Amor Mundi: September 25th, 2016

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.

A Better Way To Hear People

gavin_hamilton_-_coriolanus_act_v_scene_iii_edit2Jo Guldi argues that the Brexit vote and similar anti-elitist political movements need to be understood as more than simply a form of economic populism. While it is true that many Brexit and Trump voters are part of a working class milieu that has been excluded from the benefits of a global cosmopolitan society, these voters are motivated by more than economics. Guldi rightly sees that the rise of the anti-intellectual and anti-elite voting blocs is rooted in an ancient discord between the elites’ claim to justified mastery over the masses.

“Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy. In order to make sense of the possible directions that overall policies might turn, we need a longer history that puts into perspective the notion of an underclass exacting revenge against an elite. The story of that contest in Britain, stretching back to the eighteenth century, provides a corrective to both the enthusiasts and the cynics. It shows the deeply entrenched impediments to greater local control even within a national tradition at the same time that it furnishes models for new forms of participatory engagement.”

Teaching Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus this week, I was struck by the powerful sympathy the bard finds in his hero’s extraordinary elitism. He has contempt for the people. He refuses to flatter them, to say they deserve grain won in conquest, to even profess to love and value them. Yes, Coriolanus goes too far, he lacks discipline, and he does not understand that a statesman must moderate his extreme character. But his claim that the best should rule and the best should rule for the good of the commonwealth resonate in the tragedy. Should not those who sacrifice the most for the public good receive the largest shares? Coriolanus is a tragic hero for Shakespeare because that unfiltered claim for nobility is both recognized as a virtue and piteously taken too far.

The play is popular today because of the obvious parallels with present politics. Many see the rise of authoritarian figures like Donald Trump in Coriolanus. But actually, Trump is closer to a Sicinus and Brutus, the cynical and power hungry Tribunes of the people. Where the play reflects politics today is in the extremity of the positions taken by both sides, Coriolanus who refuses to respect the people and the people who react with blood in their eyes. What both sides forgot is that the side also is comprised of good people seeking the common good. This is a lesson that Thomas Jefferson knew well, as he wrote to Abigail Adams in 1804:

“Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove.”

What statesmanship and politics require is to understand that the other side – at least the honest portion of them – are also good people who simply disagree about the path to the good of the public. The other side is not simply a “basket of deplorables” or a bunch of effeminate elites. What Shakespeare teaches is that amidst the eternal political divisions of the elites and the masses, there is above a need to discipline our feelings and learn to see our political adversaries as also our political allies in a common struggle.

Guldi’s essay is insightful in reminding us that the revolt of the masses is not simply a call for better jobs, although it is surely that in part. It is also a call for respect and participation in the democratic practice of self-government. After fifty years of an extreme rise in elite governance and bureaucratized rule, large majorities of people in Europe and the United States are concluding that the global and cosmopolitan world is not one that values them. To respond that all they want is better jobs is to refuse to listen to what they are saying, all of which is made easier by the charge that they are racist and xenophobic.

It is easy to advocate democracy in the abstract. When the people actually seek to claim what they want is when democracy becomes challenging. The hard work is to truly listen to the so-called deplorables, to work with them, to seek to forge a common good that allows all sides to thrive in accord with their visions of the good. This happens best when there are multiple and active institutional means for the people to voice their opinion in public. But with the nationalization of power in the United States and the rise of multi-national governance in Europe, there are increasingly few such means. As the elites govern in bureaucratic castles, the danger is the rise of tribunes of the people who trumpet the most dangerous populist fantasies.

Guldi writes that the past offers a helpful path forward:

“A proliferation of new models for democratic participation thus appeared throughout the twentieth century, many linked to the rethinking of expert rule and bureaucracy itself. Patrick Geddes criticized the bureaucrat as well as the university-based book learning that formed a part of the professional economist’s education. Through the 1960s, student and worker movements protested for greater inclusion of their agendas into politics, and British radicals such as Colin Ward theorized what self-government on the local level might look like, drawing inspiration from worker-owned cooperatives and the self-built public housing schemes of Sweden. But only a limited number of these ideas actually received the state support necessary to see them replace an expert-run welfare state with a welfare state run by neighbors. The Mass Observation movement of wartime Britain used mass participation, rather than expert bureaucracy, as a model of anti-spy surveillance. From the 1980s forward, Britons experimented with participatory mapping as a means of performing regional planning where everyone could take part, but their results were mostly limited and trivial.

Brexit is a recrudescence of this ongoing struggle between experts and citizens—a showdown between the ideal of state and capitalism forged in the eighteenth century and ideas of participatory democracy articulated in the early nineteenth century, fought for in the twentieth century, and still unrealized at present.”


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Amor Mundi: September 4th, 2016

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.

Shakespeare as Teacher

Scott Newstok bemoans the way newly entering college students have been cheated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, “which ushered in our disastrous fixation on testing.” He worries that “unrelenting assessment has stunted your imaginations.” In response, he suggests that students open themselves to thinking like Shakespeare.

“The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word “invention” and the word “inventory.” Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.

People on today’s left and right are misguided on this point, making them strange bedfellows. Progressive educators have long been hostile to what they scorn as a “banking concept” of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge in passive students. Neoliberal reformers — the ones who have been assessing you for the past dozen years — act as if cognitive “skills” can somehow be taught in the abstract, independent of content. And some politicians seem eager to get rid of teachers altogether and just have you watch a video. You, having been born when Google was founded, probably take it for granted that you can always look something up online.

But knowledge matters. Cumulatively, it provides the scaffolding for your further inquiry. In the most extreme example, if you knew no words in a language, having a dictionary wouldn’t help you in the least, since every definition would simply list more words you didn’t know. Likewise, without an inventory of knowledge, it’s frustratingly difficult for you to accumulate, much less create, more knowledge. As the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante said, “There is no work … that is not the fruit of tradition.””

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Amor Mundi 04/17/16

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.

Superfluous People

Pope Francis flew to the Greek Island of Lesbos and returned with 12 refugees. It was, he said, “a voyage marked by sadness.” The Pope rightly called the refugee crisis “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War.” And in traveling to witness the refugees first hand, the Pope had a message. “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and desperate need and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.”

refugeesSeyla Benhabib has also recently visited a refugee camp in Greece, at the old Athens Airport, Ellinikon International. “On an early Friday morning in March, we approached the grey shaped non-descript institutional buildings at about 10 am. They could have been part of a warehouse, a factory, a military base. The first thing I noticed was a young boy of 9 or 10, who together with his father, was sweeping the front steps of a room inside the flat building that must have housed them. On the other side of the lot, were rows of tents of all colors such as hikers and campers use. Ahead of us, on the balcony of what was once the airport’s main terminal, hung a clothes-line, extending the whole length of the building, with multi-colored shirts, pants, skirts, and scarves waving around in the wind. One could have encountered such a scene of everyday normalcy on any camping site in the world. Except that nothing is normal when you are a refugee. Everyday life, driven by the needs of the body, asserts itself in ways that lets you take nothing for granted — whether you will wake up in the same room or tent the next morning; whether you will have access to bathrooms; whether there will be a doctor to tend to your wounds or illnesses. Suspended between the home that you have lost and the uncertain destination that awaits you, your sense of time is also warped: should one wake up the children? Ah yes, but there is no school or playground for them to go to, is there?”

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Amor Mundi 1/10/16

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

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

amor_mundi_sign-upWhat We Cling To

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

The Critic-in-Chief

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

The Color of the Sky

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

Rage in America

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFrom the Mouths of Babes

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

We’re Gonna Make It Through This Year

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

Non-Professors Teaching Non-Students

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

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #17

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

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

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

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation

A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of ImprovisationJazz, as the modern art form that lays claim to improvisation, situates music in a productive tension between individual freedom and a mysterious yet sentient order. As do modern theories of liberalism in politics, Jazz insists both on the individual liberty of each that is through fidelity to common truths, recognition of traditional customs, or embrace of collective ends is rendered compatible with a larger inter-subjective order. Freedom as an art of improvisation means that men are free only insofar as they act in ways that are both free and constrained. This is very much what Hannah Arendt means means when she writes that “Men are free-as distinguished from their possessing the gift of freedom- as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.” In this evening on “A Taste for Chaos: The Hidden Order in the Art of Improvisation,” we bring together leading thinkers and musicians to explore the nature of improvisation and the art of freedom.

Free & Open to the Public

Monday, February 15, 2016

László Z. Bitó ’60 Conservatory Building, 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Learning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing EpidemicsLearning from the West African Ebola Epidemic: The Role of Governance in Preventing Epidemics

“Learning From the West African Ebola Epidemic” is a one-day conference in New York City exploring the hypothesis that building public trust in effective organizations is essential for fighting health crises such as Ebola. The conference is grounded in the Global Health Security Agenda that seeks to accelerate progress towards a world safe from infectious disease.

Specifically, the Global Health Security Agenda seeks to

  • Prevent avoidable epidemics;
  • Detect threats early; and
  • Respond rapidly and effectively.

Combining social science and political actors with leading scientists and Ebola specialists, we will explore the Ebola epidemic and its consequences as a case study to explore how educational, governance and healthcare resources can be better deployed against future outbreaks. The conference is sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, Citizen Science, CCE, and the Ford Foundation in collaboration with the Honorable Dr. Wilmot James, South African MP and the Carnegie Council for Ethics In International Affairs.

To learn more about and register for our conference, please click here.

Free & Open to the Public

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Carnegie Council for Ethics & International Affairs, NYC, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

vita activaVita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2016

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

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

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

Thursday and Friday, October 20 and 21, 2016

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

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


Amor Mundi 9/13/15

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-upNothing to Fear But…

fear gunsMarilynne Robinson, taking up questions of American sacred and secular religion, obliquely picks up on a famous maxim of Franklin Roosevelt. America is a Christian country, she says, but its political culture turns a deaf ear to that heritage and not in the way that people usually suggest: “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.’ We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. These are larger, more embracing terms than contemporary Christianity is in the habit of using. But we are taught that Christ ‘was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ The present tense here is to be noted. John’s First Letter proclaims ‘the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.’ We as Christians cannot think of Christ as isolated in space or time if we really do accept the authority of our own texts. Nor can we imagine that this life on earth is our only life, our primary life. As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls. We hear a great deal now about the drift of America away from a Christian identity. Whenever there is talk of decline–as in fact there always is–the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? I propose attention to the marked and oddly general fearfulness of our culture at present as one way of dealing with the problem. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus we find a description of the state the people of Israel will find themselves in if they depart from their loyalty to God: ‘The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall when none pursues. They shall stumble over one another, as if to escape a sword, though none pursues.'” Robinson’s point, apart from her claim that America is a Christian nation, is that if you fear indiscriminately, courage dissipates. Her worry is that the decline of religiosity is part and parcel of our fearful moral and political cowardice. 

The University and Its Publics

graduation capKwame Anthony Appiah appraises contemporary higher education: “Neither Utility U. nor Utopia U. has the full run of any one campus. In the familiar caricature, there’s the performance-studies major who is putting up fliers for the Naomi Klein talk, collecting signatures for the fossil-free petition and wondering whether the student alliance for gender equity is as racially inclusive as it claims. Then there’s the engineering major, first in the family to go to college, traipsing across the quad with a discounted, two-editions-out-of-date version of the material-science textbook. All that identity stuff is a dimly perceived distraction in this student’s light cone, readily tuned out. One student thinks ‘bi-curious’ is a word; the other doesn’t see why you would use molecular-orbital theory when valence bonding provides answers faster. The two students cross paths only physically. It’s almost as if they’re attending two different colleges. One reason this is a caricature is that people aren’t always found on the expected side of the disciplinary (and class) divides. At liberal-arts campuses, certainly, almost everyone drinks from the fountain of human betterment, albeit some from a Dixie cup and others from a Big Gulp. And very few are completely unmindful of the getting-a-job thing that’s rumored to follow graduation. But when you superimpose the two visions of college–as a forcing house of virtue and as means for building human capital–you inevitably get interference patterns, ripples and ridges of indignation and disquiet. That’s what you’re seeing when the safe-space ethic runs amok, as with students who claim offense when their ideas are challenged or who want to see ‘trigger warnings’ on even canonical literature, like those cardboard lids on hotel-room glasses. Here, the student is at once the sensitive servant of high causes and a demanding customer. Nor are these tensions likely to resolve themselves, because higher education has to play so many roles. The truth is that colleges and universities do a tremendous amount that neither of these pictures captures–that just can’t be reduced to the well-being of their graduates. For one thing, the old ideal of knowledge for its own sake hasn’t been extinguished. For another, universities are the homes of all kinds of public goods. They are, for example, the source of much of today’s best research. Without them we would know much less than we do about the nature of the cosmos or the workings of the human brain or the ways of reading a novel. A flourishing literary culture is made possible not because institutions of higher learning create writers but because they prepare readers (and yes, it helps that they provide jobs for plenty of poets and novelists too). There’s even something to be said, especially in a democracy, for an educated citizenry, able to question the creeds of the moment.”

The Multimedia Shakespeare

shakespeareStephen Greenblatt in the New York Times argues that teaching Shakespeare still is meaningful to today’s students but frequently in new and unexpected ways. “Shakespeare has not lost his place in this new world, just as, despite the grim jeremiads of the cultural pessimists, he has not lost his place in colleges and universities. On the contrary, his works (and even his image) turn up everywhere, and students continue to flock to courses that teach him, even when those courses are not required. But as I have discovered in my teaching, it is a different Shakespeare from the one with whom I first fell in love. Many of my students may have less verbal acuity than in years past, but they often possess highly developed visual, musical and performative skills. They intuitively grasp, in a way I came to understand only slowly, the pervasiveness of songs in Shakespeare’s plays, the strange ways that his scenes flow one into another or the cunning alternation of close-ups and long views. When I ask them to write a 10-page paper analyzing a particular web of metaphors, exploring a complex theme or amassing evidence to support an argument, the results are often wooden; when I ask them to analyze a film clip, perform a scene or make a video, I stand a better chance of receiving something extraordinary. A student with a beautiful voice performed Brahms’s Ophelia songs, with a piano accompaniment by another gifted musician. Students with a knack for creative writing have composed monologues in the voice of the villainous Iago, short stories depicting an awkward reunion of Shylock and his daughter, Jessica, or even additional scenes in Shakespearean verse. This does not mean that I should abandon the paper assignment; it is an important form of training for a range of very different challenges that lie in their future. But I see that their deep imaginative engagement with Shakespeare, their intoxication, lies elsewhere. And I should add that no one, as far as I can tell, any longer dreams of establishing symbolic descent from Stratford-upon-Avon to substitute for or displace actual descent from Vilnius or Seoul or Johannesburg. Contrary to my expectations, my students at Harvard are far more diverse, in geographical origin, culture and class, than my students ever were at U.C. Berkeley. They embrace this diversity and confidently expect to make their way through a global environment linked by complex digital networks.”

amor_mundi_sign-upTedious Gadflies Spoiling the Tailgate

footballThere are the challenges of the humanities. Star professors rarely teach. And the profit motive corrupts of our college and universities. Writing in the The Boston Review, Robert L. Kehoe III considers all these criticisms, but hones in the particularly gruesome state of college athletics. “Echoing Albert Camus’s belief that the most profound ethical teaching he experienced was on the soccer field, theologian Stanley Hauwerwas has argued, ‘The most determinative moral formation most people have in our society is when they learn to play baseball, basketball, quilt, cook, or learn to lay bricks.’ That college athletics (and academics) could support the intellectual and moral development of student-athletes, while enhancing the communal strength of campus life, is inarguable. But it is only a sustainable prospect if administrators and faculty at colleges and universities preserve the nonprofit values of higher education and treat athletics as more than a source of entertainment, revenue, and prestige. To do so would demand a vision of athletic education that resists the temptation to profiteer at a time when college football’s popularity is soaring. Last season’s national championship game garnered the highest ratings in cable TV history, for a contest that featured Ohio State (whose starting quarterback Tweeted about his disregard for academic responsibility) and the University of Oregon (whose football players have an at-best middling graduation rate but enjoy a $68 million locker room paid for by Nike co-founder and Chairman Phil Knight). No amount of compromise or corruption has dissuaded fans and investors from tuning in–with eyeballs and cash. And when those investors include media conglomerates that attempt to do the work of journalism while promoting entertainment they profit from, there can be little hope that visible sports writers and commentators will take a more active role in reforming the current system. As the New York Times reports, media outlets often have a vested interest in the status quo; ESPN, for example, has infused so many billions of dollars into college football that it has effectively become ‘both puppet-master and kingmaker, arranging games, setting schedules and bestowing the gift of nationwide exposure on its chosen universities, players and coaches.’ In such a landscape, those who question the centrality of football in college life appear little more than tedious gadflies spoiling the tailgate.”

Stereotypical Statistics

spatial reasoningAn author identifying herself as Michelle G, a student at MIT, acknowledges, “There is empirical evidence to support the idea that males have a higher capacity for spatial reasoning than females.” But Michelle G. dives deeply into these and other studies to argue that such “evidence” is a “factual misconception.” “I’m guessing that you’re familiar with common notions that men are spatial and logical thinkers, while females are more verbally proficient. A man being tested for spatial ability might assume that he’s going to have an easier time than a woman of otherwise equal intelligence, his conclusion based not on sexism but on objective science. And statistically speaking, he’s right. It is true that men score higher on spatial reasoning tests, though you might have caught on that there’s a little bit more to this picture (why would a female MIT student publicize stereotypes that actively work against her?). If you’re now wondering whether I’m about to throw some kind of feminist rant at you, I’ll give you a ‘well, sort of,’ because calling out factual misconception is just as important as promoting feminist ideals here, and because I think those two go hand in hand anyway. I’ll largely put the romance of egalitarianism aside, though, to talk about empiricism…. I think it’s important to acknowledge the very rightful discomfort that arises when scientific studies attempt to trace such differences to biologically determined origins. Yet, across decades of research, no biological cause has actually been identified as a suitable explanation for the spatial reasoning discrepancy. Studies regarding testosterone and mental rotation, for example, found inconsistent or absent effects across cultures, prompting inquiries into ‘differing cultural values’ to account for the results. And gaps between men’s and women’s scores on some spatially-geared tests have significantly shrunk in the past few decades, which is interesting because noticeable evolutionary or nature-based development might take thousands of decades to take effect. (‘Nurture’-based conditions are of course rapidly changing.) Still though, the gap has lingered, and a satisfying and empirically-supported explanation as to ‘what gives’ was not achieved until 2008, when researchers eliminated the performance gap under a single simple condition.”

Hitler’s Science

hitlerTimothy Snyder in the New York Review of Books explores “Hitler’s World” and what he finds will surprise some. Above all, human races were likes species involved in a fateful fight to the death. Life was a struggle that followed natural laws, but one that could be influenced by human action. And as Hannah Arendt so clearly emphasized in her Origins of Totalitarianism, Hitler and his Nazi party embraced a movement that transcended nations and states. In short, Nazism was not nationalist, a common misconception. “Hitler’s basic critique was not the usual one that human beings were good but had been corrupted by an overly Jewish civilization. It was rather that humans were animals and that any exercise of ethical deliberation was in itself a sign of Jewish corruption. The very attempt to set a universal ideal and strain toward it was precisely what was hateful. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s most important deputy, did not follow every twist of Hitler’s thinking, but he grasped its conclusion: ethics as such was the error; the only morality was fidelity to race. Participation in mass murder, Himmler maintained, was a good act, since it brought to the race an internal harmony as well as unity with nature. The difficulty of seeing, for example, thousands of Jewish corpses marked the transcendence of conventional morality. The temporary strains of murder were a worthy sacrifice to the future of the race. Any nonracist attitude was Jewish, thought Hitler, and any universal idea a mechanism of Jewish dominion. Both capitalism and communism were Jewish. Their apparent embrace of struggle was simply cover for the Jewish desire for world domination. Any abstract idea of the state was also Jewish. ‘There is no such thing,’ wrote Hitler, ‘as the state as an end in itself.’ As he clarified, ‘the highest goal of human beings’ was not ‘the preservation of any given state or government, but the preservation of their kind.’ The frontiers of existing states would be washed away by the forces of nature in the course of racial struggle: ‘One must not be diverted from the borders of Eternal Right by the existence of political borders.’ If states were not impressive human achievements but fragile barriers to be overcome by nature, it followed that law was particular rather than general, an artifact of racial superiority rather than an avenue of equality. Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and during World War II the governor-general of occupied Poland, maintained that the law was built ‘on the survival elements of our German people.’ Legal traditions based on anything beyond race were ‘bloodless abstractions.’ Law had no purpose beyond the codification of a Führer‘s momentary intuitions about the good of his race. The German concept of a Rechtsstaat, a state that operated under the rule of law, was without substance. As Carl Schmitt explained, law served the race, and the state served the race, and so race was the only pertinent concept. The idea of a state held to external legal standards was a sham designed to suppress the strong.”

White Poetry, Yellow Face

asiaHua Hsu considers the case of white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who occasionally published poetry under the assumed identity of a Chinese poet named Yi-Fen Chou but who, very unusually, owned up to the subterfuge when his work was admitted to the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology. The anthology’s editor, Sherman Alexie, recently published a blog post about why he included Hudson’s poem anyway, and that’s where Hsu picks up: “The more revealing aspect of Alexie’s response is his account of what attracted him to ‘The Bees’ once Hudson’s calculated hunch had garnered the poem ‘a close read.’ The poem wasn’t obviously ‘Chinese,’ however you might interpret that, Alexie explains. Instead, it referenced ‘Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus.’ It was, in other words, ‘inherently obsessed with European culture.’ Alexie goes on, ‘When I first read it, I’d briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the “maybe” pile that eventually became a “yes” pile.’ Alexie is a sharp and self-aware Native American writer and filmmaker, and he didn’t necessarily mean to suggest that a Chinese person raised in America wouldn’t gravitate toward Western themes. (Isn’t that how assimilation works?) But his phrasing reminds me of the odd standard often applied to marginalized voices: in this case, there was something refreshingly noteworthy about a Chinese poet writing about non-Chinese things. Consider the comparative privilege of the white artist, whose experiences are received as ‘universal,’ even if that artist chooses to assume the guise of the other. Ezra Pound’s flawed ‘translations’ of Chinese poetry, for example, became a key foundation for modernism. The only limitation for such an artist, really, is the extent to which it can all be explained away as an avant-garde game if things get too weird… Perhaps, too, spoofing the Chinese struck Hudson as a relatively safe masquerade, likely to provoke less generalized rage than, say, the fake autobiography of a purported ex-gangster or a Holocaust survivor. Or maybe it was simply more efficient. When it comes to such hoaxes, it seems somehow easier to fake Asia, a land still distant and inscrutable to many Americans; while other hoaxes work because of their thoroughness and care, the Asian-themed sort often get by with only a few details, as long as those details seem just ‘Asian’ enough. After all, imitating the sound of Asian languages is something of a national pastime, from Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s ‘Ah Sin’ to Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar’s ‘Cream of Sum Yung Guy.’ In 2013, a Bay Area news report about an Asian Air crash listed the pilots’ names as Ho Lee Fuk, Wi Tu Lo, Sum Ting Wong, and Bang Ding Ow, presumably because these names appeared sufficiently believable.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

constitutionHannah Arendt, Privacy, and the Constitution

Constitution Day (or Citizenship Day) is observed on September 17 to recognize the U.S. Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. In honor of Constitution Day, the Arendt Center extends an invitation to attend a lecture by Roger Berkowitz.

“[T]o the extent that they had a positive notion of freedom which would transcend the idea of a successful liberation from tyrants and from necessity, this notion was identified with the act of foundation, that is, the framing of a constitution.”

-Hannah Arendt, “On Revolution”

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reem-Kayden Center Laszlo Z. Bito ’60 Auditorium, Bard College, 5:00 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #12

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, September 11, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference,Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

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

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Louise Brinkerhoff discusses how even in solitude there are always two sides in dialogue in the Quote of the Week. Sir Aubrey De Vere comments on how one thought immortalized in ink can lead millions to think in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. We share a chapter from Stephen Most’s Stories Make the World, a book which describes how Most applied Arendt’s thinking about stories to his work as a filmmaker. Finally, Thierry Ternisien d’Ouville shares with us an image of his personal Arendt library on Twitter in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 5/10/15

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-upWho Watches the Watchers

french parliamentThere is nothing like a terrorist attack to create the political will for a surveillance state. Alissa J. Rubin reports in the New York Times about a new law in France that would empower the French authorities to monitor people in their homes, cars, and private spaces, as well to bug their computers. “The bill, in the works since last year, now goes to the Senate, where it seems likely to pass, having been given new impetus in reaction to the terrorist attacks in and around Paris in January, including at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher grocery, that left 17 people dead. As the authorities struggle to keep up with the hundreds of French citizens who are cycling to and from battlefields in Iraq and Syria to wage jihad–often lured over the Internet–the new steps would give the intelligence services the right to gather potentially unlimited electronic data. The provisions, as currently outlined, would allow them to tap cellphones, read emails and force Internet providers to comply with government requests to sift through virtually all of their subscribers’ communications. Among the types of surveillance that the intelligence services would be able to carry out is the bulk collection and analysis of metadata similar to that done by the United States’ National Security Agency. The intelligence services could also request a right to put tiny microphones in a room or on objects such as cars or in computers or place antennas to capture telephone conversations or mechanisms that capture text messages. Both French citizens and foreigners could be tapped…. The new law would create a 13-member National Commission to Control Intelligence Techniques, which would be made up of six magistrates from the Council of State and the Court of Appeals, three representatives of the National Assembly and three senators from the upper house of the French Parliament and a technical expert. Any requests to initiate surveillance would have to go through the commission. However, if the commission recommended not to set up the monitoring, it could be overridden by the prime minister.” While the Times article implies that France is ramping up its surveillance as the United States is pulling back, the fact is that the French proposal still puts members of the council of state, the French Court of Appeals, the National Assembly, and the French Senate on the panel that must approve surveillance requests. Compare that group of elected and appointed public servants with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the United States, which is comprised of eleven unelected district court judges appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States. This reveals that even if the law is passed in France, at least there would be democratic representatives watching over the watchers.

Pulling the Trigger

columbia universityIn the Columbia Spectator, Columbia University’s student newspaper, a letter by members of the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board calls for trigger warnings before teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses as part of the college’s core curriculum. “During the week spent on Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses,’ the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored. Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background…. Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.” The medicalization of the language around trauma is confusing this issue, which concerns one thing simply: the infantalization of university students and of the adults around them. College, not to mention life, is a space that challenges us to confront shocking as well as inspiring ideas, images, and people. It is not a safe space, and it cannot be if it is to be a space for thinking.

The Days After

nepal earthquakePhotographer Giles Price was in Nepal before last month’s earthquake. His project there has since changed following the natural disaster: “Price photographed Katmandu the morning after the earthquake, assisted by a local reporter named Pradeep Bashyal, who had been with him on Everest. The city is home to more than a million people, and crowds of them had hastily relocated to its open spaces. The quake leveled several centuries-old World Heritage Sites, but many of Katmandu’s modern buildings fared comparatively well. Still, the fear of aftershocks was all-consuming–and warranted. The two tectonic plates whose movement caused the disaster were still lurching and fidgeting, trying to get comfortable again. Within days, there would be 60 more quakes of magnitude 4.1 or greater, and scientists project that this residual shaking could continue for years. ‘Unfortunately, this is simply what earthquakes do,’ one geologist told NPR. Price didn’t intend for his two sets of pictures to go together, but somehow they do. Or at least they grind against each other evocatively, like jagged plates, and never exactly settle. In some, people have trekked far outside the stability of civilization to confront the extremity of nature–as hired guides, or voluntarily, for pleasure and at no small expense. Others show people with comparatively little, who had that stability heaved up from underneath them. Here are people daring to live on a mountain. And here is a mountain of debris, where a moment ago people had dared to live.”

Hard Labor

American prison systemJed Rakoff takes a look at the American prison system and wonders what, if anything, is working: “This mass incarceration–which also includes about 800,000 white and Asian males, as well as over 100,000 women (most of whom committed nonviolent offenses)–is the product of statutes that were enacted, beginning in the 1970s, with the twin purposes of lowering crime rates in general and deterring the drug trade in particular. These laws imposed mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment on many first offenders. They propounded sentencing guidelines that initially mandated, and still recommend, substantial prison terms for many other offenders. And they required lifetime imprisonment for many recidivists. These laws also substantially deprived judges of sentencing discretion and effectively guaranteed imprisonment for many offenders who would have previously received probation or deferred prosecution, or who would have been sent to drug treatment or mental health programs rather than prison. The unavoidable question is whether these laws have succeeded in reducing crime. Certainly crime rates have come down substantially from the very high levels of the 1970s and 1980s that gave rise to them. Overall, crime rates have been cut nearly in half since they reached their peak in 1991, and they are now at levels not seen in many decades. A simple but powerful argument can be made that, by locking up for extended periods the people who are most likely to commit crimes, we have both incapacitated those who would otherwise be recidivists and deterred still others from committing crimes in the first place. But is this true? The honest answer is that we don’t know.”

amor_mundi_sign-upWhat Cartoons Are

art spiegelmanIn an interview about why he agreed to co-host an event honoring the French humor magazine Charlie Hedbo, Art Spiegelman describes the power of the cartoon: “Cartoons are so much more immediate than prose. They have a visceral power that doesn’t require you to slow down, but it does require you to slow down if you want to understand them. They have a deceptive directness that writers can only envy. They deploy the same tools that writers often use: symbolism, irony, metaphor. Cartoons enter your eye in a blink, and can’t be unseen after they’re seen.” Numerous PEN society members boycotted the ceremony honoring Charlie Hedbo for their courage. As my Bard Colleague Neil Gaiman, who stepped in to co-host the event, said, “I was honoured to be invited to host a table. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are getting an award for courage: They continued putting out their magazine after the offices were firebombed, and the survivors have continued following the murders.”

Film and Frailty

erros morrisRandolph Lewis considers the delicacy with which documentarian Errol Morris handles his subjects: “Though he is sometimes criticized for not pushing hard enough in his interviews, I think Morris is wise to put people in the center of the frame and let them run their mouths. Maybe I’m letting him off too easy, but I appreciate his willingness to let the story speak for itself without excessive punctuation or a melodramatic 60 Minutes-style confrontation, which is sometimes little more than a phony performance of moral outrage in which someone screams ‘gotcha.’ If Morris doesn’t shout, ‘Robert McNamara is a self-serving war criminal son-of-a-bitch’ in The Fog of War, it’s because he doesn’t need to. Instead, he lays down plenty of rope for the viewer to hang the former defense secretary for his epic miscalculations, or better yet, to hang the system that elevated this blinkered technocrat to the apex of Cold War power. Or, even better still, the film encourages something more than easy denunciation and moral superiority: It invites a humane regard for McNamara’s folly, as if he were a deluded king in Shakespearean tragedy who we can’t quite reject outright. Without in any way excusing what McNamara did, Morris shows an awareness of human frailty and contradiction that we often attribute to great novelists.”

Whither Industry

american steel millDeborah Rudacille takes a look at the effects of the old American industries on the bodies and minds of those who labored in them, and she wonders why we miss them: “Thousands of working-class communities around the country lament the shuttering of blast furnaces, coke ovens, mines and factories. This yearning for a vanishing industrial United States, a place in long, slow decline thanks to globalisation and technological change, has a name–smokestack nostalgia. It is a paradoxical phenomenon, considering the environmental damage and devastating health effects of many of the declining industries. Our forebears worked gruelling shifts in dangerous jobs, inhaling toxic fumes and particulates at work and at home. Many lived in neighbourhoods hemmed in by industries that pumped effluent into rivers, streams and creeks… Few of the steelworkers I’ve known deny the negative aspects of living and working on the Point, including long-standing racial, class and gender discrimination. Still, they grieve the shuttering of the Sparrows Point works, which provided not just union jobs with generous benefits, but a sense of family and community, identity and self-worth. At a ceremony on 24 November 2014 honouring the legacy and history of Sparrows Point, in advance of the demolition of what was once the largest blast furnace in the western hemisphere, steelworkers described what the Point meant to them. ‘My heart will always be in this place. This is hallowed ground,’ said Michael Lewis, a third-generation steelworker and union officer. Troy Pritt, another steel worker, read a poem calling the steelworks ‘home’.”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #8

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, May 15, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE – 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference,Privacy: Why Does It Matter?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Kazue Koishikawa challenges us to meditate on how the “political” relates to humanity and to understand why Arendt feels the public realm is diminishing in the Quote of the Week. Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we share a photograph of a Twitter follower’s personal library that includes different translations of many of Hannah Arendt’s works in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 12/7/14

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.

Who The Police Kill

police blackDara Lind on Vox looks into the controversial number of police killings every year. A minimum of about 400 people are killed annually by what the FBI calls “justified police homicides”–but the actual number is likely much higher (see FiveThirtyEight). Within these statistics, those killed are predominantly male. About 50% are white, the rest largely black or Hispanic. But one important difference concerns the age of the victims: “The SHR lists 118 victims of ‘justifiable homicide’ who were killed while fleeing, committing a felony, or resisting arrest–not because they were attacking anyone. And 102 of those weren’t killed with a rifle or a shotgun but with a handgun. In these 102 cases, the necessity of the officers’ use of force is the most ambiguous. And in these 102 cases, the victims are more likely than in any other justifiable homicide categories to be black…. John Roman of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute says these numbers indicate that many white justifiable-homicide victims are killed by police who are intervening in a domestic-violence dispute. Broader research on all types of homicide, he says, shows that victim and offender ages fall into a few distinct groups: ‘You see one peak with little kids with infanticide, one peak with teenagers shooting each other, and then you see another big blip where the age of the victim and the offender are the same and they could be in their 30s, 40s or 50s. And that’s mainly domestic violence. So when you see whites being shot by police officers, who are older than their early 20s, that’s almost certainly domestic violence.’ The concentration of death among young black and Hispanic men, meanwhile, is in part a demonstration that those are the people most likely to encounter police officers. They’re the ones most likely to be arrested, and most likely to be living in the neighborhoods where police most frequently patrol.”

The Daughter Against The Archivist

saskia sassenMarc Parry profiles Saskia Sassen, author of Global Cities, and daughter of Willem Sassen, the Nazi who is now famous for his interviews with Adolf Eichmann. Amidst an account of Sassen’s innovative work on globalization, Parry gives Sassen’s reaction to the stories being told about her father, most recently in Bettina Stangneth’s book Eichmann Before Jerusalem. “But, to my surprise, Sassen hasn’t seen that movie. Nor has she read Stangneth’s book. And the longer I speak with Sassen about her father, the clearer it becomes that her account clashes with Stangneth’s. Willem Sassen, in his daughter’s description, is a more palatable figure. A bit of a fanatic, yes. A journalist aligned with the Nazis, yes. But a man whose great passions were theater and journalism. In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, Stangneth describes how Willem Sassen grew infatuated with Hitler in his youth. She tells me how, after Eichmann’s capture, Sassen protected the murderer by manipulating the transcripts of their discussions and never going public with the original recordings. (Stangneth found no evidence that Sassen had betrayed Eichmann to the Israelis.) Stangneth’s book also describes how, in a 1991 interview on Argentine TV, Sassen continued to justify Josef Mengele’s ‘experiments’ on Auschwitz victims. By contrast, Saskia Sassen tells me that her father ‘did not like the Nazis.’ She emphasizes how he clashed with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. ‘My father detested Hitler,’ she says. ‘He detested him.’ And the Argentina circle? The dreaming of Nazi restoration? Willem Sassen’s attempt to discredit ‘propaganda’ about the Holocaust? ‘That’s not what I remember,’ she says. In her telling, Willem Sassen comes across as a mouthpiece for local Nazis. He wrote for them but ranted about them at home. The ‘ridiculous texts’ he produced were ‘to have an income,’ she says. At another point in our conversation, Sassen says, ‘My father was more a journalist–a journalist wants to discover stuff–than he was pro-Nazi, actually.’ It’s not that Stangneth is lying in her portrayal, she tells me. ‘But she was dealing with archives…. She doesn’t understand, in my home, what I experienced.'”

Seeing The World Through Others’ Eyes

white resentmentTo think, Hannah Arendt writes, is to think from the perspective of others, what she calls enlarged thinking. But thinking from the perspective of others means many others, and not just from the perspective of one group. That is Jim Sleeper’s point. He tells of Claudia Horwitz, “a spiritual/social activist and interim director of Houston’s Rothko Chapel,” who writes that the answer to the question, “What Are White People to Do?” is for whites to “put ourselves through some honest reflection and let that process lead us on to thoughtful action … to dismantle a system of white supremacy that permeates every corner of our legal, economic, political, relational and cultural lives.” Sleeper, author of the classic “The Closest of Strangers, Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York,” has a different take: “But Horowitz doesn’t address those millions of white guys (and gals) who run the gamut from a Zimmerman to a Signorelli. To do that, whites who think and write about race would have to ‘peer into’ the lives of whites who are perhaps even more deeply angry than we are–so angry they haven’t enough words or even scapegoats to lift the sadness that accompanies their rage. We’d also have to discover that some of them are as angry at moralizing, liberal whites as they are at blacks–just as angry as they’d be if America were white from coast to coast, like the England of Charles Dickens, where grinding, gnawing differences in class weren’t racial at all, as they also aren’t in most majority-black societies. We’d have to understand why the white anger I’ve just mentioned is taking increasingly murderous and perverse turns that won’t be deflected by our moralizing. Start with two contrasting images of generic American ‘white guys,’ taken from two historic moments less than a decade apart. When death-embracing fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center on 9/11, perhaps the most telling response came from New York City firefighters and police officers who ran toward death in order to rescue others, not slaughter them.” For Sleeper, white elites must indeed learn to think and feel from the perspective of blacks, but they must also attend to the ressentiment of the white working class.

To Be Black

black americaSpeaking at a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, Chris Lebron says that America, “while no longer white supremacist in the way it was before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, daily exhibits the visages of a country where public lynching was practiced and Jim Crow segregation was the norm.” What is needed, Lebron argues, is a new idea of racial education: “When I speak of racial democratic education I mean something deeply humanistic. When we are presented with facts, numbers, and dates, we tend to think we have acquired knowledge. But more essentially we consider ourselves to be educated when knowledge opens a window letting in a new way of seeing the world–this is the moment when knowledge becomes erudition. I think a significant problem with regard to race in America today is that we have focused a great deal on, admittedly, a narrow range of knowledge regarding American history. These arebasic pedagogical tropes: Lincoln freed the slaves, Martin Luther King, Jr. made a momentous speech on the steps of the Washington Monument, the Civil Rights Act made racial equality law of the land. But these tropes do not allow us to see the world anew–they are the tropes that now allow us to be comfortable with the status quo, for surely if Martin had a dream and racial equality is law of the land, we can wake up today and go about our business. But it goes without saying that no conversation about the Civil Rights Movement can be complete without paying serious attention to Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. It goes without saying that no one can responsibly remark on the triumph of formal racial equality as law without also noting the concurrent and aggressive build-up of the carceral state and the penal system which disproportionately incarcerates young black men, resulting in what Michelle Alexander aptly calls the New Jim Crow. It would certainly help the cause of racial equality if more knowledge were brought before the minds of students and Americans more generally. But I want to explore another avenue. This avenue is not mutually exclusive to the knowledge-based approach I just mentioned. The kind of thing I‘ve been thinking about lately has to do with something very essential: more than know what has happened in American history to blacks as a category of people (and here I note and bracket the obvious problems with a notion like racial categories). I think we need a better understanding of what it is like to be, to exist as a black person in America. In what follows I can only offer a philosophical account of the conceptual framework I have in mind–my expertise is far from advising educational policy in its particulars. It is my hope that some of what I say resonates here today with those of you who are surely better positioned than I am to think in terms of policy.”

Goodbye To Virtuosos

Leon WieseltierThis week saw a mass resignation of editors and writers at The New Republic, one of the oldest and most venerable magazines in US history. No other resignation will be felt as strongly as that of Leon Wieseltier who ran the Books & The Arts section of the magazine for decades. R.R. Reno writes that Wieseltier’s departure speaks volumes about both American liberalism and America’s colleges: Wieseltier could leave, Reno writes, first because “American liberalism is shifting in the direction of a long tradition in American conservatism, one that is supremely confident in the wisdom of markets. For liberal idealists, the new technological utopianism married to the dynamism of capitalism has replaced the old utopian socialism of the bygone era.” The second reason Wieseltier is going “reflects changes in the university. A liberal arts education educates young people into a particular way of life, a particular culture. Some of them become virtuosos in this way of life, which means they absorb its animating ideas and sentiments, but can improvise. All cultures need these virtuosos, because all cultures face external and internal challenges that require adaptation, revision, and renewal. The prophets of Israel were virtuosos. Socrates, Luther, Burke, and Emerson were virtuosos…. As an editor, Wieseltier sought liberal virtuosos. (Conservatives were not part of his mix. He was interested only in a conversation about a progressive future.) And when he found them he gave them an extraordinary amount of space to speak to us about things that matter. But today’s universities don’t train virtuosos. A shallow scientism and materialism has found its way to the classroom. Political correctness shuts down conversation, insisting on sterile platitudes. Conservative ideas are largely excluded, and many of the most important questions facing us today simply aren’t posed in ways relevant to our public life (which unlike the university culture isn’t monochromatic). And anyway, if starting a company and cashing out as a billionaire is the way to change the world, who needs Shakespeare?”

Comics And Other Arts

zap comixIn an interview, publisher Gary Groth situates underground comix in terms of other art movements from the 60s and 70s: “Zap was obviously part of the ’60s-counter-cultural zeitgeist–it couldn’t have happened without the larger cultural shift that it epitomized–but I tend to think the whole underground comix revolution was too singular to compare tidily with the stylistic and attitudinal shifts in the other arts in the ’60s (and ’70s). You can observe parallels in other media: artists like Stan Brackage, Jonas Mekas, Frank Jacobs, and Kenneth Anger were pushing the formal elements of film; Vonnegut, Pynchon, Brautigan, Kesey, and others were emerging in prose fiction. But they didn’t represent a decisive split from the past. By contrast, in terms of visual art, I don’t see much connection to other artists emerging in the ’60s. Surely the Zap artists had little in common with (and I bet most were even fundamentally opposed to) Warhol (who showed his first comic strip painting in 1960) or Litchenstein (who did his first comic strip painting in 1961) or Claus Oldenberg or Gerhard Richter or Ed Ruscha, whose ascendancy parallels the underground artists. Their respective values seem quite different to me. The only art movement that I can see that Zap or the underground artists generally shares any affinity with is the Chicago Imagists (or the Hairy Who) (who had their first show in ’66)–artists like Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum. They had a cartoony, occasionally psychedelic cast to their work, but used to different ends, the results of which were pretty remote from those of underground comix. You could make a case that Kesey and his Merry Pranksters had the same aesthetically anarchic spirit as much of the undergrounds, but that too seems a bit of a stretch. And maybe rock was as huge a break from previous pop music as Zap was from previous industrial comics production, but the explosion of rock seems more like a continuation or culmination of musical trends, whereas underground comix was a decisive break from the past–a deliberate, incendiary reaction to the censored blandness of comics over the previous 15 years. So it seems to me that the Zap crew was somehow part of but apart from their countercultural brethren in the other arts.”

Wisdom And The Crowd

crowdfundingFreddie de Boer admits to being suspicious of crowdfunding: “After all, crowdfunding is a type of crowdsourcing; what’s being crowdsourced is the gatekeeping functions that investors and organizations used to perform. The essential work isn’t just sorting through various projects and determining which are cool or desirable but determining if they’re responsible and plausible–capable of being successfully pulled off by the people proposing them within the time frames and budgets stipulated. It turns out that most people are not good at that. But then, why would they be? Why would the average person be good at fulfilling that function? Where does that faith come from? There are so many places where we’ve turned over functions once performed by experts to amateurs, and we’re consistently surprised that it doesn’t work out. 401(k)s aren’t crowdsourced, exactly, but they exist thanks to a choice to turn over control of retirement funds to individuals away from managers, in the pursuit of fees, of course. The results have been brutal. But why wouldn’t they be brutal? Why would you expect every random person on the street to have a head for investment in that sense? It’s worth pointing out that crowdsourcing was first introduced for simplistic tasks that a human can do better than a machine, often through rote repetition–bilingual speakers checking machine translation, for example, a task still far better performed by humans than machines. (Yes, folks.) But now, we seem to expect to hand tons of essential tasks off to computers and crowds, and in many cases, we don’t bother to check and see how well they’re actually doing because the hype about both is so loud.”

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Roundtable on Academic Freedom

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ari-Elmeri Hyvönen discusses how the absence of experience leads philosophy and ideology into useless abstractions that ignore the reality of human interactions in the Quote of the Week. Russian mathematician and esotericist P. D. Ouspensky provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In this week’s Video Archives, we look back on a lecture Roger Berkowitz gave on the relationship between revenge and justice. And we appreciate two passages on Nietzsche that Arendt found worthy of annotation in our Library feature.

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Amor Mundi 10/26/14

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 Making of a Hero

Laura PoitrasIn a revelatory and subtle profile of Laura Poitras and her experience making “Citizenfour,” her new documentary about Edward Snowden, George Packer raises questions about how close Poitras comes to Snowden’s true story, and how uncritically Snowden’s own narrative of his actions have become entrenched in the public consciousness: “The heart of the film is the hotel room in Hong Kong, where Poitras finds emotion in the small moments that give ‘Citizenfour’ the human truth she’s always after. Even when the pace slows to the verge of boredom, the footage is mesmerizing, because we are watching a private encounter of great political significance unfold. For Poitras, the film is all about Snowden’s decision. But, in this case, … Snowden had already made his decision to go public, long before he got in touch with Poitras, so by the time we meet him it’s a fait accompli. By e-mail and in Hong Kong, he presents his motives as so high-minded and public-spirited that they never become interesting. In Poitras’s terms, he has already created a narrative of himself-it’s a “locked path.” He has stopped being a complicated character, and Poitras doesn’t look for ways to complicate him. … Snowden describes himself as an ordinary government employee who was going about his business until he could no longer ignore the wrongdoing he observed. This self-portrait doesn’t completely square with others’ accounts or with the historical record. Snowden was not as deeply embedded in the N.S.A.’s institutional culture as were previous agency whistle-blowers, like Binney, who arrived at their breaking points after sustained bureaucratic struggles. Snowden was more alienated and self-isolated, more radical, than that. His biographical trail reveals a young man who becomes most passionate when promoting the importance of maintaining absolute privacy on the Internet-he wore an Electronic Frontier Foundation hoodie to work-and who seems less eager to acknowledge how difficult the trade-off between liberty and security can be in a democratic society. Before the meeting in Hong Kong, he wrote a letter to Poitras and Greenwald that said, in part, “While I pray that public awareness and debate will lead to reform, bear in mind that the policies of men change in time, and even the Constitution is subverted when the appetites of power demand it. In words from history: Let us speak no more of faith in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of cryptography.” Snowden went to great trouble over a long period to amass the astonishing quantity of secrets that he passed on to Poitras and Greenwald-including taking a private-contractor position solely with the aim of downloading N.S.A. files. None of this is revealed under Greenwald’s questioning.”

The Phantom in the Opera

death of klinghofferAlex Ross on why the response to the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer has been so vitriolic: “Adams and his librettist…do not advertise their intentions in neon. The story of the Achille Lauro hijacking is told in oblique, circuitous monologues, delivered by a variety of self-involved narrators, with interpolated choruses in rich, dense poetic language. The terrorists are allowed ecstatic flights, private musings, self-justifications. But none of this should surprise a public accustomed to dark, ambiguous TV shows like ‘Homeland.’ The most specious arguments against ‘Klinghoffer’ elide the terrorists’ bigotry with the attitudes of the creators. By the same logic, one could call Steven Spielberg an anti-Semite because the commandant in ‘Schindler’s List’ compares Jewish women to a virus. In the opera, the opposed groups follow divergent trajectories. The terrorists tend to lapse from poetry into brutality, whereas Leon Klinghoffer and his wife, Marilyn, remain robustly earthbound, caught up in the pleasures and pains of daily life, hopeful even as death hovers. Those trajectories are already implicit in the paired opening numbers, the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews. The former splinters into polyrhythmic violence, ending on the words ‘break his teeth’; the latter keeps shifting from plaintive minor to sumptuous major, ending on the words ‘stories of our love.’ The scholar Robert Fink, in a 2005 essay, convincingly argues that the opera ‘attempts to counterpoise to terror’s deadly glamour the life-affirming virtues of the ordinary, of the decent man, of small things.’ Moreover, subtle references to the Holocaust suggest that a familiar horror is recurring. ‘At least we are not Jews,’ an old Swiss woman says. ‘I kept my distance,’ an Austrian frigidly intones. The mellifluous, ineffectual Captain indulges in fantasies of appeasement, conversing under the stars with a silver-tongued terrorist named Mamoud.”

Moral Equivalence

death of klinghoffer(2)Alan Dershowitz argues that The Death of Klinghoffer is an affront, first because it establishes a false moral equivalence between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian terrorism and second between the Holocaust and the Occupation. He also faults the music: “By any standard, The Death of Klinghoffer is anything but the ‘masterpiece’ its proponents are claiming it is. The music is uneven, with some lovely choruses-more on that coming-one decent aria, and lots of turgid recitatives. The libretto is awful. The drama is confused and rigid, especially the weak device of the captain looking back at the events several years later with the help of several silent passengers. There are silly and distracting arias from a British show girl who seems to have had a crush on one of the terrorists, as well as from a woman who hid in her cabin eating grapes and chocolate. They added neither to the drama nor the music of the opera. Then there were the choruses. The two that open the opera are supposed to demonstrate the comparative suffering of the displaced Palestinians and the displaced Jews. The Palestinian chorus is beautifully composed musically, with some compelling words, sung rhythmically and sympathetically. The Jewish chorus is a mishmash of whining about money, sex, betrayal and assorted ‘Hasidism’ protesting in front of movie theaters. It never mentions the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust, though the chorus is supposed to be sung by its survivors. The goal of that narrative chorus is to compare the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians-some of which was caused by Arab leaders urging them to leave and return victoriously after the Arabs murdered the Jews of Israel-with the systematic genocide of six million Jews. It was a moral abomination…. At bottom The Death of Klinghoffer-a title deliberately selected to sanitize his brutal murder-is more propaganda than art. It has some artistic moments, but the dominant theme is to create a false moral equivalence between terrorism and its victims, between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups, and between the Holocaust and the self-inflicted Nakba.”

Don’t Give Up the Fight

Hong Kong protestsKeane Shum on why he won’t give up on change in Hong Kong: “So many voices-our own government, the central government, foreign governments, much of the international media, and even some of the protesters themselves-say there is no chance of any concession by the authorities, that this is a futile battle against an intransigent force and can yield only moral victories. It is all just the dreams of naive students, they say, a fantasy. But so is Hong Kong. On that recent Sunday morning in Victoria Harbour, when I had swum to roughly the midpoint between Hong Kong Island and the mainland, I took a moment to drift on my back and let the city wash over me. The harbor and the skyline, the hills and the bays, the food, the movies, the money, and, of course, these protests-politically engaged teenagers doing homework on the streets, collecting garbage, singing songs-all these are unreal. Our city is a dream, a place where umbrellas float through tear gas, schoolchildren lead civic debates instead of virtual lives, and 999 of every 1,000 trains run on time. On that ship in Nanjing 172 years ago where China signed us away, after the British surrendered us on Christmas Day, 1941, when the tanks plowed into Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, we were never supposed to exist, not like this.”

Now and Then

Daniel MendelsohnDaniel Mendelsohn, suggests that books, even ones we love, should change as we do: ” I teach Sophocles’ ‘Antigone.’ My students, who are in their late teens and early 20s, tend to identify with the fiercely idealistic young heroine, who stands up for family and religion – for freedom of conscience, as we often see it today – against the decrees of her uncle, the autocratic new ruler of the state. But over the past quarter-century I have increasingly appreciated the validity of the uncle’s claims: the necessity for order, the incoherence of a state that consists of individuals who cannot recognize the views of others. However much Holden Caulfield’s helplessness and sensitivity may move us, it’s important to remember that what is problematic in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is its hero’s aversion to negotiation and compromise – not the negotiations and compromises themselves, which are simply part of adult life. Whatever else it may mean, the Museum of Natural History scene in Salinger’s beloved classic can be read as a powerful allegory of how not to read beloved classics. Like Holden, we can and do keep revisiting them; but when we do, we should always be seeing something new, because the eyes with which we read should have changed.”

To Grieve or Not to Grieve?

Colm ToibinIn a comprehensive essay on grief in literature, Colm Toibin points to Hamlet as a model: “I remember in school sitting at the back of the class soon after my father had died and listening to a discussion about Hamlet’s madness and Hamlet’s character and everyone wondering why Hamlet could in one second be in love, and the next out of love, and then angry and ready for revenge and then ready to procrastinate, the next minute melancholy and the next putting an antic disposition on, and why his tone could be so wise and then also so bitter and sharply sarcastic and rude. How could he be so many things, and how could we define his character? I wish I had put up my hand to say that I thought I understood what was at the root of all his antics. His father had died not long before. That was all. He had been unmoored. While those around him were trying to explain that what had happened was normal, a part of nature, and were trying to get on with things, Hamlet had become wayward and, luckily, Shakespeare had seen the dramatic possibilities of this.”

A Lost Generation

South Boston busMichael Patrick MacDonald has a vivid essay-part investigative journalism, part personal recollection of his time growing up in South Boston-about the forced busing that integrated South Boston High School in 1974: “Among the rarely discussed facts about my neighborhood was that white South Boston High School had the highest number of students on welfare in any school, citywide. The school mostly served the population of Southie’s three large housing projects and the ‘Lower End,’ three contiguous census tracts that collectively held the highest concentration of white poverty in the United States, with 73 percent single-parent female-headed households and upwards of 40 percent unemployment rate among adult men. In the years before busing, only 16 percent of students at white South Boston High school went on to college, and when they did, they were usually the first in their families to do so. Former Boston NAACP President Ken Guskett has recently said that, during the battle for desegregation, while white students citywide received more funding per student ($450) than black students ($250 at the black schools in Roxbury)-‘the South Boston kids got less than Roxbury.’ This is the problem with looking at statistics only by race, rather than also looking at economics.” MacDonald brings a panoramic lens to the busing history, exploring how it happened that black children were integrated into the only Boston schools worse than their own, how South Boston united against that integration and lost its soul, and how the Boston elite stood apart from the fray. Above all it is a riveting tale of the personal toll of a well-meaning but poorly instituted government policy. 

How to Read a “Politically Charged Sentence”

heideggerJulia Ireland has published a long essay that centers upon one of those rare genuine scholarly discoveries. Reviewing original manuscripts of Martin Heidegger’s lecture courses, she discovered that the published versions of the texts mistakenly read Heidegger’s notation for “National Socialism” as “The Natural Sciences.” Ireland argues that restoring Heidegger’s original words actually helps make sense of his controversial claims in another essay written in the same year in which he speaks of the “inner truth of National Socialism.” In doing so, Ireland offers an extraordinary example of how to treat controversial philosophical texts. As she explains in a footnote that should be read more widely: “I am deeply opposed to that style of scholarship whose tendentious use of quotations preempts genuine philosophical analysis in a manner I understand to actively mislead. It remains true that substandard scholarship continues to determine the wider debate surrounding Heidegger’s politics and that in the United States such scholarship has received the imprimatur of a university press. (Emmanuel Faye’s division of his ‘Bibliography’ into categories such as ‘Works by Other National Socialist and Völkisch Authors,’ ‘Apologetic and Revisionist Studies,’ and ‘Works Critical of Heidegger,’ in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-35, is blatantly ideological; and his representation of student Protokolle as Heidegger’s own words is specious; both should have been challenged by reviewers as violating the most basic principles of scholarship.) By contrast, I intend my analysis here as an alternative for what it means to read a single, politically charged sentence when interpretation has been constrained by the necessity of a philological reconstruction and the willingness to affirm the often surprising layers of complication that have accompanied it.”

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humanitiesRediscovering the Humanities: Humanities Advocacy in the Digital Age

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Andrew T. Dilts reflects on forgiveness, punishment, and vengeance with respect to George Zimmerman’s slaying of Trayvon Martin in the Quote of the Week. C. G. Jung provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back at a talk Bard College President Leon Botstein gave on the state of American education at the Hannah Arendt Center’s seventh annual fall conference. And we appreciate a small yet powerful personal library of Arendt’s works in our Library feature.


The Conscience of Edward Snowden

In the New York Review of Books, Sue Halpern argues that we should pay less attention to the character of actors like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and focus more on the governmental actions they have revealed. Yet much if not most of Halpern’s essay focuses on Snowden and Greenwald themselves, and the paragraph that stands out in Halpern’s essay goes directly to Snowden’s decision to leave the country and evade confronting the U.S. Government in court:

It is here that Edward Snowden’s story begins to sound much like those of Thomas Drake, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe, and Edward Loomis, longtime NSA employees who, a few years earlier than Snowden, attempted to raise concerns with their superiors—only to find themselves rebuffed—about what they perceived to be NSA overreach and illegality when they learned that the agency was indiscriminately monitoring the communications of American citizens without warrants. Binney, Wiebe, and Loomis resigned—and later found themselves the subjects of FBI interrogations. Drake, however, stayed on and brought his suspicions to the office of general counsel for the NSA, where he was told: “Don’t ask any more questions, Mr. Drake.” Frustrated, Drake eventually leaked what he knew to a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. The upshot: a home invasion by the FBI, a federal indictment, and the threat of thirty-five years in prison for being in possession of classified documents that, when he obtained them, had not been classified. After years of harassment by the government and Drake’s financial ruin, the case was dropped the night before trial. It was against this backdrop that Snowden found himself contemplating what to do with what he knew. Stymied by an unresponsive bureaucracy, seeing the fate of earlier NSA whistleblowers, and finding no adequate provisions within the system to challenge the legality of government activity if that activity was considered by the government to touch on national security, he nonetheless set about gathering the evidence to make his case.

For those who would defend Snowden, this narrative is essential. The claim is that the United States now is simply not like the United States of the 1960s and 1970s when Daniel Ellsberg gave himself up after releasing the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg himself has made this argument while defending Snowden, arguing that Snowden and whistleblowers like him simply cannot and should not trust the U.S. government to treat them legally and humanely. Continue reading

Why the Jews?


Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”


The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”


The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.


The Unproductive Labor of Politics: Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith


Richard Halpern, “Eclipse of Action: Hamlet and the Political Economy of Playing,” Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 450-482

As he formulates an original response to the classic problem of Hamlet’s non-action, Halpern offers one of the few critical analyses of Arendt’s reading of Adam Smith in The Human Condition. He shows how Arendt draws on Smith’s concepts of productive and unproductive labor to articulate her key concepts of work and labor. Moreover, his close reading draws our attention to an intriguing paradox in the temporality of action that may indicate a corrective—albeit a difficult one—to the current demand for instant gratification that often leads to cynicism in the face of great political challenges.

Halpern reminds us that Aristotle separates action from labor; Smith replaces action with production; and Arendt seeks to restore action to a place of prominence in the political realm. Arendt explicitly says that “the distinction between productive and unproductive labor contains, albeit in a prejudicial manner, the more fundamental distinction between work and labor” (HC 87). She does not simply take over Smith’s idea, but wishes to transfer his distinction from his own economic system (the “prejudice” of his own thought) to her own thinking of labor and work.  Halpern’s analysis of Arendt’s move helps us start to think about her surprising appeal to 18th century economic theory. Moreover, it her discussion of Smith (and better known critique of Marx), I see her posing an even broader question: what does it mean to be productive and what are the appropriate spheres of different types of productivity?


Within the realm of production, Halpern looks at how Smith offers a further distinction in Book 2, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, under the heading “Of the Accumulation of Capital, or of Productive and Unproductive Labor”:

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. (Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976), 351.)

Smith draws a distinction between labor that holds or builds value (say the manufacture of a chair), and labor that evaporates the moment the worker completes it (such as cleaning the house or washing clothes). Classical political economists of the 18th and 19th century engaged in wide ranging debates over what should “count” as value before capitalist countries agreed on the ratio of labour to output or per capita GDP as the standard; socialist countries, following the USSR, adopted an alternative “material product system” that prioritized the amount of goods. In a time of environmental change, this glimpse into the history of economic theory may offer a helpful reminder that society can decide to change the standard of economic success.

According to Halpern, Arendt draws from Smith not to rehabilitate an outmoded aspect of economic theory, but to draw inspiration for her creation of distinct conceptual spaces for labor, work, and action. Specifically, she aligns Smith’s “unproductive labor” with her circular conception of labor and “productive labor” with her linear conception of work. This does not mean that labor is unproductive but it does require a clarification of different types of productivity. I see it as useful to keep the discussion on productivity since these spheres of private life and cultural and industrial economy then offer a contrast to the political sphere where action can happen. Action is neither circular like labor, nor linear like work, but has its own peculiar directionality and temporality. Halpern’s analysis helpfully zeroes in on the perplexing relation between the ephemerality of labor and action and action’s desire for permanence:

The temporal paradox of the political is that while it aims at immortality, action and speech are, in themselves, evanescent: “Left to themselves, they lack not only the tangibility of other things, but are even less durable and more futile than what we produce for consumption” (HC 95). Like Smith’s unproductive labor, action disappears in the moment of its occurrence because it leaves no material trace behind. (Halpern, 457)

Politics demands an extraordinary effort. It asks that one expend energy indefinitely for an uncertain reward. Discussion and debate goes on and on, only occasionally clicking with spectacular agreement or deflationary compromise. Arendt’s analysis can help us perceive the difficulty of contemporary politics that attempts to fit into consumer culture that preserves, and thus remembers, nothing.

Arendt’s attention to the aspects of debate and negotiation that might be seen as unproductive (a dimension that in other parts of the Human Condition she relates to menial work, again often in relation to Smith) offers a corrective to a misguided understanding of politics that leads to frustration and despair.Even if we are not at the extreme level of the menial functioning of a New England town hall meeting debating the budget for potholes or an Occupy Wall Street discussion that requires unanimous consensus for closure, politics works in a different temporality. Rather than the fever pitched accusations of crisis that in the U.S. actually covers up rather than encourage political risk, a more humble sense of public debate as requiring something like the patience of the menial task may be a corrective.

Political action in Arendt’s sense differs from work in being freed from a fixed goal. She links this freedom, which for her is based on self-referentiality, to drama:

Arendt’s discomfort with the economic dimension of theater reveals itself when she criticizes Adam Smith for grouping actors, along with churchmen, lawyers, musicians, and others, as unproductive laborers and hence as lowly cousins of the menial servant (HC 207). Arendt would distinguish all of these activities from labor in that they “do not pursue an end . . . and leave no work behind . . . , but exhaust their full meaning in the performance itself ” (206). Smith’s inclusion of these autotelic activities under the category of labor is for Arendt a sign of the degradation that human activity had already undergone by the early days of the modern era. By contrast, “It was precisely these occupations—healing, flute-playing, play-acting—which furnished ancient thinking with examples for the highest and greatest activities of man” (207–21). What Arendt overlooks is that—already in the ancient world—healing, flute playing, and playacting became remunerated professions and differed in this respect from politics, which was not the work of a professional class of politicians. (Halpern 458)

Arendt agrees that actors on the stage perform fleeting scenes, but wishes to link this to “the highest and greatest activities of man,” ie. those of politics. Halpern argues that in fact, actors in ancient times already worked for wages and were thus not independent like citizens in their roles as politicians. Nonetheless, Arendt shows us that in the modern period we can learn something about acting in politics from acting in the arts. The key point for Halpern is that drama, etc. are “autotelic activities.” They do not even keep up the house like menial work; they have their own end and really evaporate in reaching this end. Political action works along an undecidable edge: even less productive than labor but at any moment potentially the most lasting. Against the odds, politics holds open the space in which something new can begin and thus renew the human world against the circular forces of nature.

One could reasonably argue that in his focus on the connection between labor and action, Halpern fails to adequately emphasize the importance of work. In a world of labor and the victory of animal laborans, there is no work to preserve action and no polis/world to give action memorialization. Indeed, we face the danger of the collapse of the world into the “waste economy” (HC 134) and the seductions to action disappear. However, Halpern does not say that play is action for Arendt but rather, as I understand his argument, that it there is an aspect of action that is like play. Action requires debate that may seem to be going nowhere, or just be undertaken for its own sake up to the moment that it takes a risk. When it dares to venture into the public realm, action clearly very different from play as a hobby.

Labor is both constant and fleeting. On the one hand, the demands of the body never end, nor do the cycles of nature. On the other hand, labor is also fleeting in that its mode of production only temporarily maintains life. Action is also fleeting from the perspective that the risk it takes often evaporates but has the utmost political constancy when one considers those actions that succeed in forming the power of a new beginning.


In the remainder of the article, Halpern moves from The Human Condition to Hamlet, arguing that Shakespeare replaces action on the classical model of tragedy with the ceaseless activity of Hamlet’s thoughts. This activity runs in circles like unproductive labor in Smith and labor in Arendt rather than the action of Aristotle’s aesthetic and Arendt’s political ideal. From an Arendtian point of view, the modernity of the drama reveals a challenge to politics, the challenge of a time out of joint that action has to face again and again.

-Jeffrey Champlin

The Threat to the Humanities


The Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee has published an open letter on the recent threats to universities and to the humanities in particular. The threat, however, is not limited to universities. As Coetzee writes:

All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.

What Coetzee names the “traditional duty to foster the common good” may smack a bit of nostalgia. And yet, it is the case that at times in history government has allowed for and enabled the flourishing of a meaningful public sphere where a plurality of people jointly pursue noble collective endeavors. The civil rights movement in the 1960s was one such endeavor, as was the founding of the United States as a land federal constitutional democratic republic instituted to preserve the freedom of self-government. In Europe we can point to the emergence of social democracy as another collective act to bring about a public world. And yet all public actions are opposed by the liberal bourgeois desire realized in representative democracy, the demand that government simply leave us alone to pursue our private lives.


Universities are not the only spaces for articulating the common good in society. But they do serve an important role in that project. For liberal arts universities, at their best, exist to foster independent and thoughtful persons. What universities have been, since their inception, are institutions that stand apart from society. They are places where slowness and reflection flourish in contradistinction to the speed and busyness of the everyday world of business. In reading Plato, exploring the wonders of DNA, and reciting Shakespeare, young people grapple with the greatest thoughts and works and discoveries that our human civilization has produced. They ask themselves what they think of these works and they come to have their personal opinions. That is what it means to think for oneself, or, as Arendt calls it in her native German, Selbstdenken. For Emerson, a liberal arts humanist education is where we acquire the backbone that girds our self reliance.

Coetzee offers two reasons why he believes that universities will disappear as incubators of such independence. First, he writes that universities are being financially punished to the extent that they imagine themselves as autonomous, independent, and critical of society. In response to the mobilization of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, governments and boards of trustees around the world are fighting back:

The response of the political class to the university’s claim to a special status in relation to the polity has been crude but effectual: if the university, which, when the chips are down, is simply one among many players competing for public funds, really believes in the lofty ideals it proclaims, then it must show it is prepared to starve for its beliefs. I know of no case in which a university has taken up the challenge.
The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state has not been a proud one. Resistance was weak and ill organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.

Coetzee also offers a second reason for the decline of the university as an important cultural-political institution: “there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities and in the university built on humanistic grounds, with philosophical, historical and philological studies as its pillars.” What Coeztee means is not simply that people are abandoning Shakespeare for computer science. It is rather that the professors and students who read Shakespeare and Plato don’t believe in the importance of the very books they read.

We can see this is the kind of overly-specialized writing and research coming out of research universities, where scholars too often (obviously with exceptions, but they are rare) seek to produce highly specialized and erudite studies that seek to say something new or original but have little to do with the books or the thinkers they are writing about.

We also find this same loss of belief in the humanities in the ever-increasing talk about using the humanities to teach basic literacy or critical thinking “skills”, in the parlance of recent jargon that dominates committees discussing educational reform. Here is Coetzee:

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as you claim, do students really need to know about Hesiod and Petrarch, about Francis Bacon and Jean-Paul Sartre, about the Boxer Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, to attain a sufficient competence in such literacy? Can you not simply design a pair of one­-semester courses – courses in which all undergraduates, no matter what their career track, will be required to enroll – one course to be entitled “Reading and Writing”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; and the other to be entitled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on the main currents of world thought from Ancient Egypt to the present? A pair of courses like that will not require an entire faculty of humanities behind them, merely a school of critical literacy staffed with bright young instructors.

In other words, to argue that what students need are simply skills is to abandon any actual defense of the humanities. While skills can be taught through the humanities, they can likely be taught as well and more cheaply in other ways. Attempts to defend the humanities because they inculcate useful skills does not and cannot defend the humanities themselves. Whether those skills are themselves useful is an open question; the bigger question is whether there are easier ways to acquire those skills then spending years reading and writing about old books.

The only true defense of the humanities Coetzee recognizes is one that defends them on their own grounds: that humanities are good in themselves.

I believe, you will have to make a stand. You will have to say: we need free enquiry because freedom of thought is good in itself. We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: good for the individual and good for society.

What I take Coetzee to mean is that the humanities—by which I understand the humanist inquiry into literature, philosophy, politics, science, and art—teach people to pursue their truths by standing on the shoulders of giants.


What the humanist education does is both teach us to love the world as it has been handed down to us and also to make it our own. That is why education is both conservative and revolutionary.

Very much in the spirit of Arendt, Coeztee is calling for just such a conservative and revolutionary idea of the humanities, one that is quite out of tune with the current professional and intellectual trends reigning in academic institutions. His letter is short and worth your attention. It is your weekend read.


Amor Mundi 5/5/13


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.

Muting the Words for the Book’s Sake

bookOn the occasion of the publication of All That Is, James Salter’s latest novel, the author is interviewed by Jonathan Lee. Lee notes that Salter seems to have toned down his sentences for the new book which, it turns out, was a deliberate stylistic choice. Salter elaborates:  “I suppose the truth is I became a little self-conscious about people telling me how much they loved my sentences. They’d come up and say, “You know what, I’ve memorized lines from Light Years.” At book signings you’d see them with the corners of pages turned down, particular pages they’d loved and sentences they’d underlined. It’s flattering, but it seemed to me that this love of sentences was in some sense getting in the way of the book itself.”

The Inevitable, Unstoppable, and Coming Utopia

utopiaDavid Rieff writes in Foreign Policy about the unbelievable optimism of techno-utopianism. Rieff is biting and also thoughtful as he marshals enormous resources to show how uniform and repetitive the claims are about our coming perfection. “To me, though, what is most striking about the claims made by techno-utopians (though most, including Kurzweil and Zuckerman, reject the label) is the way assertions about the inevitability of unstoppable, exponential technological progress are combined with claims that human beings can, for the first time in history, take their fate into their own hands — or even defy mortality itself. As Morozov remarks tartly, “Silicon Valley is guilty of many sins, but lack of ambition is not one of them.””

Think Like a Machine

machineNicholas Carr worries about the effect our growing use of machines has on how we think about thinking:  “I think we begin to believe that thinking is always just a matter of a kind of rapid problem-solving and exchanging information in a very utilitarian conception of how we should use our mind. And what gets devalued is those kind of more contemplative, more solitary modes of thought that in the past anyway, were considered central to the experience of life, to the life of the mind certainly, and even to our social lives.”

Debating Drones

droneOver at Lawfare, Benjamin Wittes writes about his experience debating Jeremy Waldron about drones at the Oxford Union. Wittes summarizes the sides: “Our side interpreted the resolution as a debate over the propriety of using drones in warfare-that is, as asking whether the use of drones is ethical end effective relative to alternative weapons systems given that one has decided to employ military force. This is actually an easy question, in my opinion, since drones clearly enable more discriminating and deliberative targeting than do alternative weapon systems. Our opponents, by contrast, saw the resolution as implicating the wider question of whether the United States should be resorting to force at all in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. In other words, they saw the question not merely as one of choice of weapon but as about whether the particular weapon enables military actions the United States would not otherwise take and of which one should disapprove either on ethical grounds, as counterproductive strategically, or both.”

Behind the Book

bookblocClaire Barliant examines the book bloc, a D.I.Y defensive shield utilized during and after the Occupy Wall Street protests. Barliant finds resonances between the blocs and the declining states of both the book in general and of higher education; several of them, which had been on exhibit at Interference Archive in Gowanus, were supposed to appear at the May Day protest of Cooper Union’s decision to start charging its students fees in 2014.

Featured Upcoming Event

movie posterThe Official US Opening of the biopic, Hannah Arendt in NYC

May 29, 2013 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St., NYC at 7:45 PM
Film followed by discussion with the director; Margarethe von Trotta, the screenwriter; Pam Katz, Barbara Sukowa and Janet McTeer (playing Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy.)

 Buy tickets and learn more here.

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

The Arendt Center hosted  the Hudson Valley premiere of Margarethe von Trotta’s new movieHannah Arendt, which Natan Sznaider reviewed. Lyndsey Stonebridge explored the role of Shakespeare’s Richard III in Arendt’s thinking on thinking.  And Roger Berkowitz looks at the brewing feud between the faculty and the MOOCs.

MOOCs: The Debate Continues


After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.


The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,

While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.

The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.

And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university’s president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, “Circuits & Electronics,” offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.

But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX.  San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.


The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.

Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: “We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.

In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.

While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:

We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU’s contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: “The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable.” This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.

The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.

The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.

First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp.  We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.

Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.

Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.

The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.

A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D.  It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.


I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.

The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.

We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.

The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.