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.
Jill Lepore wonders if we're at the start of something new: "There will not be a revolution, but this election might mark the beginning of the seventh party system. The Internet, like all new communications technologies, has contributed to a period of political disequilibrium, one in which, as always, party followers have been revolting against party leaders. So far, neither the R.N.C. nor the D.N.C., nor any of their favored candidates, has been able to grab the wheel. Trump, meanwhile, is barrelling down the highway toward the White House, ignoring every road sign, a man without a party. The fate of the free world does not hinge on this election. But the direction of the party system might. And that's probably worth thinking about, slowly and deeply. Parties, while not written into the U.S. Constitution, do sustain our system of government. As the political scientist V. O. Key pointed out, half a century ago, 'They perform an essential function in the management of succession to power, as well as in the process of obtaining popular consent to the course of public policy. They amass sufficient support to buttress the authority of governments; or, on the contrary, they attract or organize discontent and dissatisfaction sufficient to oust the government. In either case, they perform the function of the articulation of the interests and aspirations of a substantial segment of the citizenry, usually in ways contended to be promotive of the national weal.' The American party system is not only a creation of the press; it is dependent on it. It is currently fashionable, indispensable, even, to malign the press, whether liberal or conservative. 'That's the media game,' Sanders said, dismissing a question that Cooper had asked him during CNN's town hall. 'That's what the media talks about. Who cares?' But when the press is in the throes of change, so is the party system. And the national weal had better watch out. It's unlikely, but not impossible, that the accelerating and atomizing forces of this latest communications revolution will bring about the end of the party system and the beginning of a new and wobblier political institution. With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking. At some point, does each of us become a party of one?"
Parties are coalitions, and they in some way connect voters based on common interests. The breakdown of parties reflects the retreat of interest as a prime motivation for voting. Candidates are selected for being likable, honest, and fresh. The breakdown of interests and classes is accompanied by the rise of mass politics, one that appeals to coherent fantasies rather than complicated realities. For Hannah Arendt, "The breakdown of the class system meant automatically the breakdown of the party system, chiefly because these parties, being interest parties, could no longer represent class interests.... The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the power that be were not so much evil as they equally stupid and fraudulent." The hatred of the establishment today and the anger of individuals is connected, as Lepore argues, to the rise of social media--it is no accident that the two leading beneficiaries of popular anger are both running campaigns focused around social media. The point that Arendt makes and Lepore here affirms is that mass movements, separate from interest, rises alongside a "highly differentiated individualism and sophistication" that brings about "social atomization and extreme individualization." Arendt's point is that "the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class." The atomizing impact of social media along with the breakdown of interest-based parties does, as Lepore writes, threaten a meaningful change in the American political landscape. --RB
Jacob Weisberg considers our fate as "device people." In 2015, "Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer." Amazingly, "we check our phones 221 times a day--an average of every 4.3 minutes--according to a UK study." But what does our device dependence mean? "It is the troubling aspects of social and mobile media that Sherry Turkle attends to in her wise and observant new book, Reclaiming Conversation. A clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle is by no means antitechnology. But after a career examining relations between people and computers, she blends her description with advocacy. She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships--with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can't get their parents' undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semiengaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments. Turkle finds the roots of the problem in the failure of young people absorbed in their devices to develop fully independent selves, a topic she began to explore in Alone Together (2011). In that book, she examined the way interaction with robotic toys and 'always on' connections affect adolescent development. She argued that phones and texting disrupt the ability to separate from one's parents, and raise other obstacles to adulthood. Curating a Facebook profile alters the presentation of self. Absorption in a gaming avatar can become a flight from the difficulties of real life. Young people face new anxieties around the loss of privacy and the persistence of online data. In her new book, she expresses a version of those concerns that is as much philosophic as psychiatric. Because they aren't learning how to be alone, she contends, young people are losing their ability to empathize. 'It's the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent,' Turkle writes. Without an ability to look inward, those locked into the virtual worlds of social media develop a sensibility of 'I share, therefore I am,' crafting their identities for others. Continuous digital performance leaves teenagers experiencing what ought to be the satisfactions of solitude only as 'disconnection anxiety.'"
Hal Herring offers one of the few really meaningful accounts of the recently ended occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. "What more can be said? I was one of the hundreds of journalists who went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during the Ammon Bundy occupation, and I saw the same things that all the rest of them did. If there was any difference between myself and those hundreds of other journalists, maybe it was that I went there looking for kindred spirits. I am a self-employed, American-born writer with a wife and two teenage children living in a tiny town on the plains of Montana. I'm a reader of the U.S. Constitution, one who truly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees the survival of the rest of the Bill of Rights. I came of age reading Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, Orwell's 1984, and a laundry-list of anarchists, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Bakunin and Proudhon, who gave me the maxim that defined my early twenties: 'Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and a tyrant: I declare him my enemy.' I read Malthus and Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, and am a skeptic of government power. I was not surprised when I read about the outrage over the sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond for arson: Federal mandatory minimum sentencing has been a terrible idea since its inception. I am gobsmacked by an economy that seems engineered to impoverish anyone who dares try make their own living, and by a government that seems more and more distant from the people it represents, except when calling up our sons and daughters to attack chaotic peoples that clearly have nothing to do with me or anybody I know. I am isolated by a culture that is as inscrutable to me as any in the mountains of Afghanistan. For loving wilderness and empty lands and birdsong rather than teeming cities, I risk being called a xenophobe, a noxious nativist. For viewing guns as constitutionally protected, essential tools of self-defense and, if need be, liberation, I'm told that I defend the massacres of innocents in mass shootings. When I came to Montana at age twenty-five, I found in this vast landscape, especially in the public lands where I hunted and camped and worked, the freedom that was evaporating in the South, where I grew up. I got happily lost in the space and the history. For a nature-obsessed, gun-soaked malcontent like me, it was home, and when Ammon Bundy and his men took over the Malheur refuge, on a cold night in January, I thought I should go visit my neighbors." What Herring found at Malheur was not what he expected. "I went to the Malheur looking for kindred spirits. I found the mad, the fervent, the passionately misguided. I found the unknowing pawns of an existential chess game, in which we are, all of us, now caught. Driving home across the snow-packed Malheur Basin, through mile after mile of sage, with towering basalt cliffs in the near distance, herds of mule deer appearing as gray specks in the tongues of slide rock and wind-exposed yellow grass, I did not wonder what Edward Abbey would have said about all of this, or Kropotkin or the lugubrious monarchist Thomas Hobbes. I thought instead of the old C.S. Lewis books of my childhood, and of Lewis' writings on the nature of evil, where evil is never a lie, because lying implies creation, and evil, by its nature, has no creative power. Instead, the nature of evil is to take a truth and twist it, sometimes as much as 180 degrees. Love of country becomes hatred of those we believe don't share our devotion, or don't share it the same way. The natural right of armed self-defense becomes the means to take over a wildlife refuge, to exert tyranny on those who work there, or those who love the place for the nature it preserves in a world replete with man's endeavors. The U.S. Constitution, one of the most liberal and empowering documents ever composed, becomes, with just a slight annotation or interpretation, the tool of our own enslavement." h/t Tom Keenan.
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College is looking for a leadership-oriented and dependable Part-Time Media Coordinator (20 to 25 Hours/Week) who can lead the expansion of the Center's public impact and media presence, both online and in print. While no deep knowledge of Hannah Arendt is required, we seek someone passionate about the power of ideas to provoke thinking and elevate our public discourse. This job may be done remotely, but the Media Coordinator will need to be on campus at Bard College to assist with major events 2-3 times per year. To apply ASAP for this position, please click here.
Isabel Wilkerson argues that we are experiencing a second nadir in race relations in this country, one that is premised on racial hierarchies enforced by "law and custom." "It has been a century since the Great Migration that produced both [Emmett Till and Tamir Rice] began. Our current era seems oddly aligned with that moment. The brutal decades preceding the Great Migration--when a black person was lynched on average every four days--were given a name by the historian Rayford Logan. He called them the Nadir. Today, in the era of the Charleston massacre, when, according to one analysis of F.B.I. statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days, has the makings of a second Nadir. Or perhaps, in the words of Eric Foner, the leading scholar of Reconstruction, a 'second Redemption.' That is what historians call the period of backlash against the gains made by newly freedmen that led to Jim Crow. Today, with black advancement by an elite few extending as far as the White House, we are seeing 'a similar kind of retreat,' Professor Foner said. 'The attack on voting rights, incarceration, obviously but even more intellectually and culturally, a sort of exhaustion with black protest, an attitude of "What are these people really complaining about? Look at what we've done for you."' The country seems caught in a cycle. We leap forward only to slip back. 'We have not made anywhere near the progress we think we have,' said Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. 'It's as if we're at halftime, and we started cheering as if we won the game.' What befell Emmett and Tamir reflects how racial interactions have mutated over time, from the overt hatreds now shunned by most Americans to the unspoken, unconscious biases that are no less lethal and may be harder to fight. For all of its changes, the country remains in a similar place, a caste system based on what people look like. The men and women of the Great Migration were asking questions that remain unanswered today: What is to be the role of the people whom the country has marginalized by law and custom and with state-sanctioned violence for most of their time on this soil? How might these now 45 million people, still the most segregated of all groups in America, partake of the full fruits of citizenship? How can deeply embedded racial hierarchies be overcome?"
Kate Bowler, a scholar of American evangelism sick with late-stage cancer, writes about how the strain of American Christianity known as the prosperity gospel deals with illness like hers: "The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it's like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart? The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say 'yes.' It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you. It's also distressingly similar to the popular cartoon emojis for the iPhone, the ones that show you images of yourself in various poses. One of the standard cartoons shows me holding a #blessed sign. My world is conspiring to make me believe that I am special, that I am the exception whose character will save me from the grisly predictions and the CT scans in my inbox. I am blessed. The prosperity gospel holds to this illusion of control until the very end. If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that--those who have lost the test of faith. In my work, I have heard countless stories of refusing to acknowledge that the end had finally come. An emaciated man was pushed about a megachurch in a wheelchair as churchgoers declared that he was already healed. A woman danced around her sister's deathbed shouting to horrified family members that the body can yet live. There is no graceful death, no ars moriendi, in the prosperity gospel. There are only jarring disappointments after fevered attempts to deny its inevitability. The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America's addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I'm going to need to let go."
Kaya Genç walks with Istanbul's street vendors: "Take a walk in Istanbul this winter and you will likely come across a kestaneci (chestnut seller), a pilavcı (chickpea rice man), or a macuncu (candyman) on one of its labyrinthine streets. Kestaneci sells chestnuts from his fancy little cart where he has a small oven, scales and a collection of paper bags to prepare your order. Kestaneci carts, most of them crimson-colored, are located on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue. There is one near Taksim Square and if you come to the city by boat you will certainly find one by the pier. Kestaneci provides the finest cure for a depressing day: you hand him five liras (around two dollars) and he hands you 50 grams of chestnuts, carefully measured in those miniature scales, before wishing you a very good afternoon. Whilst living in Amsterdam I used to love visiting the free market on the city's streets during Queen's Day (now known as King's Day) where locals sold their crafts and bric-a-brac for bargain prices. Dutch authorities allowed the free market to take place one day every year. Here, street selling is a year long occupation; every day is for the Istanbul Street Vendor. In this city, vendors illuminate your way during nocturnal walks. Not long ago, after a heavy night of drinking, I came across a pilavcı in Karaköy. He seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of helping me to sober up a bit. Vendors often make you feel this way: their sudden appearances on street corners are quite miraculous, almost angel-ish. Pilavcı's cart had large wheels and an umbrella affixed to its top. The main part of the cart consisted of a huge metal plate covered on four sides with thick glass. The inside was illuminated so I got a nice view of the warm rice that awaited me, which, on that and other winter nights, was a particularly mouthwatering sight. This pilavcı had placed a selection of drinks on top of this. With his long white mustache and benevolent face, he calmly filled a plastic case with spoonfuls of newly cooked rice, rich with chickpea and pepper. It was delicious. Exhausted after a long day I gratefully sat down on one of his wooden stools and, while filling my plastic spoon, chatted with the elderly man. Where did he get his rice, I asked him. How long had he been doing this job? Did he earn well? He was used to questions like mine, which he answered quickly before complaining about the lack of interest to his food, the rise of unemployment in the country, and his problems with paying his electricity bills. The pilavcı wore a white apron that night, which gave him the air of a surgeon; hipsters in Karaköy mostly ignore his offerings, preferring to eat overpriced pizza and sushi in places that make them feel like they are having lunch in Paris or Tokyo. They should know better."
In a profile of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, Maria Konnikova argues that molecular gastronomy is the art of putting biology back into eating: "What we eat and why we eat it is as much a psychological phenomenon as a physical one. Throughout most of history, eating has been understood as a primitive human characteristic, an evolutionary necessity, the stuff of base survival instinct. This perception turns out to be far too simplistic. The more we learn about flavor, the more we realize just how easy it is to manipulate. Not just by the overclocked sensations of processed food, but in ways that makes healthier choices seem at once tastier and more satisfying. Though most of us would like to think we have discerning palates, our taste is quite easy to fool. When we try to imagine the flavor of something, we tend to focus on our mouth--the experience of placing, say, a ripe strawberry on our tongue. But that, in fact, is taste, and though we tend to conflate it with flavor, a vast chasm exists between the two. Taste is an experience composed of only five elements: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Thousands of receptors on our tongue are designed to identify and respond to these elements, each one specializing in one of the five qualities. Without input from other senses--most notably our nose, but also our eyes, ears, and even hands--taste is merely a flat, single-note sensation with none of the nuance or enjoyment we associate with food in general and with specific foods in particular. Flavor is at once a broader and more powerful property than taste, one that marries the senses and their associate properties--memory, experience, neurobiology--to create and control the way we eat. The promise that neurogastronomy holds is that once we understand how the mind combines the disparate biological and evocative forces that create flavor, we will be able to circumvent the learned and innate preferences of our taste buds. And with that capacity--truly an example of mind over matter--instead of stimulating appetite via the conventional and unhealthy trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat, we can employ the neural pathways through which flavor is constructed in the brain to divert attention to different, more nutritious foods. Control flavor and you control what we eat--and perhaps, given time and more research, begin fighting the global nutrition problems that are a direct result of the industrialized production of food."
In the Shadow of Forgetting: Iconic Thinking
In one of Oliver Sacks’ “clinical tales,” the popular neurologist describes a man whose identity is threatened by the perpetual dissolution of his self. “He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds.” Afflicted with a severe case of Korsakoff’s syndrome, a neurological condition brought on by alcoholism, the unfortunate man appears hardly human to Sacks for he lacks all sense of relation and reality. Thus, in reading his patient’s “mythomania,” his prolific production of stories and images, as an illusory substitute for a genuine connection to the world, Sacks’ musings on what remains when forgetting takes hold reach beyond the confines of clinical diagnosis toward a theory of forgetting, imagination, and “iconic” thinking.
It is not by accident then that Sacks was reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind when he was writing the narratives of neurological disability, of amnesia and aphasia that populate his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In it, Sacks develops a model of iconic thinking that furthers some of Arendt’s own ideas on the interrelation of thought and the making of images; ideas she herself at least partly borrowed from thinkers in the life science (Adolf Portmann, Konrad Lorenz, and Rudolf Arnheim). My talk will revisit these mutual influences to explore whether forgetting, rather than the “other” of thinking, might itself be considered an operation of thinking, and in particular of “iconic thinking.”
BIO: Jana V. Schmidt's research pertains to questions of literature and art, their status vis-à-vis the political and the social, image theory, mimesis, and the representation of intersubjectivity. Her main focus as a literary scholar is on twentieth century German and American literature, literary theory (including "continental" philosophy and critical theory), and literature's relation to violence.
RSVP to Christine Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, March 4, 2016
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
On Goat Surveillance and the False Promises of Sovereignty
In her critique of the Rights of Man, Hannah Arendt analyzed the problem of the "abstract" human being who was nowhere to be found. If Arendt's political analyses stemmed from her grappling with the Jewish Question and the problems of minorities or stateless people, this talk takes a different turn. Rather than considering the outcomes of the Rights of Man for subaltern groups or refugees, this talk follows the transformation of the Jewish Question when Jews themselves are no longer a minority, but sovereign citizens in their own ethno-national state. It considers some of the many ways in which Israeli Jews struggle to be Jewish-from conversion and keeping kosher to the everyday surveillance of goats-suggesting that popular sovereignty might not be liberating in the ways we imagine.
BIO: Joyce Dalsheim is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Global, International and Area Studies at UNC-Charlotte. She is a cultural anthropologist who studies nationalism, religion and the secular, and conflict in Israel/Palestine. She earned her her doctorate from the New School for Social Research, and has taught at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and Wake Forest University.
RSVP to Christine Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm
Toni Morrison described Primo Levi's writing as a "triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction." Levi is the distinguished author of decisive books such as If This Is a Man, and The Periodic Table. For the first time the entire oeuvre of the most acclaimed Holocaust survivor is available in English, after a 7-years collective endeavor lead by Ann Goldstein, New Yorker editor and celebrated translator of Elena Ferrante and Jhumpa Lahiri. Together with Goldstein, the event will feature Michael F. Moore, a most accomplished translator from Italian and UN interpreter.
For more info on Goldstein and the Complete Works of Primo Levi, view interview: HERE.
Primo Levi, (born July 31, 1919, Turin, Italy-died April 11, 1987, Turin), Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, noted for his restrained and moving autobiographical account of and reflections on survival in the Nazi concentration camps.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Reem-Kayden Center László Z. Bitó '60 Auditorium, Bard College, 6:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College announces two post-doctoral fellowships for the 2016-2017 academic year. The fellows should have a Ph.D. in political theory, philosophy, or a related field in the humanities, and his or her work should intersect meaningfully with Hannah Arendt’s thinking. In residence at the Arendt Center, the fellow will pursue his or her independent research at the Center, which includes Hannah Arendt’s personal library. The fellow will have access to Arendt’s Digital Archive through a relationship with the Arendt Center in New York City. In addition, the fellow will have the opportunity to participate in seminars, conferences, lectures, colloquia, and workshops organized by the Center.
To apply for the fellowship, please apply through Interfolio.com at: http://apply.interfolio.com/33792 with a letter of application explaining your research project and interest in the Center and a description of your teaching experience, CV, and two letters of reference.
The Deadline for consideration is Tuesday, March 15, 2016
The Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” 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
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 6, 2016
Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street West of 6th Ave., New York, NY, Time TBA
SAVE 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
Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
This week on the blog, Samantha Hill explains that Arendt never gave an account of her methodology in political theory but in her notes offers us a way to engage the world of political thinking in the Quote of the Week. French writer Anatole France reflects on how education relates to knowledge in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Rukaya Al Zayani shares several images with us of her personal Arendt library and explains how Arendt has influenced her view of the world in this week's Library feature.
"The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All. And this latter is never possible without instruments."
Hannah Arendt, On Violence
The instruments that Hannah Arendt refers to in this quote are instruments of violence, that is to say, weapons. Weapons, which in the main, translates to firearms, make it possible for One to commit acts of violence against All. And this fact has been brought into sharp focus in light of the devastating tragedy of this past December 14th, 2012: the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut by a 20-year-old man using a semi-automatic assault rifle that belonged to his mother, the first victim of a killing spree that ended when he turned his weapon on himself and took his own life. The extreme depravity of this incident sent shockwaves throughout the nation, and reports of subsequent shootings of a more commonplace variety have been picked up by the news media, whereas previously they have more often than not been ignored. Fulfilling their function as agenda-setters, journalists have placed gun violence high on the list of national debates, reflecting the outrage of many citizens, as well as the genuine concern of a significant number of leaders and officials in government and organized religion.
Despite the fact that many citizens find the status quo intolerable, and favor legislation that would increase the limitations on the types of weaponry citizens can legally purchase and own, and on the requirements for sale and ownership of firearms, there has been considerable opposition to any form of what is commonly referred to as gun control. That pushback had come from what is sometimes referred to as the gun lobby, the National Rifle Association being the primary organization representing the firearms industry, and citizens who insist that our constitution's second amendment guarantees them the freedom to arm themselves as they see fit. And whereas one side mostly speaks in the language of moderation, arguing for reasonable restrictions on firearms sales, the other tends to speak in an extremist language of absolutes, arguing against any abridgement of rights and freedom, maintaining that gun control legislation is completely ineffective, and that, in the words of NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Fighting fire with fire is not a method favored by firefighters, except in the most extreme of circumstances, and likewise fighting firearms with firearms is a tactic of last resort for putting an end to gun violence. Firefighters stress the importance of prevention, and we certainly are entitled to ask, how can we prevent a bad guy from getting hold of a gun in the first place? When prevention is ineffective, and violence ensues, it may be necessary to engage in further violence as a countermeasure. But even if the result is cessation rather than escalation, the situation already represents a failure and breakdown of the community. As Arendt explains,
the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
LaPierre's insistence that the only way to stop violence is with violence is not only simplistic in his childish morality of good guys vs. bad guys, but in his view of the situation as being One against One. Again, it would certainly be reasonable to concede the point that violent action on the part of one individual is sometimes required to put an end to violent action on the part of another individual, and such action is authorized on the part of duly appointed representatives of the law, e.g., police. But in acting in the role of police, such individuals are acting as representatives of the All, so that what appears to be One against One is in fact a case of All against One. But LaPierre's notion of a good guy with a gun is not a police officer—indeed police departments typically favor stricter gun control—but an armed private citizen. In other words, his One against One would exist in a larger context of All against All, everyone armed in defense against everyone else, everyone prepared to engage in violence against everyone else.
That guns are instruments of violence ought to be clear. You cannot cut a steak with a gun. You cannot chop wood with a gun. You cannot excavate a mine with a gun. Unlike knives, axes, and even explosives, firearms have no practical use other than to harm and kill living things. There are recreational applications, granted, but there is nothing new about violence in recreational activities, boxing, wrestling, and fencing all have their origins in antiquity, while eastern martial arts disciplines have grown quite popular in the United States over the past half century, and football has become our most popular sport. It follows that hunting is simply another violent recreational activity, as we are now 10,000 years past the agricultural revolution, and few if any of us live in the wilderness as nomadic hunter-gatherers. And target ranges, skeet shooting, and the like, all of which use obvious surrogates for human and animal bodies, are essentially recreational activities, apart from their function in training individuals how to use firearms.
Instruments of violence, like all tools, are made to be used, and their violence cannot be confined to prescribed targets and situations. So with All against All, everyone lives under the shadow of violence, the possibility of being fired upon serving as a guarantee against bad behavior. From the individual's point of view, everyone is suspect, everyone is a potential menace that must be guarded against. And of course the danger they pose is greatly amplified if they are bearing arms. So peace is achieved through mutual intimidation, and at best a respect based on threat and fear. Under these circumstances, there is no solid foundation for political action based on consensus and cooperation, let alone social cohesion. With All against All, the potential for action taken by All against One is minimized.
Reducing if not eliminating the potential for All against One is central to the ideology of the NRA, for whom the All is not so much everyone else as it is our representatives in positions of authority. Armed private citizens are the good guys with guns, and it is not only the "criminals and crazies" who are bad guys, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the government. Ignoring the fact that historically, the second amendment was understood as granting individual states in the union the right to create militias in the absence of a standing federal army, gun advocates invoke "the right to bear arms" as a check against government tyranny, insisting that they are entitled to the same right to revolution that was claimed by the founders of our nation in the Declaration of Independence. That the Confederate states invoked the same right in seceding from the Union, igniting a debate settled by the most violent of means, is of little import it seems. The Civil War apparently did not end with Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but merely underwent a transformation into a subtle insurgency movement that continues to this day. This no doubt comes as a surprise to the vast majority of American citizens, including the multitudes that flocked to movie theaters in recent months to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.
Arendt drives home the point that violence exists in inverse relationship to power. Power is derived from the All, from the consent and agreement of the governed, the source of political legitimacy. Power is the ability to achieve goals without the use of violence. When governments are forced to resort to violence, it reflects a loss of power, one that is difficult to reclaim, and may ultimately result in that governments demise. Violence can destroy power, that is the lesson of revolution, but it cannot create power, only political action can. It follows that gun advocates see the second amendment as curbing the power of government, thereby empowering the individual. That sense of power is something of a chimera, however, for as soon as firearms are used, their power dissipates. If they are used against another private citizen, even a so-called bad guy, the user will have to answer to the legal system, and may be found guilty of unlawful action, or subject to civil liability. If they are used against a government official, the user will sooner or later discover that he (or she, but almost always it is a he) is outgunned, that One against All may only succeed in the short-term but will eventually fall to the vastly superior firepower of organized authorities.
American society, like all societies, looks to a set of values that, upon close inspection, holds logical contradictions, values that, from a distance, appear to be psychologically consistent with each other. We value the individual, and adhere to the most extreme form of individualism of any western society, but we also value the community. We seek a balance between the two, but ultimately they come in conflict with one another, the One vs. the All. And we value freedom, but we also value equality. Both seem fundamental, but freedom includes the freedom to excel, to dominate, to gain an advantage, enforce and reinforce inequity, while any effort to be truly egalitarian requires restrictions on those freedoms. Moreover, we believe in capitalism, free enterprise as it were, but also in democracy, the American way, politically-speaking, and we assume the two can co-exist without discord. But capitalism is inherently undemocratic, favoring oligarchies and the absence of government regulation and oversight, whereas the exercise of democracy extends to policies that affect and constrain economic and financial activities, and the organization and conduct of business.
In the past, Americans have slightly favored the individual, freedom, and capitalism, all of which are aligned with one another, over the community, equality, and democracy, although the emphasis has shifted somewhat depending on circumstances (for example, during wartime, we become increasingly more likely to rally around the values of community and equality, and belief in democracy). To put it into Arendt's more succinct terms, we try to find a balance between the One and the All, but to the extent that the two are in conflict, we lean a bit towards the One.
In favoring the One, we tolerate the One against All, the result being that we are scarred by gun violence to a degree vastly out of proportion with other western societies. For gun advocates, gun ownership is an individual right and an essential freedom that must not be abridged. Never mind the fact that "the right to bear arms" is rarely found on any listing of basic human rights, as opposed to the right to live in safety and security, free from fear and threat, a right that gun ownership jeopardizes at least as much as it protects. And never mind the fact that our first amendment freedoms are subject to significant limitations and governed by legislation, and those freedoms are listed in a clear and unequivocal manner, in contrast to the second amendment's convoluted and confused diction ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed"). It is also interesting to note that gun advocates like LaPierre do not hesitate to try to shift the focus onto the first amendment, blaming violence in film, television programming, and videogames for incidents like the Newtown shooting. And what is often downplayed is that the gun lobby, in resisting all attempts at gun control, are defending the interests of the gun industry, the businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell firearms. Of course, it is hard to play up the importance of free enterprise in the wake of the murder of elementary school children.
In their radical views on the second amendment, and their absolute embrace of individual freedom and capitalism against the interests of community, equality, and democracy, gun ideologues like LaPierre insist on the supremacy of One against All, and it is not surprising that the result is an extreme form of violence. And, as I noted earlier, leaders representing the interests of the All against the One tend to speak, naturally enough, in the language of practical politics operating within a democratic form of government, the language of negotiation and compromise, but find themselves confronted on the other side with the abstract absolutes characteristic of the language of ideology. You might say, what we got here is a failure to communicate, in the words of Cool Hand Luke, although the two sides probably understand each other better than they let on.
The ideologues know that if they refuse to blink first, the compromisers will most likely give up and move on to more pressing matters. And the compromisers know that the ideologues refusal to negotiate gives them an excuse to turn away from a divisive issue that may cost them a measure of support in the next election, and deal with more pressing matters with a greater probability of reaching a successful conclusion. Only now, after Newtown, is there talk of having reached a tipping point in public opinion, one that may pressure the compromisers to insist upon a settlement, and may force the ideologues to accept the pragmatic need for negotiation. The likely outcome is that the ideologues will make some minor concessions, allowing for some small progress on gun control, a step in the right direction to be sure, but a far cry from the measures needed to curb the high incidence of gun violence in the United States.
Change will come, because the alternative is intolerable. To the extent that we live in increasingly denser populated areas, in urban sprawl rather than rural isolation, so that the consequences of violent action become increasingly more catastrophic, we require more civilized, more civil living conditions, the insurance against violence that can only come from the power of organized authority subject to political oversight, not private citizens responsible only to themselves. To live in a society of All against All is ultimately regressive, and can only make sense if the social system disintegrates, a remote possibility that cannot be balanced against the actuality of incident after incident of gun violence.
Change will come, but it may only come gradually, given our cultural bias towards the One against All, and it may only come generationally. Over the past half century, Americans have become increasingly more risk aversive, as more information about potential risks to health and safety have been made available through the electronic media. However, as Henry Perkinson argues in No Safety in Numbers, it is the risks that we have no control over that we are particularly averse to. When the risk is perceived as a matter of individual choice, an expression of personal freedom, we are less averse to it than when it is understood to fall outside of our locus of control. Prohibition is often invoked as the archetype of failed measures to eliminate harmful behavior, and the word prohibition is often thrown into discussions on gun control and similar measures in order to summon up those negative connotations. Despite the potential risks to health and safety from alcoholic inebriation, over-consumption, and addiction, drinking was seen as an exercise of free will, and therefore acceptable. It was only with the campaign against drinking and driving that the locus of risk was shifted from the individual consuming intoxicating beverages to the innocent victims of drunk driving, accident victims who had no choice in the matter, whose freedom was in fact curtailed by the drinker. The same is true of tobacco.
Once medical research established that smoking causes emphysema, heart disease, and cancer, modest change in American smoking habits ensued. It was not until the findings about secondhand smoke were established that real cultural change took place, a truly extraordinary shift in attitudes and behavior about smoking. The key was that secondhand smoke exposed individuals to risks that they had no control over, risks that they were subjected to against their own volition.
While this form of risk-aversion is relatively recent, a more basic understanding that permeates American society is that individuals can exercise their freedoms as long as those freedoms do not jeopardize others. The early assertion of a right to own slaves could only persist insofar as individuals were willing to view the enslaved as somehow less than fully human; otherwise the freedom to enslave clearly cannot justify the denial of another individual's freedom. Similarly, free enterprise and free markets, the freedom of individuals to engage in any kind of business and labor practices they might chose to, eventually was understood to conflict with the rights of labor, of workers and employees, as well as the rights of consumers, so that the freedom of capitalism is subject to constraints imposed in the interests of the community and democracy.
In the face of the violence of One against All, what is needed is the power, in the positive sense of democratic political action, of All against One. The power of public opinion and a growing consensus will serve as a bulletproof vest to protect the body politic from assault by the weapons industry and gun ideologues. And the best place to begin is by talking about the dangers that uncontrolled access to firearms pose to citizens who do not choose to live with these instruments of violence, citizens whose freedoms and rights and very lives are put at risk without their consent, citizens who all are victims of secondhand gun smoke.