polls. What hurts the most is that we may be suffering from a national failure of political imagination.”

The Twilight of Twitter

445Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Mayer argue that “Twitter is entering its twilight.” Observing that Twitter isn’t the massive, and massively exciting, online hangout of days of yore, they have penned a eulogy for the service: “Twitter used to be a sort of surrogate newsroom/barroom where you could organize around ideas with people whose opinions you wanted to assess. Maybe you wouldn’t agree with everybody, but that was part of the fun. But at some point Twitter narratives started to look the same. The crowd became predictable, and not in a good way. Too much of Twitter was cruel and petty and fake. Everything we know from experience about social publishing platforms-about any publishing platforms-is that they change. And it can be hard to track the interplay between design changes and behavioral ones. In other words, did Twitter change Twitter, or did we?”

Don’t You Know that Things Don’t Go in Cycles?

446Amir “Questlove” Thompson, writing about what hip hop is and what it is not, begins with “three famous quotes that haunt me and guide me though my days. The first is from John Bradford, the 16th-century English reformer. In prison for inciting a mob, Bradford saw a parade of prisoners on their way to being executed and said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ (Actually, he said ‘There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,’ but the switch to the pronoun makes it work for the rest of us.) The second comes from Albert Einstein, who disparagingly referred to quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance.’ And for the third, I go to Ice Cube, the chief lyricist of N.W.A., who delivered this manifesto in ‘Gangsta Gangsta’ back in 1988: ‘Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money.'” It is the first of six essays on “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America.”

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Hannah Arendt Center blog Kathleen Jones marks Holocaust Remembrance Day with a look at solemnity and laughter in her “Quote” of the Week. And Roger Berkowitz discusses Martin Heidegger and the Black Notebooks in the Weekend Read.

A Show About Nothing: Addressing the Lack of Objectivity in the US-Pak Relationship – Saim Saeed

Within the context of the chronically unhinged US-Pak relationship, truth seems to have a Holy Grail-like existence, a perpetual not-being. Every aspect of this relationship seems to be based on projected motives, half-truths, distrust, covert missions, divergent interests and blatant lies.

I’ll lay out the perceived truths of the matter. America thinks: Pakistan is obsessed with India. Any weapons or military aid given to Pakistan will go to the eastern, rather than western frontier. Pakistan wants ‘strategic depth’ – it wants a friendly Afghanistan in case of war with India, in case of geographical, tactical and political maneuverability. It wants elements within the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to be in power after the US packs up to achieve that friendly government. It is afraid of Indian influence in Afghanistan – Pakistan does not want to be flanked with hostile governments on both sides. Pakistan, hence, has an interest in fueling in the conflict in Afghanistan so that it could wield influence in ‘endgame’ negotiations. Hence, Pakistan, a supposed ally, is providing the very weapons and funds that the United States is supplying to Pakistan, to the people that the United States is fighting against.

Pakistan thinks: The United States is not to be trusted. They abandoned Pakistan in 1989, when the Soviet-Afghan war wrapped up, and this occasion will be no different. Pakistan needs to think of a post-US map of South Asia, getting as much influence, and as many concessions as it can before the withdrawal. As for Pakistan’s stance towards the militants, Pakistan is the biggest casualty in the War on Terror – a war not started by Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered thousands of military and civilian deaths at the hands of militants, and Pakistan has been stretched to the limit in fighting this menace. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network does not threaten or endanger Pakistan. Pakistan would be stretched even thinner, and be even more insecure if Pakistan expanded its theater of military operations. Furthermore, the United States does not respect Pakistan as an ally, expanding drone operations on Pakistani sovereign territory despite Pakistan’s continuous calls for the abandonment of the program. The United States consistently favors India over Pakistan, legitimizing, indeed enhancing, the former’s nuclear program, while constantly heckling the latter’s.


Where does this lead? Not anywhere desirable by either party. The United States assumes that the war in Afghanistan will carry on indefinitely until the security threat coming from within Pakistan’s borders is neutered. Pakistan will continue to try and muscle its way on to the negotiating table in Afghanistan and recreate a former sphere of influence. In real terms, therefore, when the matter is put in such terms, the Afghan war, drone strikes, terrorist attacks, occupation, and everything else that is ugly will continue to come out in news items, Twitter feeds and body bags – an inadvertent upholding of a status quo that nobody wants, except for militants. And like that, the interminability of it all evokes cynicism, despair, a gross acceptance of the atrocity that is war, and everything that comes with it.

There is nothing inevitable about the state of affairs between Pakistan and the United States. At the most fundamental level – and it is condescending to say so – there is a lack of empathy. The realities that Pakistan and the United States create for themselves are warped, subjective, narrow and dissimilar. They lack any objective truth, making any meaningful negotiation – even conversation – impossible. Pakistan and the United States, as political entities, are impossible to reduce to their tactical objectives. Furthermore, they both project what the other side wants rather than disclosing their own objectives. Finally, there is an expectation of deceit that renders any candor as insincere.

So why and how does truth matter? Recently, there has been a lot of academic interest in Pakistan. Journalists, authors and academics have spent time and energy to try and go deeper than simply talk across a negotiating table to better understand the dilemmas, the aspirations, the thorns in the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. They went to search for the truth. Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven is probably the most apt manifestation of this interest, in which he travels far and wide, interviewing day laborers, bureaucrats and army generals, painting a rich and complex canvas of a nation of a hundred and eighty million. The truth, especially in a country as multi-layered and multi-dimensioned as Pakistan, is never categorical and always nuanced.

That doesn’t suit power brokers very well. Things have to be suchandsuch in order for them to do soandso. When entities such as the Pakistani military are so fractured that one wing is Islamist while the other is secular, it is difficult to characterize the Pakistani military that takes into account such contradictions. Hence, either the secular side is pretending, or there must be two separate militaries. Pakistan’s obession with India is taken as a given, and it takes Aatish Taseer, the son of a murdered Pakistani governor to try explain why even that supposedly irrational position exists. Empathy is not extended to the other side either. The United States also has a need to have itself and its allies dissociated from any form of terrorist activity. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The United States, and most countries, have supported militant non-state actors in the past to meet particular strategic and tactical objectives, whether it be the Contras in Nicaragua, or the even the rebels in Libya in the present day. But the advent of Al-Qaeda has tempered this political phenomenon, making the United State particularly averse; a sensitivity that Pakistan does not appreciate.

I speak not of morality. I am not an idealist. I understand the strategic and pragmatic motives that compel states to act with each other with the ruthlessness and trepidation that they do, and that they are a symptom of the fundamental uncertainty that exists in international relations. What is evident, however, is the elementary mismatch of two countries trying to work together when there is nothing objective for them to work on. A comic example of this would be the meetings between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart on their respective shows. Their summits tend to be cagey and volatile, where the presenters spend most of their time in holding their own, rather than trying to seek any kind of objectivity in the current American political framework. They cognitively treat as fact the notion that there can be no agreement between rival factions. By agreement I do not mean accordance. I mean an acceptance of certain political truths. For example, Republicans think military intervention is bad when a Democratic President does it, and for Democrats, intervention is bad when a Republican President does it. There is nothing categorically ‘bad’ or ‘good’ about interventions, according to politicians.

So when Jon Stwewart and Bill O’Reilly talk to each other, there is nothing objective being discussed at all; it is, all just an articulation of their own interpretations of reality that the other chooses not to accept.

Mr Lieven’s book to me, then, is the reality that best represents the objective truth in politics. In the case of US-Pakistan relations, it is the objective reality that needs to be considered by both Pakistan and the US so that at least they can talk about the same objects, rather than simply hurl vindictive, venomous accusations at each other.

I want to make this very clear.  This is not a case of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ That would be a patronizing – indeed, wrong – characterization of how international relations work. What I am calling for is the need for objective truth, an undeniable state of affairs, the undeniable object of negotiation, so that even in the case of diverging opinions, the fundamentals of what is being discussed is not in dispute. In American-Pakistani relations, and most international disputes, that is lacking. When the CIA itself says that there has not been “a single collateral death” from the drone strikes, while other reports say almost a third are civilians, then there is a fundamental need to have the truth about the drone program to assess its efficacy. Any discussion regarding the drone strikes is an exercise in futility since nobody, not even the CIA, has an idea of what reality is actually being discussed. Even if they did, it evidently is not being shared. And so, again, negotiation – discussion – becomes a tragic case of he-said-she-said – or he’ll-say-she’ll-say – that, inherently, is doomed to fail.

Strategic thinking is an integral part of politics; but when it clouds our basic fundamental interpretation of reality so much that we fail to recognize any empirical, epistemological truth, Afghanistan does indeed become a quagmire – just like it is in our heads.