Amor Mundi 3/27/16

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Perfect Squares

public-spaceMichael 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

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tunisiaGeorge 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.”


The Liberty of Minimalism

KonMariArielle 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 Europeshows 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.”


White Speech

silhouettesLinguistics 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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A Hostile Environment

title-9The 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


Contingent Teaching

teachIn 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.”


Celebrity POTUS

celebrity-potusSpencer 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.”


Amor Mundi 12/13/15

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upHostile Climates

harvard law schoolJeannie Suk writes in the New Yorker about how her willingness to criticize a documentary film might lead to her being disciplined by Harvard Law School. The film in questions, “The Hunting Ground,” is about sexual harassment on college campuses. The reason Professor Suk might end up being disciplined is the Federal Law referred to as Title IX, which requires all educational institutions to guarantee sexual equality in education. Since 2010, Title IX has been interpreted to mean that any act, speech, or gesture that contributes to a “hostile climate” connected to sexual matters must be investigated at a cost to the school and disciplined. Here is Suk’s account of how her criticism of the documentary may trigger a Title IX investigation: “But last week the filmmakers did more than understandably disagree with criticism of the film, which has been short-listed for the Academy Award for best documentary. They wrote, in a statement to the Harvard Crimson, that ‘the very public bias these professors have shown in favor of an assailant contributes to a hostile climate at Harvard Law.’ The words ‘hostile climate’ contain a serious claim. At Harvard, sexual harassment is ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’ including verbal conduct that is ‘sufficiently persistent, pervasive, or severe’ so as to create a ‘hostile environment.’ If, as the filmmakers suggest, the professors’ statement about the film has created a hostile environment at the school, then, under Title IX, the professors should be investigated and potentially disciplined. To my knowledge, no complaint of sexual harassment has been filed with Harvard’s Title IX office–though I’ve been told by a high-level administrator that several people have inquired about the possibility–and I don’t know if the school would proceed with an investigation. Precedent for such an investigation exists in the case of Laura Kipnis, a feminist film-studies professor at Northwestern University, who earlier this year wrote an article criticizing aspects of Title IX policies and culture and was accused of creating a hostile environment on campus; Northwestern conducted an investigation and ultimately cleared Kipnis of sexual-harassment charges. A handful of students have said that they feel unsafe at Harvard because of the professors’ statement about the film. If a Title IX complaint were filed and an investigation launched, the professors wouldn’t be permitted to speak about it, as that could be considered ‘retaliation’ against those who filed the complaint, which would violate the campus sexual-harassment policy.”

Over the last two months, much attention has been paid to questions of racial discrimination on college and university campuses. Many have criticized students for making unreasonable demands. At Amherst, students demanded that other students who had put up free speech posters go through a disciplinary process including training for “racial and cultural competency.” Students at Yale demanded that a lecturer who sent an email deemed offensive be fired from her position as Master of a College. And at Emory University, students demanded “that the faculty evaluations that each student is required to complete for each of their professors include at least two open-ended questions such as: ‘Has this professor made any microaggressions towards you on account of your race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language and/or other identity?’ and ‘Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability and class identities?’ These questions on the faculty evaluations would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors. We demand that these questions be added to the faculty evaluations by the end of this semester, fall 2015.” As excessive as these and other demands may be, they harmed no one, as they were all denied by administrators. What is more, while many of these conversations and protests were difficult and some were uncomfortable, they have largely been successful, leading to measured and at times meaningful change. While there were excesses–examples of youthful exuberance–the protests were in the end simply speech that could be, and was, met by more speech. In other words, the protests around the country were not attacks on free speech so much as they were examples of the way free speech works to articulate and respond to grievances.

When it comes to campus protests regarding perceived sexism, as is evident in what Professor Suk describes above, the reality of Title IX means that speaking freely is to risk losing one’s job. We are in a strange situation in which discussions about race, as fraught as they are, are judged by standards of common sense, while speech touching upon sex or sexuality is subjected to the threat of disciplinary processes administered through a federally mandated bureaucracy. The contrast between the way race and sex are being treated is telling. What is worrisome is that student demands during the protests against racism are inflected by a desire to import the atmosphere of disciplinary threats to bear on speech and acts thought to create a racially hostile atmosphere. The better lesson is the opposing one, that free speech does work to allow students and others to make demands and influence changes on campuses without threatening others for their willingness to speak. –RB

Encryption and Morality

encryptionIn a long but still accessible academic essay, UC Davis computer science professor Phillip Rogaway discusses what he calls the moral character of cryptography and also of science and engineering more generally: “Most academic cryptographers seem to think that our field is a fun, deep, and politically neutral game–a set of puzzles involving communicating parties and notional adversaries. This vision of who we are animates a field whose work is intellectually impressive and rapidly produced, but also quite inbred and divorced from real-world concerns. Is this what cryptography should be like? Is it how we should expend the bulk of our intellectual capital? For me, these questions came to a head with the Snowden disclosures of 2013. If cryptography’s most basic aim is to enable secure communications, how could it not be a colossal failure of our field when ordinary people lack even a modicum of communication privacy when interacting electronically? Yet I soon realized that most cryptographers didn’t see it this way. Most seemed to feel that the disclosures didn’t even implicate us cryptographers. I think that they do. So I want to talk about the moral obligations of cryptographers, and my community as a whole. This is not a topic cryptographers routinely discuss. In this post-Snowden era, I think it needs to be.” Rogaway dissents from Stanley Fish, who advises new professors to do their work and not worry about changing the world. “Perhaps such amorality, however revolting, is harmless in Fish’s intellectual realm: one doesn’t particularly expect literary theory to change the world. But scientists and engineers do just that. A refusal to direct the change we do is both morally bankrupt and ingracious.” I think Rogaway misunderstands Fish, who preaches not amorality but rather humility. A teacher is to teach students what is; that includes the ethics and morality of the world. In doing so, the teacher inspires the student to raise ethical questions for themselves. It is not the teacher’s job to tell students what should be but to prepare them to pose and then decide these ethical questions for themselves. What Rogaway shows us is that computer scientists need to teach more than computer science; they must also teach students about the ethical implications of computer science. They must ask themselves basic questions, like “Is computer science not benefiting man?”–RB

Leader of the People

donald trumpMegan Garber talks about what we really mean when we call someone a demagogue: “As an insult, certainly–as an implicit invalidation of one’s political rhetoric–‘demagogue’ is a very good word. It’s slightly gentler than ‘fascist’ and slightly more dignified than ‘buffoon’; it’s extremely opinionated, and yet carries itself with the gravitas of informed objectivity. Uttered aloud–that evocative agog–it forces one’s mouth to gape appropriately. And while Trump is certainly not the only contemporary politician to be dismissed under its auspices (‘Demagoguery 101,’ Charles Krauthammer wrote of President Obama and his policies), no figure has so clearly deserved the word since Huey Long and Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan riled the former century. So deep has the impact of Trump’s fist-pounding rhetoric been that, at this point, there’s a metonymic circularity to the whole thing. The Economist recently published an article titled ‘The Art of the Demagogue.’ It did not need to clarify who it was about…. Today, perhaps as a response to that vague but ongoing threat of media-driven menace, ‘demagogue’ has become a term of last resort: a description–a deeply loaded epithet–that is summoned only when a particular politician or media figure or other modern people-leader has moved so far away from the mainstream that the Overton Window has receded well into the distance. It’s a word that doubles as a siren for a democratic system, directed at one person but implicating us all: Our house is on fire. It’s this sense that gave the phrase its shock value, and its lasting power, when H.L. Mencken dismissed Huey Long as ‘a backwoods demagogue.’ And when Joe Kennedy decried Father Coughlin as ‘an out and out demagogue.’ It is why American history, its terrain so widely populated with people who bluster and flatter and smarm and shout, has anointed so few actual ‘demagogues.'”  

amor_mundi_sign-upThe Human Ear

svetlana alexievichSvetlana Alexievich received her Nobel Prize for Literature this week. In her acceptance speech, she describes the importance of non-fiction to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: “Right after the war, Theodor Adorno wrote, in shock: ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’ My teacher, Ales Adamovich, whose name I mention today with gratitude, felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the 20th century was sacrilege. Nothing may be invented. You must give the truth as it is. A ‘super-literature’ is required. The witness must speak. Nietzsche’s words come to mind–no artist can live up to reality. He can’t lift it. It always troubled me that the truth doesn’t fit into one heart, into one mind, that truth is somehow splintered. There’s a lot of it, it is varied, and it is strewn about the world. Dostoevsky thought that humanity knows much, much more about itself than it has recorded in literature. So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting–even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other. Witnessеs are not impartial. In telling a story, humans create, they wrestle time like a sculptor does marble. They are actors and creators. I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened. We are afraid of doing that, we’re not up to coping with our past. In Dostoevsky’s Demons, Shatov says to Stavrogin at the beginning of their conversation: ‘We are two creatures who have met in boundless infinity … for the last time in the world. So drop that tone and speak like a human being. At least once, speak with a human voice.”

Buying Power

bruce raunerNicholas Confessore recounts in the NY Times Magazine a war in Illinois between a small group of wealthy families and the entrenched politics of the state. According to Confessore, the families “have poured tens of millions of dollars into the state, a concentration of political money without precedent in Illinois history. Their wealth has forcefully shifted the state’s balance of power.” Confessore tells how Bruce Rauner was boosted into the Governor’s mansion on the shoulders of $27 million of his own money as well as $13.6 million from Kenneth C. Griffin’s family. “The rich families remaking Illinois are among a small group around the country who have channeled their extraordinary wealth into political power, taking advantage of regulatory, legal and cultural shifts that have carved new paths for infusing money into campaigns. Economic winners in an age of rising inequality, operating largely out of public view, they are reshaping government with fortunes so large as to defy the ordinary financial scale of politics. In the 2016 presidential race, a New York Times analysis found last month, just 158 families had provided nearly half of the early campaign money. Many of those giving, like Mr. Griffin, come from the world of finance, an industry that has yielded more of the new political wealth than any other. The Florida-based leveraged-buyout pioneer John Childs, the private equity investor Sam Zell and Paul Singer, a prominent New York hedge fund manager, all helped elect Mr. Rauner, as did Richard Uihlein, a conservative businessman from the Chicago suburbs. Most of them lean Republican; some are Democrats. But to a remarkable degree, their philosophies are becoming part of a widely adopted blueprint for public officials around the country: Critical of the power of unions, many are also determined to reduce spending and taxation, and are skeptical of government-led efforts to mitigate the growing gap between the rich and everyone else.”

Praising Doublethink

big brotherElijah Millgram thinks we can never be as exact as we’d like to be and that we need more hedges in our language: “Imagine you really did have a repertoire of concepts and names that allowed you to say exactly what you meant, pretty much whatever you noticed, or whatever occurred to you. Adrienne Lehrer, a linguist at the University of Arizona, wrote Wine and Conversation (2009), a book about wine vocabulary: ‘earthy’, ‘full-bodied’, ‘flowery’, ‘cloying’, ‘disciplined’, ‘mossy’, and so on. Many, many such adjectives turn up in wine commentary, though evidently not enough of them to live up to Orwell’s ideal. Imagine really having precise terms for all those flavour notes. Orwell was especially worried about capturing our inner lives, so imagine also having words for the day-to-day events that remind you of particular experiences that only you have undergone. Feeling a little swamped? It’s not simply that your mind would be submerged in conceptual clutter; it’s not just that it wouldn’t be possible to learn most of these words, or to communicate with them. In fact, Lehrer found that people don’t manage to communicate very well with their wine vocabularies; if subjects are asked to pick a wine out of a lineup on the basis of someone else’s description of it, they mostly can’t do it. Presumably this sort of talk isn’t really about communication, but it’s also something of an exception… For the most part, our repertoire of concepts and labels for individuals is important because we use it in our reasoning. Descriptions are useful in that we can draw conclusions from them. In the most basic case, you would use a rule: when certain conditions are met (for example, when you’re making the American chef Deborah Madison’s mashed potatoes and turnips), certain implications follow (an appropriate pairing would be a Sancerre in the summer, or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire in fall or winter). Your ever-so-precise mot juste might capture exactly what you see or feel but, if there’s no inference you can fit it to, then there’s nothing you can do with it. Descriptions that you can’t fold into your reasoning are useless.”

The Art of Friendship

nehamasJamie Saxon collects a series of quotations from a recent interview of Alexander Nehamas that together tell a story of a life of the mind. In one series of quotations, Nehamas says: “What a friend should do is give the other person an opportunity to become themselves. For example, if you’re making a big decision, friends can help you articulate what it is that you really want to do. My best friend at Princeton is John Cooper [the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy]–we’ve been friends for 44 years. Few people can compare to him when it comes to interpreting a text. On an intellectual level, he showed me how to be a better reader than I was, how to try to hold myself to a higher standard of what counts as understanding something and having an idea. Not to go on talking without knowing what we’re saying, which is something we all do, unfortunately. I learned a lot about friendship, family and life from him. There is a deep common element behind finding a work of art beautiful, loving a person and being a friend. In all three cases, your feelings for the object or for the person are open-ended: you think that you haven’t found out everything about that person or that work or art; it’s this idea that there’s more to see, there’s more to understand, there’s more to love here. Manet’s ‘Olympia’ is a piece of art that takes my breath away. It is an amazing thing. I love, for example, that the figure is both vulnerable and very strong. I enjoy very much the fact that you can’t tell a story of what’s happening in the painting [which depicts a nude courtesan lying on a bed and a black servant]; nobody has been able to tell a story. When I was in Paris in 2014 to speak at the Princeton-Fung Global Forum, I went to see ‘Olympia’ and it was like seeing an old friend. The painting was the topic of a series of lectures I gave at Yale in 2001, and the book ‘Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art’ that came out of them, but I hadn’t thought seriously about the painting since then. When I saw it again, I realized that I didn’t understand something about the picture, something I hadn’t noticed before. She is holding a kind of silk coverlet, her hand towards the floor and you can’t tell if she’s about to cover herself with it or if she’s just uncovered herself. The moment that I saw there was something else to learn here, something else to know, my love was rekindled. I kept thinking about her the way you keep thinking about a person you have a crush on.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

virtual reading groupHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at

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

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

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

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill observes how the despair expressed in Rilke’s Duino Elegies is an expression of our human world and as such distills the loss we feel from gun violence in the Quote of the Week. Mao Zedong offers his thoughts on how a limited perspective can lead us to think small in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Donna Weeks shares her personal Arendt library with us and her thoughts on studying the Kantian influence in IR in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 10/19/14

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 American Nightmare

Janet YellenChair of the Federal Reserve Board Janet Yellen made waves this week by giving a speech arguing that the unprecedented rise in income inequality in the U.S. may be incompatible with American values (she should have been a speaker at last week’s Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans”). The American dream, the idea that all Americans of whatever economic or racial group can succeed through grit and perseverance, may no longer be true, the Federal Reserve Chairwoman admitted. She writes: “The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then. It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation’s history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.”

An Act of Courage

Harvard UniversityThere is an undeniable and too-often unacknowledged problem with sexual violence on college campuses and in our society at large. Too many women are raped and subjected to unwanted sexual acts or abuse. But instead of having an open discussion about the issue, activists have mobilized an obscure Federal guideline to create an alternative legal system outside to deal with sexual crimes without the protections and transparency of the law. Now a group of Harvard Law School professors is fighting back. They published an op-ed in the Boston Globe in which they “call on the university to withdraw this sexual harassment policy and begin the challenging project of carefully thinking through what substantive and procedural rules would best balance the complex issues involved in addressing sexual conduct and misconduct in our community.” As the professors write, in part: “As teachers responsible for educating our students about due process of law, the substantive law governing discrimination and violence, appropriate administrative decision-making, and the rule of law generally, we find the new sexual harassment policy inconsistent with many of the most basic principles we teach. We also find the process by which this policy was decided and imposed on all parts of the university inconsistent with the finest traditions of Harvard University, of faculty governance, and of academic freedom. Among our many concerns are the following: Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation. Here our concerns include but are not limited to the following: the absence of any adequate opportunity to discover the facts charged and to confront witnesses and present a defense at an adversary hearing; the lodging of the functions of investigation, prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review in one office, and the fact that that office is itself a Title IX compliance office rather than an entity that could be considered structurally impartial; and the failure to ensure adequate representation for the accused, particularly for students unable to afford representation.” 


Malcolm XTa-Nehisi Coates on what it means to communicate well, in a second language, with a native speaker of that language: “I am approaching the end of my third year studying French. This was the first time I’d had a complicated conversation with a native French speaker who I did not know, and managed to follow along. This means more than is immediately apparent. Before I began studying I did not understand that comprehension comes on several levels. It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It’s still another to understand a stranger. And another still to understand a group of strangers who are talking about something of which you have no knowledge. So this small conversation was a moment for me-like the novice yogi going from bridge to wheel. And there again I felt one of the revelation, the discovery, the neurons firing, stretching, growing.”

Cruel and Unusual

Mass Incarceration on TrialIn a review of Jonathan Simon’s Mass Incarceration on Trial, Jessica Pishko points to his understanding of dignity in the law as the source of his optimism for the future of the prison system: “Simon ultimately argues that American society is entering a new age of dignity-based policies, a ‘dignity cascade’ in his words, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Plata, where Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, ‘Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity.’ He traces Kennedy’s logic to other Supreme Court decisions that suggest that the Eighth Amendment should be read to protect ‘dignity’ as an important individual right, albeit one not mentioned in the Constitution. (This is, of course, no real bar, since many well-established rights are not in the Constitution.) Dignity-based policies are an evolution that allows for a broader understanding of the Eighth Amendment, rather than relying on the civil rights arguments of the past. The 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia first raised the idea of human dignity as a value worth protecting, something beyond physical sustenance, when it invalidated the death penalty as it existed in every state for being too broad. Justice Brennan wrote in his concurring opinion that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause forbids punishments not just because they are painful but also because ‘they treat members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded.’ Dignity-based rulings would allow for invalidation of mass incarceration as a practice because it treats people as cogs in the machine. This is where Simon focuses his efforts – he wants his readers to believe that the problem with current incarceration practices is that they treat inmates as something subhuman, and that this can be stopped. He suggests that American courts look to European laws, which have long held that humans should be treated with dignity even if they have committed crimes.” For more, read Roger Berkowitz’s essay on “Dignity Jurisprudence.”

Not Accepted

reconcileNick Smith considers the state of the public apology, now that it’s been taken up by corporations and state institutions: “Once divorced from blame, apologies emerge as a tactical defence. Attorneys can deploy them as what they describes as an ‘attitudinal structuring tactic’ in order to ‘lubricate settlement discussions’. Southwest Airlines in the US employs a full-time ‘apology officer’ who sends out roughly 20,000 letters – which all include his direct phone number – to dissatisfied customers per year. At best, apologies are now a standard customer satisfaction tool: ‘We’re sorry for the inconvenience,’ but frankly we’re not admitting blame nor will we change. At worst, they become wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on a deep-rooted spiritual desire to reconcile.”

 Childhood Writ as Beauty and Terror

Tove JanssonSonya Chung takes up the way that author and Moomin cartoonist Tove Jansson considers children, even in her work for adults: “Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone – better than they do as adults – that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place – as in stories like ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Squirrel,’ featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds – where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late.”

The Exceptionalism of Corruption

American_progressRoger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting for?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For this week’s Weeekend Read, we provide an edited transcript of Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Featured Events

One Day University Film School Presents: “Robot and Frank” and a Discussion with Roger Berkowitz

Robot and Frank explores the depths of friendship and even love between a robot and a man. Though the film is a comedy, the underlying questions it raises are both timely and serious. What is friendship? Can a machine love? More importantly, what happens when humans fall in love with machines?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Manhattan Movement and Arts Center, 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Yasemin SariLunchtime Talk with Yasemin Sari

An Arendtian Recognitive Politics: “The Right to Have Rights” as a Performance of Visibility

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:30 pm



humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

The Fall Experimental Humanities Mellon Lecture

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jim Ottaway Jr. Film Center, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Hannah Arendt Center, 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin explores Arendt’s writings on humanity and the models of self-awareness it commonly uses to understand its earthly existence in the Quote of the Week. We observe Hannah Arendt’s 108th Birthday. Horace Walpole provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back on a 2011 discussion between Roger Berkowitz and David Matias on the origins of the 2008 financial crisis. We appreciate Arendt’s varied note-taking methods in our Library feature. And Roger Berkowitz reflects on American exceptionalism and what we’re fighting for in the Weekend Read.

The Aftermath of the Arab Spring: Women, Activism, and Non-Interference

In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.

The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.

Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her”  After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.

The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.

One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”

Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.

Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country”. But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.

These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?

I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.

-Jeff Jurgens

Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.