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.
Michael Kimmelman writes about the continued, perhaps even revolutionary, relevance of public space in cities from New York to Cairo. There is, as Hannah Arendt so deeply understood, a need for all living things to appear, to be seen, and this is most possible in public spaces. The ancient agora, the public square, makes the polis, since it is where citizens and others can see and be seen. More importantly, it is a place where people can be visible to others in ways that matter. For Arendt, being visible acting and speaking in public is the quintessential human right. Kimmelman explores this need for visibility through modern demographic and architectural trends.
“On another Times assignment, I visited a refugee camp in the southern West Bank called Fawwar. There, a Palestinian architect, Sandi Hilal, worked with residents of the camp to create a public square, something virtually unheard of in such places. For Palestinian refugees, the creation of any urban amenity, by implying normalcy and permanence, undermines their fundamental self-image, even after several generations have passed, as temporary occupants of the camps who preserve the right of return to Israel.
Moreover, in refugee camps, public and private do not really exist as they do elsewhere. There is, strictly speaking, no private property in the camps. Refugees do not own their homes. Streets are not municipal properties, as they are in cities, because refugees are not citizens of their host countries, and the camp is not really a city. The legal notion of a refugee camp, according to the United Nations, is a temporary site for displaced, stateless individuals, not a civic body.
So there is no municipality in Fawwar, just a UN relief agency whose focus is on emergency services. That’s what residents turn to when the lights go out or the garbage isn’t picked up, unless they want to deal with the problem themselves. Concepts like inside and outside are blurred in a place where there is no private property. A mother doesn’t always wear the veil in Fawwar, whether she’s at home or out on the street, because the whole place is, in a sense, her home; but she will put it on when she leaves the camp, because that is outside.
In other words, there is a powerful sense of community. And some years ago, Hilal—who then headed the Camp Improvement Unit in the West Bank for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, along with her husband, Alessandro Petti, an Italian architect—began to talk with Fawwar residents about creating a public square. The residents, especially the men, were immediately suspicious, not just about normalizing the camp but about creating any space where men and women might come together in public… Hilal showed me around the square she’d designed. She said that pushback was initially fierce. “When we merely mentioned the word ‘plaza,’ people in the camp freaked out,” she remembered. But a counterargument gradually took hold, which entailed abandoning what Hilal called “the strategy of convincing the whole world of the refugees’ misery through their architectural misery”… The square has given children a place to play other than crowded streets. Mothers who rarely felt free to leave their homes to socialize in public now meet there to talk and weave, selling what they make in the square, an enterprise that is entirely new in the community and that one of the mothers told me “gives us self-esteem and a sense of worth, like the men have.” –RB
George Packer visits the post-Arab Spring Tunisia: “A few miles northwest of Tunis, with its sidewalk cafés and streets lined by rows of manicured ficus trees and its avenues named after European cities, there is a poor suburb of eighty thousand people called Douar Hicher. The streets are narrow and rutted, with drains cut through the middle, and the houses cluster close together, as if to keep out strangers. In the first days of 2011, thousands of young people from Douar Hicher and other suburbs poured into downtown Tunis to demand the ouster of the country’s corrupt and autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Within two weeks, he had been overthrown, in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. This sudden change was soon celebrated around the world as the first sprout of the Arab Spring. In the new Tunisia, freedom brought tumult as well as joy. Douar Hicher became the scene of preaching, protesting, and, at times, violence by Islamists. Before the revolution, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis—the word refers to the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad—took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighborhoods. Some of the Salafis belonged to an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, the Defenders of Sharia, which opposed electoral democracy and wanted to set off an Islamist insurrection. The group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October, 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post in Douar Hicher. In 2013, faced with a state crackdown, the Salafis went underground, and young men and women began disappearing from neighborhoods like Douar Hicher.” The youth of Douar Hicher are leaving to wage Jihad, and Packer offers a rare look into the reasons and impact of their choices. “Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad. “You have a lot of people who have aspirations and can’t meet them,” Monica Marks, an American doctoral candidate who studies Islamist movements in the Middle East, said.”
Arielle Bernstein, herself the grandchild of a couple who first fled the Holocaust for Cuba, and then Cuba for America, considers the enormously popular KonMari method of getting rid of your stuff, and marvels at the freedom that it represents: “Of course, in order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones. Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust. For a refugee, that trust has not yet been earned. The idea that going through items cheerfully evaluating whether or not objects inspire happiness is fraught for a family like mine, for whom cherished items have historically been taken away. For my grandparents, the question wasn’t whether an item sparked joy, but whether it was necessary for their survival. In America, that obsession transformed into a love for all items, whether or not they were valuable in a financial or emotional sense. If our life is made from the objects we collect over time, then surely our very sense of who we are is dependent upon the things we carry. It’s particularly ironic that the KonMari method has taken hold now, during a major refugee crisis, when the news constantly shows scenes of people fleeing their homes and everything they have. A Vice article, “All the Stuff Syrian Refugees Leave Behind During Their Journey to Europe” shows discarded things ranging from trash to toys to ticket stubs. Each items looks lonely and lost: like evidence of a life left behind. For a project titled “The Most Important Thing,” the photographer Brian Sokol asks refugees to show him the most important thing they kept from the place they left behind. The items they proffer range from the necessary (crutches), to the practical (a sewing machine), to the deeply sentimental (photographs of someone deeply loved, treasured instruments, family pets).Against this backdrop, Kondo’s advice to live in the moment and discard the things you don’t need seems to ignore some important truths about what it means to be human. It’s easy to see the items we own as oppressive when we can so easily buy new ones. That we can only guess at the things we’ll need in the future and that we don’t always know how deeply we love something until it’s gone.”
Linguistics professor John McWhorter talks about what it means to “sound white”: “When you’re black and you sound just like a white person, it puts a lot of black people off. The vast majority of black Americans, including educated ones, are identifiable as black from their speech; the “black sound” is a subconscious but near-universal hallmark of black American culture. This means that if you are black, upon meeting you, a great many black people will tacitly expect that the two of you will speak more similarly to one another—at the very least in terms of that certain “sound”—than either of you do to white people. That similarity is an index of acceptance and warmth in a society that looks askance on black people in so many ways. Then it turns out that you don’t sound similar, despite your black face. The wrong voice is coming out of you. Although the expectation that you were going to sound black was not conscious, the fact that you don’t is processed quite consciously: it’s the discrepancy that elicits attention. You are heard as talking “like that,” though you know no other way to talk. It seems, perhaps, that you purposefully distanced yourself from the normal black way of talking in a quest to join whites. More certainly, you sound snooty, chilly, not like the type anyone would want to have a beer (or anything else!) with. To a black person who knows only other black people who speak with the same sound, your different sound is not just peculiar but, because it is a “white sound,” snobbish. The matter is not one of perplexity or discomfort, but irritation, even contempt. Plus, these days, the “black sound” has acquired a certain cachet in mainstream society through the popularity of hip hop, so increasingly someone like me finds that even whites below a certain age process him as “square.” Call it stereotyping or call it progress, but a lot of white people happily anticipate a certain hipness, “realness,” from a black person. We’re so “down,” so approachable, so “the shit,” apparently. In talking to these people, just as to so many black people, I disappoint. I offend.”
Hannah Arendt described a similar phenomena experienced by Jews in 18th and 19th century Germany. The warmth McWhorter writes of is something claimed and valued by all pariah peoples. And speaking white while remaining black is fate of the parvenu. As Arendt saw, Jewish parvenus had to separate themselves from Jews in general. The parvenu must be educated and give up his “Jewish character”; and yet, the parvenu remains always a Jew. It was this tradeoff—denying one’s self to achieve social standing—that Arendt found dehumanizing about social antisemitism. What is more, to be accepted in gentile society, Jews had to perform as exceptional, constantly reminding themselves and others of their distinction from lower class Jews while also maintaining their connection to their native background so that they appeared exceptional, and not merely normal. Arendt refers to a review by Goethe, of a book of poems by a Jewish author; Goethe complained it was merely mediocre and did not have what he hoped it would, something genuinely new, some force beyond shallow convention. In other words, the Jew was merely a good poet, not an exceptional Jewish poet. As Arendt writes, “In this equivocal situation, Jewishness was for the individual Jew at once a physical stain and a mysterious privilege, both inherent in a ‘racial predestination.’” Jewish hipness worked only by reinforcing the quasi-criminal nature of Jewishness.
McWhorter explores the modern complexities of the black voice in English. There is, he writes, “little room in our public discourse for the reality, which is that 1) almost all black people code-switch between standard and Black (not Southern) English to varying degrees, 2) even the most educated black people typically talk with vowel colorings and a general cadence that most Americans readily hear as “black” (and not “Southern”) after a few sentences, and 3) there isn’t a thing wrong with that…. Still, when I read that Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century learning English felt like they might open their mouths to speak only for shards of glass to fall out, I identify. I all but stopped doing live talks on race years ago despite the money I could earn, out of a sense that using my “white” voice to have such discussions was ineffective and makes me sound disconnected from the issues. I mainly write on race instead; on paper my vowels and cadence don’t distort my message. Sounding black? What’s that all about? Well, that. A minor problem in the grand scheme, I know. But I’m just saying. (Luckily, in print.)” This is the kind of real talk about race that we at the Arendt Center hope to foster as we prepare for our October Conference, “Real Talk: Difficult Questions About Race, Sex, and Religion.” —RB
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The American Association of University Professors has issued a report on Title IX. Written jointly by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession, the Report argues that Title IX is a well-meaning reform that has gone deeply wrong. “In what follows we look first at the legislation’s history and the expanding definitions of sexual harassment under Title IX. Currently, sexual harassment consists not only of sexual misconduct, but also of speech taken to create a “hostile environment.” When speech and conduct are taken to be the same thing, however, the constitutional and academic freedom protections normally afforded speech are endangered. We do not argue that speech can never create a hostile environment, nor that all speech is protected, only that matters of speech are difficult to negotiate and always require attention to First Amendment guarantees and to academic freedom. We do argue that questions of free speech and academic freedom have been ignored in recent positions taken by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Education (DOE), which is charged with implementing the law, and by university administrators who are expected to oversee compliance measures. We offer a critique of the failure to attend to free speech and academic freedom, as well as the resulting negative effects on teaching, research, shared governance, and extra-mural speech. Further, because OCR and university actions have compromised established practices of due process and faculty governance, we also present some reflections on how abuses of Title IX have developed in the context of the corporate university, and we review relevant AAUP policy on these questions. Finally, we offer recommendations—based on AAUP policies—for the OCR, university administrators, and faculty. These include the need for all Title IX policies to be developed through shared governance; the importance of protecting free speech and academic freedom; and the need to provide due process for both complainants and accused, whether or not in coordination with the criminal justice system. We stress the importance, as well, of supporting courses that address issues of discrimination and inequality, and that provide the intellectual underpinnings for sexually healthy campus cultures, where equality and non-discrimination can coexist with freedom of speech and academic freedom.”
The connection between Title IX and the corporate university is insightful and important. Title IX reflects the overwhelming dogma of security at the expense of freedom that is central to bureaucratic Human Resources departments and the national surveillance state. The rise of Title IX is, as Janet Halley has argued, a reflection of a new kind of “governance feminism,” one in which feminists attach themselves to administrative state bureaucracies to police and secure sexual security. Sexual security is of course a necessary and worthy goal. But sexual security is usually thought to be secured through legal processes. IF rape or harassment occur, the response has typically been to seek redress through the law. The problem is that rape cases are notoriously difficult to prove in court. Title IX has thus sought to create a quasi-legal administrative procedure for policing sexual acts. By establishing a bureaucracy dedicated to discovering, investigating and prosecuting sexual misconduct, by requiring a lower standard of proof than the law requires, and by vastly expanding the common understanding of sexual misconduct to include not only rape and harassment but also the ambiguous and expansive creation of a hostile environment, Title IX has led to the disciplining of faculty and students for teaching and speaking in ways that college communities should encourage, not punish. The AAUP report argues, “This broadening of the definition of sexual harassment to encompass any “unwelcome conduct” (including speech) creates a seemingly limitless definition of harassment. Although OCR continues to consider objective factors in defining a hostile environment, its broadened definition of sexual harassment overemphasizes a complainant’s subjective responses in determining which conduct and speech constitute sexual harassment.” The report is required reading for all in the academy.—RB
In a month where one of America’s traditionally great land grant universities has chosen to eviscerate the protection of tenure for college professors, it may seem strange to be talking about the more widespread, if much less sexy, plight of those college level teachers with no job security at all. As John Minchillo points out, though, having that conversation always seems a little strange: “Tenured professors tend to thrive at work, their identities intertwined with the goals of the university and puffed up by their interactions with students. Their offices might be clustered together in suites, each door covered in postcards from London vacations, New Yorker cartoons, and a poster of the keynote speaker from a conference they attended eight years ago. These symbols on display, they mean a lot to the professor, and the tenured professor has been able to present the preferred flavors of their intellectual personality for nearly their entire professional career. The insides of their offices are miniature libraries with the bulk of the professor’s personhood represented by shelves and shelves of academic titles, the spines belittling any student who looks up to take it in. Tackling that particular heap is not a task too many volunteer for, apparently. But the student would be wrong in that assumption. There are lots of intellectuals who read, write, ponder, posit, ruminate, debate, or declare — many teach right here in a less permanent and far less compensated capacity. In fact, most of the teaching that occurs at our universities is done by impermanent professors temporarily parked on campus, one rest stop among many along their transitory paths. Instead of sharing an office suite, non-tenure-track professors are more likely to be packed together with mismatched garage-sale quality desks in communal offices not much bigger than the single-occupancy offices of tenured professors. These temporary professors go by different nomenclatures — adjunct, graduate teaching assistant, visiting professor, full-time-temporary instructor — but the effect is the same, they are teachers at the university with advanced degrees, and they are referred to collectively as “contingent” faculty, meaning they can’t advance, and at some point, maybe in a year, maybe in three, maybe in fifteen, they will be expected to leave. Although it is possible they will never leave, the unspoken anticipation of their exit will linger for the duration of their stay. The offices of tenured professors can be deep eccentric caverns, with soft lighting and posters of Nobel Prize winners. Temporary instructors will be scattered across campus in the borrowed rooms of other departments. At the end of any given semester there is always the possibility that a contingent faculty member will be asked to move. The borrowed space is needed again, or there will be scheduled asbestos removal over break, or, responding to some other bureaucratic ripple, a less accommodating room has been found. For this reason I keep all my teaching files in two cardboard boxes and I don’t keep anything else in my office but a coffee maker. Posters will go up at the hands of the other temporary teachers, and I’ll explain over and over again to every student who visits that I like Monet just fine, but that’s not my Water Lilies print.”
Spencer Kornhaber considers celebrity and the Obama presidency: “It’s easy to forget that virality is a concept that barely existed in popular discourse prior to the Obama presidency: Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tumblr all either came about or grew to ubiquity in the past seven years. Celebrities of both the political and non-political sort have used these platforms to great success and to great accidental embarrassment. The Verge’s Michelle Obama profile this week offers a look at how the White House has tried to avoid the latter. At one point, the writer Kwame Opam asks Michelle to perform the Dab—Cam Newton’s famous touchdown move—on camera, with hopes of going viral. Hillary Clinton had done it on Ellen already, after all. But after some discussion with her team, Michelle declined the request on the grounds of “dabbing’s hazy connection to marijuana culture.” Maybe that’s a legitimate objection, or maybe it’s a front for some greater calculation about how much the First Lady should give and withhold from the public. As the holder of no elected office, Michelle has, in the way of presidential wives before her, used her time in the White House on mostly non-partisan causes: helping veterans, reducing childhood obesity, encouraging college enrollment, and promoting education for girls around the world. She has no official budget to spend on these things, so she’s savvily instead cashed in on her celebrity to promote awareness. Athletes, actors, and major singers have put on exercise clinics, concerts, and fundraisers for the First Lady’s initiatives. In turn, pop culture has spontaneously reified her as the pinnacle of female badassery, most notably on Fifth Harmony’s hit “Bo$$.” The chorus: “Michelle Obama / purse so heavy getting Oprah dollars.”… The latest Michelle Obama celebrity charm offensive is in service of her Let Girls Learn campaign, when she triggered a wave of spit-take headlines saying she was releasing a charity single featuring Missy Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya, Janelle Monae, and other pop artists. When the song arrived online, it became clear that Obama herself was not actually on the song. Of course she wasn’t: The Obamas make culture work for them, not the other way around. In an essay for Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Obama said she didn’t sing on the track because she can’t carry a tune. But at the South by Southwest keynote panel where she sat alongside Elliott, Queen Latifah, the songwriter Diane Warren, and the actor Sophia Bush, she did sing a snippet of Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” when asked about having to leave the White House soon. The crowd not only whooped in delight—the other women on stage did. The moment recalled what might be the out-and-out coolest moment of Obama’s presidency, when Barack crooned some Al Green onstage in the midst of a speech. The shock and the instant acclaim came in part from hearing the president sing so well. But it was also came from hearing him sing at all. “I’m so in love with you” he began, then stopped and grinned. Six words were all he’d give—an entertaining reminder that the president is not, despite occasional appearances, here to entertain.”