Amor Mundi, July 3rd 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.

The Return of American Politics

The rise of anti-politics is going mainstream. David Brooks penned a column this week bewailing the disregard of politics in the U.S. and around the world. His opening gambit makes sense, arguing that politics is about the engagements among plural people who have different opinions in a common public sphere. He writes:

“Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.

But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.

As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics,” “Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.””

Continue reading

ptsd usmc

Amor Mundi 05/22/16

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.

Trauma and Society

Sebastian Junger has a far-reaching essay on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Junger explores PTSD in its connection to rape trauma and asks why it is so prevalent today, at a time when wars are less lethal than ever. One part of his answer suggests that at least some of the source of PTSD is found less in war than in the civilian society into which soldiers return.

“Any discussion of PTSD and its associated sense of alienation in society must address the fact that many soldiers find themselves missing the war after it’s over. That troubling fact can be found in written accounts from war after war, country after country, century after century. Awkward as it is to say, part of the trauma of war seems to be giving it up. There are ancient human behaviors in war—loyalty, inter-reliance, cooperation—that typify good soldiering and can’t be easily found in modern society. This can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to: after World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the communal underground living that characterized life during the Blitz (despite the fact that more than 40,000 civilians lost their lives). And the war that is missed doesn’t even have to be a shooting war: “I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic,” a man wrote on the comment board of an online talk I gave about war. “Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, I must admit that I miss those days of extreme brotherhood … which led to deep emotions and understandings that are above anything I have felt since the plague years.” What all these people seem to miss isn’t danger or loss, per se, but the closeness and cooperation that danger and loss often engender. Humans evolved to survive in extremely harsh environments, and our capacity for cooperation and sharing clearly helped us do that. Structurally, a band of hunter-gatherers and a platoon in combat are almost exactly the same: in each case, the group numbers between 30 and 50 individuals, they sleep in a common area, they conduct patrols, they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not at all surprising that many soldiers respond to combat in positive ways and miss it when it’s gone.”

Part of the problem that veterans have, Junger suggests, is that our individualist and lonely society is so foreign to the comaraderie of wartime life. He worries that western societies don’t touch children enough and live too separately, or at least that in keeping our distance we are being untrue to our animal needs, needs that wartime better meets.

Hannah Arendt might be suspicious of Junger’s turn to evidence from primates to argue for the need for more intimate ways of living, but she would clearly recognize his claim that western individualist societies are not as happy as they claim to be. For Arendt, we have increasingly lost sight of an essential part of human happiness—what she calls public happiness. Public happiness is the joy and thrill experienced when one acts together with others in public. It is the happiness we experience when, amidst a crisis, we work together to stack sandbags with strangers or save someone from a burning building. It is also the feeling of joy felt by participants in Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party when they act together to occupy and run a public square or organize to take over a local town council.

Arendt would not have psychologized the feelings of alienation from society as Junger does. But she also sees that we are increasingly alienated from our world. World alienation, in her telling, has its origin in the scientific revolution—the insight that the common sense world of our eyes is not to be trusted, that it deceives us. From that fundamental scientific insight, scientists like Galileo and Descartes shifted the locus of truth from the world to the individual mind, alienating man from the common world.

What Junger is touching upon in his essay is the way that the experience of war re-creates the kind of non-alienated common world that Arendt hopes to keep alive through public action and politics. What both Junger and Arendt understand is that amidst the action in concert of war and politics humans are able to bear suffering and sacrifice because they act for a purpose. Man can bear all suffering, Nietzsche writes, if he thinks it has a purpose. As the purpose of life is attenuated in our individualist society, we lose sight of what Arendt calls public happiness. And we also lose our ability to confront and live with the very real traumas of war and also of rape. This does not diminish those traumas, but it may help to think about how we can better learn to live with them. —RB


amor mundi signup

Research Corrupts

In an article surveying the field of contemporary social science inquiry into the nature and psychological effects of power, Matthew Sweet (perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps not) reminds us that research is its own kind of power relation:

Who, then, is right? Are powerful people nicer or nastier than powerless ones? How can we explain the disparate answers yielded by these two sets of data? It may be that rich people are better at disguising their true nature than poor people. If being generous in public brings rewards, then rich people might be more inclined to help old ladies across roads. Selfish driving is consistent with this idea: the anonymity of the road means that aggressive petrolheads need not worry about damaging their reputations. And Keltner points out that the data come from people’s accounts of their own charitable giving, and not from watching them in the act. “We know from other studies that the wealthy are more likely to lie and exaggerate about ethical matters,” he says. “Survey self-report data in economics and face-to-face data in psychology capture different processes. What I say I do in society versus how I behave with actual people.” But it is also possible that the problem lies not with the survey data but with the psychological experiments. Over the past year, this possibility has become the subject of bitter debate. In August 2015, the journal Science reported that a group of 270 academics, led by Brian Nosek, a respected professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, had attempted to reproduce the results of 100 psychological studies. Ninety-seven of the original studies had produced statistically significant results. Only 36 of the replications did the same. Those numbers threatened to undermine the entire discipline of experimental psychology, for if a result cannot be replicated then it must be in doubt. In March 2016 a panel of luminaries claimed to have detected serious shortcomings in the methodology of Nosek’s paper. The inquiry was led by Dan Gilbert, a Harvard professor with a history of hostility to the replicators. (“Psychology’s replication police prove to be shameless little bullies,” he tweeted in 2014, defending another researcher whose work was questioned.) When a journalist from Wired magazine asked Gilbert if his defensiveness might have influenced his conclusions, he hung up on them. Psychology’s “Replication Crisis” might not yet be over. In September 2015, five social psychologists and a sociologist published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Sciences that suggested why psychology might show privileged people in a bad light. Left-wing opinion, contended Jonathan Haidt and his co-authors, was over-represented in psychology faculties. This, they suspected, might be distorting experimental findings – as well as making campus life difficult for researchers with socially conservative views. “The field of social psychology is at risk of becoming a cohesive moral community,” they warned. “Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends? We think so.”

Continue reading

Amor Mundi 05/15/16

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.

Participatory Readiness

(link to article in title)

Danielle Allen in the Boston Review argues that we need to rethink our approach to educational equality. Instead of seeing education as contributing to economic equality, education should aim equalizing civic engagement through participatory readiness.

“So what exactly is participatory readiness, and how can education help people achieve it? To answer these questions, we first need to understand what students should be getting ready for: civic agency. While there is no single model of civic agency dominant in American culture, we can identify a handful at work. Following philosopher Hannah Arendt, I take citizenship to be the activity of co-creating a way of life, of world-building. This co-creation can occur at many social levels: in a neighborhood or school; in a networked community or association; in a city, state, or nation; at a global scale. Because co-creation extends beyond legal categories of membership in political units, I prefer to speak of civic agency instead of citizenship. Such civic agency involves three core tasks. First is disinterested deliberation around a public problem. Here the model derives from Athenian citizens gathered in the assembly, the town halls of colonial New Hampshire, and public representatives behaving reasonably in the halls of a legislature. Second is prophetic work intended to shift a society’s values; in the public opinion and communications literature, this is now called “frame shifting.” Think of the rhetorical power of nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Occupy Wall Street activists with their rallying cry of “we are the 99 percent.” Finally, there is transparently interested “fair fighting,” where a given public actor adopts a cause and pursues it passionately. One might think of early women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. The ideal civic agent carries out all three of these tasks—disinterested deliberation, prophetic frame shifting, and fair fighting—ethically and justly. Stanton is an example of this ideal at work. At the Seneca Falls Convention, she was in deliberative mode for the debate about the text of the Declaration of Sentiments. However, before the convention’s deliberations, when she drafted that text, she was in the prophetic mode, just as she was in her innumerable speeches. Finally, in campaigning for legal change, as in the adoption of the Woman’s Property Bill in New York and similar laws in other states, she was operating as an activist.”

Arendt’s idea of participatory citizenship helps understand how education can build a political world. But what kind of education leads to participatory readiness? It is not a technical education, and Allen rightly rejects the overriding focus on STEM as a means towards educational equality. She writes that educated citizens need “the ability to make sense of complex ballot propositions and follow argumentation about DNA evidence at trial.” And she claims that graduates in the humanities are more likely to vote and more likely to become politically active than STEM graduates. Allen recognizes such correlations may be deceptive but believes that a humanities education will likely better prepare students for democratic citizenship.

Above all, the participatory ready citizen needs to know how to judge their government. Allen finds this idea deep in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed; that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In the face of governmental failure and a failure of democracy, citizens need to know how to judge that failure and how to respond. We see stirrings of such a response in movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. And these movements have led to political activists supporting Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

What is unclear is why education, let alone humanities education, helps prepare citizens to make such judgments—or to make prophetic insights and engage in fair fighting. To look back at the emergence of American democracy in New England town meetings and then in the 1790s in the republican and democratic debating societies, is to see that the radical and participatory roots of American democracy had little connection to education. Arendt always insisted that political skill was unrelated to one’s education. The workers’ counsels and debating societies Arendt lauded were not dominated by humanities graduates. Is there any evidence that education is connected to judgment?

One answer lies in the power of example. As any good humanities student knows, Immanuel Kant showed that there are no rules for making moral judgments. Sound judgment is not a product of education so much as it is of good upbringing and character. Arendt, following Kant, understood that judgment could only be taught, if at all, through example.

At their best, the humanities offer examples of artworks, prose, poetry, and thinking that are born from self-thinking, critical thinking, and originality. What the humanities can do is inspire students to follow their dreams and question the way things are. It is this lesson in independent thinking that, above all, is the gift the humanities offer. —RB


amor mundi signup

When Privacy Matters

(link to article in title)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, about six months late for the Arendt Center conference on the very same subject, wrestles with the lack of privacy his newfound fame has brought:

“But no one keeps secrets in Brooklyn. A few weeks after we bought, another friend sent an item from a local blog gossiping about our possible purchase. We didn’t expect to live anonymously. We thought there might be some interest and we took some steps to dissuade that interest. Those steps failed. Last week, the New York Post, and several other publications, reported on the purchase. They ran pictures of the house. They named my wife. They photoshopped me in the kitchen. They talked to the seller’s broker. The seller’s broker told them when we’d be moving in. The seller’s broker speculated on our plans for renovation. They rummaged through my kid’s Instagram account. They published my home address. Some of my acquaintances went on Facebook and shared these articles. Other people called up my actual friends and joked about the purchase. Very little of this conversation was negative. Much of it was of the congratulatory “Nigga, we made it” variety. But all of it was premised on a kind of obliviousness, an inability to imagine how horrifying it would be to see all the details of your new life out there for the world to see. It is true what they say about celebrity—people suddenly don’t quite see you. You walk into a room and you are not a person, so much as symbol of whatever someone needs you to be. But the world is real. And you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history. And you can’t really be a human being and not want some place to retreat into yourself, some place to collapse, some place to be at peace. That’s just neurology. One shouldn’t get in the habit of crying about having a best-selling book. But you can’t really sell enough books to become superhuman, to salve that longing for home.”

Continue reading


Amor Mundi 1/3/16

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.


u.s. presidentJonathan Rauch notes that the rule of 14–“No one gets elected president who needs longer than 14 years to get from his or her first gubernatorial or Senate victory to either the presidency or the vice presidency”–may be coming to an end. Hillary Clinton was elected to the Senate 16 years ago. Jeb Bush 18 years ago. Many of the leaders have zero political or military experience. Rauch writes: “Well, there is nothing magical about the number 14. What matters about the rule is not the exact number–14 versus (say) 12 or 16–but its reflection of an underlying public preference for presidents who are battle-tested but not battle-weary, experienced enough to know their way around but fresh enough to bring new energy to the job. That is a perfectly sensible preference–but one that appears to be declining, at least on the Republican side. A real break with the rule’s inner logic would be the election not of someone with two or four too many years of political experience, but of someone with no political experience at all. That day seems to be drawing closer. The chart below shows the experience level of presidential winners and losers from 1960 to 2012. (For the purposes of this graph, experience equals years between first election to a governorship, a Senate seat, or the vice presidency and election to the presidency; the trend lines do not change much if House experience is included.) Starting in 1996, the candidate with more experience begins consistently losing. Moreover, as the trend lines show, the inexperience premium has increased over time. That makes some sense: As voters have grown angrier with government, they have become more receptive to outsiders. Republicans, in general, are especially angry with government, so no one will be surprised to learn that since 1980 their presidential candidates have had, on average, three to four years’ less experience than the Democrats’ candidates…. Two generations ago, in 1962, the great political scientist James Q. Wilson wrote a prescient book, The Amateur Democrat, in which he pointed out that political amateurs who were unyielding in their righteousness had begun supplanting the political professionals who were willing to make deals and compromise. The ascendency of amateurism, he predicted, would cause social friction and governmental gridlock: ‘Political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.’ That is a disagreeably accurate description of where we find ourselves today. It suggests why amateurism is a much better qualification for The Apprentice than for high political office. Being fresh is one thing. Half-baked is another.” The lack of experience in political leaders is now a well-worn truism. George W. Bush and Barack Obama each had singularly thin resumes for the office of President. In New York, Michael Bloomberg was a neophyte, as is Bill de Blasio. At a time when we want the next new thing for the holidays and we are easily bored if we can’t watch an entire TV show in two nights of binge watching, we want our political leaders new and fresh. Experience is out. The ingénue is in.

Cartesian Dualism

brain surgeryKarl Ove Knausgaard, who traveled to Albania to witness a kind of brain surgery that needs to be performed while the patient is awake, describes what it was like to look at a human brain. He sees a kind of visceral beauty–the article’s title calls it “terrible beauty”– in the brains he observes, extraordinarily delicate and yet responsible for all he knows. He looks into the joints and muscles of thought, all of which enable a body to move through the world: “I bent over the microscope again. The view this time was quite different. It was as if I were looking into an enormous grotto, at the bottom of which lay a pool filled with red liquid. Sometimes water came splashing in from the right, as if from a huge hose. I had never seen anything like it, for the walls of this grotto were so obviously alive, made of living tissue. Along the edges of the pool, above the red surface, the walls were ragged. Behind the innermost wall, seeming to swell out slightly, like a balloon about to burst, I glimpsed something purple. When I stepped aside to make room for Marsh again, I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy. I had looked into a room, unlike any other, and when I lifted my gaze, that room was inside Hasanaj’s brain, who lay staring straight ahead under the drape in the larger room, filled with doctors and nurses and machines and equipment, and beyond that room there was an even larger room, warm and dusty and made of asphalt and concrete, beneath a chain of green mountains and a blue sky. All those rooms were gathered in my own brain, which looked exactly like Hasanaj’s, a wet, gleaming, walnutlike lump, composed of 100 billion brain cells so tiny and so myriad they could only be compared to the stars of a galaxy. And yet what they formed was flesh, and the processes they harbored were simple and primitive, regulated by various chemical substances and powered by electricity. How could it contain these images of the world? How could thoughts arise within this hunk of flesh?”


houellebecqMichel Houellebecq’s latest novel was recently translated into English as Submission. One of the novels I read over the holidays, Submission offers a no-holds-barred attack on agnostic, academic, Enlightenment values. The reason seems to be that Houellebecq is convinced that the Enlightenment is dead and that life without religion may not really be possible. Hence the title and the main plot point that a moderate Islamic Party led by a charismatic and brilliant leader could become President of France in 2022. Houellebecq articulates some of his views in a revealing interview with Sylvain Bourmeau in the Paris Review.

“PR: I don’t see it. On the contrary, the same people are often militant antiracists and fervent defenders of secularism, with both ways of thinking rooted in the Enlightenment.
MH: Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace. A striking example? The left wing candidate on Olivier Besancenot’s ticket who wore the veil, there’s a contradiction for you. But only the Muslims are in an actually schizophrenic situation. On the level of what we customarily call values, Muslims have more in common with the extreme right than with the left. There is a more fundamental opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic. That seems obvious to me.
PR: But I don’t understand the connection with racism …
MH: That’s because there is none. Objectively speaking, there is none. When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait. This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of ‘racism’ by inventing the crime of islamophobia.
PR: The word may be badly chosen, but there do exist forms of stigma toward groups or categories of person, which are forms of racism …
MH: No, islamophobia is not a kind of racism. If anything has become obvious, it’s that.
PR: Islamophobia serves as a screen for a kind of racism that can no longer be expressed because it’s against the law.
MH: I think that’s just false. I don’t agree.
PH: You rely on another dubious dichotomy, the opposition between anti-Semitism and racism, when actually we can point to many moments in history when those two things have gone hand in hand.
MH: I think anti-Semitism has nothing to do with racism. I’ve spent time trying to understand anti-Semitism, as it happens. One’s first impulse is to connect it with racism. But what kind of racism is it when a person can’t say whether somebody is Jewish or not Jewish, because the difference can’t be seen? Racism is more elementary than that, it’s a different skin color …
PR: No, because cultural racism has been with us for a long time.
MH: But now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. Racism is simply when you don’t like somebody because he belongs to another race, because he hasn’t got the same color skin that you do, or the same features, et cetera. You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.
PR: But since, from a biological point of view, ‘races’ don’t exist, racism is necessarily cultural.
MH: But racism exists, apparently, all around us. Obviously it has existed from the moment when races first began mixing … Be honest, Sylvain! You know very well that a racist is someone who doesn’t like somebody else because he has black skin or because he has an Arab face. That’s what racism is.
PR: Or because his values or his culture are …
MH: No, that’s a different problem, I’m sorry.
PR: Because he is polygamous, for example.
MH: Ah, well, one can be shocked by polygamy without being the least bit racist. That must be the case for lots of people who are not the least bit racist. But let’s go back to anti-Semitism, because we’ve gotten off topic. Seeing as how no one has ever been able to tell whether somebody is Jewish just by his appearance or even by his way of life, since by the time anti-Semitism really developed, very few Jews had a Jewish way of life, what could antisemitism really mean? It’s not a kind of racism. All you have to do is read the texts to realize that anti-Semitism is simply a conspiracy theory–there are hidden people who are responsible for all the unhappiness in the world, who are plotting against us, there’s an invader in our midst. If the world is going badly, it’s because of the Jews, because of Jewish banks … It’s a conspiracy theory.
PR: But in Soumission, isn’t there a conspiracy theory–the idea that a ‘great replacement,’ to use the words of Renaud Camus, is underway, that Muslims are seizing power?
MH: I don’t know much about this ‘grand replacement’ theory, but I gather it has to do with race. Whereas in my book, there is no mention of immigration. That’s not the subject.
PR: It’s not necessarily racial, it can be religious. In this case, your book describes the replacement of the Catholic religion by Islam.
MH: No. My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.
PR: You who have become an agnostic, you can look on cheerfully and watch the destruction of Enlightenment philosophy?
MH: Yes. It has to happen sometime and it might as well be now. In this sense, too, I am a Comtean. We are in what he calls the metaphysical stage, which began in the Middle Ages and whose whole point was to destroy the phase that preceded it. In itself, it can produce nothing, just emptiness and unhappiness. So yes, I am hostile to Enlightenment philosophy, I need to make that perfectly clear.”  

For Houellebecq, there is a novelist’s delight in watching the Enlightenment implode. But it is not the delight of the nihilist, the one who avows nothing and takes joy in destruction. Perhaps even scarier to many, especially those defenders of the Enlightenment, Houellebecq welcomes what he calls a necessary return of God to politics and to life–he even welcomes Islam as a regenerator of values in Western society. He accepts this fact and all its consequences. Above all, he argues, “feminism is demographically doomed.” Submission is fearless, which makes it worth reading. 

Imagined Campuses

college studentsHua Hsu considers what he calls the “imaginary college student,” the one at the heart of all the fretting about what is or is not possible to talk about at colleges and universities: “Consider the trajectory of the typical twenty-something, born in the early nineties, a product of the test-oriented No Child Left Behind educational model. This hypothetical student came of age during the Obama era, with a new understanding of America’s future demographics, at a moment when the narrative of a red and blue America was firm orthodoxy. This student’s first Presidential election may involve Donald Trump. Identity politics, in the world this student knows, are no longer solely the province of minorities who have been pushed to the margins. The same ideas about inclusivity and belonging that spark campus revolt also underlie the narratives of grievance and decline animating supporters of Trump and the Tea Party. Within this context, where large swaths of the so-called real world have already surrendered to cynicism, perhaps direct action and protests, even in the name of seemingly minor causes, are the only politics that still makes sense. It is tempting to conclude that what is happening is simply a rerun of what always happens, this time in the age of aggregation. But I’m not sure what we accomplish by insisting that nothing new is going on, or by suggesting that students simply try harder to belong. It seems similarly unhelpful to belittle an archetype, questioning the sources of their esteem or reading their motives in bad faith. The imaginary college student is a character born of someone else’s pessimism. It is an easy target, a perverse distillation of all the self-regard and self-absorption ascribed to what’s often called the millennial generation. But perhaps it goes both ways, and the reason that college stories have garnered so much attention this year is our general suspicion, within the real world, that the system no longer works. Their cries for justice sound out of step to those who can no longer imagine it. Maybe we’re troubled by these students’ attempts to imagine change on so microscopic a level. Maybe they interest us as a litmus test for the political future–one with different frontiers and more vociferous demands. There is a naïve idealism at the heart of student protest, which might be desperate or loud but never as cynical as the world that necessitated it. Today’s youth should be understood in terms of the choices available to them, not the world they’ve inherited. Let college kids be, many of us say, for they are no weirder than we were. It’s a comparison meant to be generous, since past generations, we think, turned out more or less O.K. This flatters the old, not the young.”

Grown Ups and Little Ones

raffiIn an article written by Sheila Heti, the children’s musician Raffi wonders aloud whether making music for children is that different than make music for adults: “Raffi doesn’t have any grand theories about why his music has been so successful, but he credits a group called the Babysitters as early inspiration. While researching children’s albums in the mid-’70s, he noticed that ‘what I liked best as an adult listener was music that was not cloying and overly syrupy. I knew that I wanted to sing with love and respect and also be playful. You’re not going goo-goo ga-ga. Why would you? I just tuned in to my own compassion for the little boy I had been when I was very young. I think compassion guided me through the music and my career.’ This also affected his choice of songs; on his Christmas album, he decided not to include ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ because of the lyric ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good.’ ‘I mean, it’s a cute song lyric, but it’s not okay in terms of how we ought to see children. Everybody’s good and bad. It doesn’t mean you don’t get presents at Christmas.’ Although he doesn’t sing much for adults anymore, it wouldn’t be hard to switch. He says the main difference between singing for adults and children is ‘the material, obviously. If I’m singing a love song, I treat that the way the song needs to be treated. You go with the repertoire. But I am who I am when I’m singing, that doesn’t change.'”

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

vrg banner headingHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #16

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

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

Friday, January 8, 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, 4:30 pm – 9:00 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. 

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 holiday week on the Blog, Samantha Hill discusses how Arendt’s The Human Condition forces us to ask the question “What does it means to be at home in the world?” in the Quote of the Week. Also, Sherwood Anderson comments on the suppression of a human being’s “deep well of thinking” in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking.


Amor Mundi 10/4/15

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-upCelebrity Trumps Ideology

trumpMark Leibovich in the NY Times Magazine has found something fascinating and more frightening about the Trump candidacy. “But what was more compelling to me about both the speech and the spirit of the room was how nonideological it all was. Other than undocumented immigrants, who represent a go-to boogeyman for the right, Trump’s targets consisted of a bipartisan assembly of the ‘permanent political class’ that Joan Didion described in her book ‘Political Fictions’: that incestuous band of TV talkers, campaign strategists and candidates that had ‘rigged the game’ and perpetuated the scripted awfulness of our politics. ‘Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected,’ Didion wrote. ‘But everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-­grouped.’ Resentment of this class has built over several years. It has been expressed on both sides, by the rise of insurgent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (Trump’s railing against fund-raiser ‘blood money,’ ‘bloodsucker’ lobbyists and Wall Street ‘paper pushers’ would play well across the board). As a reporter in Washington, I, too, have grown exceedingly weary of this world–the familiar faces, recycled tropes and politics as usual–and here was none other than Donald J. Trump, the billionaire blowhard whom I had resisted as a cartoonish demagogue, defiling it with resonance. He tacked not to the left or to the right, but against the ‘losers’ and ‘scumbags’ in the various chapters of the club: the pundits who ‘wear heavy glasses’ and ‘sit around the table,’ the ‘political hacks’ selling out American interests overseas. Karl Rove ‘is a totally incompetent jerk,’ Trump told the crowd in Dallas, referring to the Fox News commentator and chief Republican strategist of the George W. Bush years. The crowd went nuts at the Rove put-down, which in itself is remarkable–the ‘architect’ of Bush’s political ride being abused by a right-leaning crowd in Bush’s home state. It was at this point that I began to feel glad I decided to write about Trump, who seemed to have clearly seized on some profound exhaustion with our politics. There’s very little difference between Trump when he’s not running for president and Trump now that he is running for president, except that he makes more public appearances. Trump is the same boorish, brash and grandiose showman we’ve known across many realms. And for some reason, that character has proved an incendiary match with this political moment. It was a repeat of what I saw that night of the first debate, when the whole room abandoned the professional campaign surrogates in favor of the blazing chaos of Trump himself. Was Trump the logical byproduct of a cancerous system in which American democracy has mutated into a gold rush of cheap celebrity, wealth creation and narcissistic branding madness? Or has he merely wielded the tools of this transformation–his money, celebrity and dominance of the media–against the forces that have engendered this disgust in the system to begin with?” Leibovich has an answer to that question, and it is as depressing as it is worth pondering.

Job Did Exist

primo leviJames Wood has a remarkable testament to the author, Auschwitz survivor, and chemist Primo Levi in this week’s New Yorker. Wood touches upon so many facets of Levi’s prose and humanity, as well as the uniqueness of his particular witnessing of the Holocaust. “There is a Talmudic commentary that argues that ‘Job never existed and was just a parable.’ The Israeli poet and concentration-camp survivor Dan Pagis replies to this easy erasure in his poem ‘Homily.’ Despite the obvious inequality of the theological contest, Pagis says, Job passed God’s test without even realizing it. He defeated Satan with his very silence. We might imagine, Pagis continues, that the most terrible thing about the story is that Job didn’t understand whom he had defeated, or that he had even won the battle. Not true. For then comes an extraordinary final line: ‘But in fact, the most terrible thing of all is that Job never existed and is just a parable.’ Pagis’s poem means: ‘Job did exist, because Job was in the death camps. Suffering is not the most terrible thing; worse is to have the reality of one’s suffering erased.’ In just this way, Levi’s writing insists that Job existed and was not a parable. His clarity is ontological and moral: these things happened, a victim witnessed them, and they must never be erased or forgotten. There are many such facts in Levi’s books of testament. The reader is quickly introduced to the principle of scarcity, in which everything–every detail, object, and fact–becomes essential, for everything will be stolen: wire, rags, paper, bowl, a spoon, bread. The prisoners learn to hold their bowls under their chins so as not to lose the crumbs. They shorten their nails with their teeth. ‘Death begins with the shoes.’ Infection enters through wounds in the feet, swollen by edema; ill-fitting shoes can be catastrophic. Hunger is perpetual, overwhelming, and fatal for most: ‘The Lager is hunger.’ In their sleep, many of the prisoners lick their lips and move their jaws, dreaming of food. Reveille is brutally early, before dawn. As the prisoners trudge off to work, sadistic, infernal music accompanies them: a band of prisoners is forced to play marches and popular tunes; Levi says that the pounding of the bass drum and the clashing of the cymbals is ‘the voice of the Lager’ and the last thing about it he will forget. And present everywhere is what he called the ‘useless violence’ of the camp: the screaming and beatings and humiliations, the enforced nakedness, the absurdist regulatory regimen, with its sadism of paradox–the fact, say, that every prisoner needed a spoon but was not issued one and had to find it himself on the black market (when the camp was liberated, Levi writes, a huge stash of brand-new plastic spoons was discovered), or the fanatically prolonged daily roll call, which took place in all weathers, and which required militaristic precision from wraiths in rags, already half dead.”

Anxieties of Democracy

democracyIra Katznelson has an essay in Boston Review on the historical return of the worry that liberal democracies are failing. He worries that around the world liberal representative democracies are experiencing a “profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability.” And he reminds us that it is not the first time this has happened. Worries about the exhaustion and limits of representative democracies were widespread in the 1930s when “Many Americans embraced these views. In Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), Reinhold Niebuhr offered ‘the basic conviction . . . that the liberal culture of modernity is quite unable to give guidance and direction to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one.’ Looking across the sea at fascist ascendance and communist assertiveness, he warned, ‘a dying social order hastens its death in the frantic effort to avoid or postpone it.’ The following year, philosopher William Ernest Hocking declared that the time for liberal democracy ‘has already passed,’ for it is ‘incapable of achieving social unity.’ Such government, he predicted, ‘has no future. . . . Its once negligible weaknesses have developed into menacing evils.’ Even the relatively optimistic political scientist Lindsay Rogers believed, in 1934, that representative institutions ‘must reconcile themselves to laying down general principles within the limits of which they will give executives free hands.’ Such ‘considerable revamping of the machinery of representative government [that] will come quickly is greatly to be desired,’ he wrote in Crisis Government. The era’s democratic governments looked vastly inferior to the instruments of mass mobilization and problem solving fashioned by the dictatorships. The pressures on all the democracies were intense. Writing in 1932 about ‘the breakdown of the old order,’ ‘the immediate economic and social needs of labor,’ and ‘the exploitation of the farmers,’ economist and future U.S. Senator Paul Douglas exhorted fellow advocates of peaceful and democratic change that all had not yet been lost. But he thought he was pushing against the odds. Mussolini’s confident assertion in 1932 that ‘liberalism is preparing to close the doors of its temples’ has been proved wrong. Dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Argentina have given way to entrenched democracy. Even an increasingly authoritarian Russia embraces democratic forms. With the exceptions of China’s large-scale experiment in autocratic capitalism and the surprising surge of theocracy in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, liberal democracy based on the rule of law, government by consent, individual rights, and political representation presently has no effective normative or institutional challengers in most of the world, and no effective contenders in countries with long-standing democratic regimes. What saved democracy? Much credit goes to the New Deal.” The Boston Review collects a number of responses to Katznelson, and one particularly noteworthy is by Nadia Urbanati, who writes: “Thus, one novel aspect of the present crisis of legitimacy of parliamentary democracy is a revolt against the intermediary bodies that made it possible–political parties and professional journalism.”

Solitude and Conversation

smartphoneIn reviewing Sherry Turkle’s new book “Reclaiming Conversation” in the New York Times, Jonathan Franzen highlights the nexus between conversation and solitude. “Conversation is Turkle’s organizing principle because so much of what constitutes humanity is threatened when we replace it with electronic communication. Conversation presupposes solitude, for example, because it’s in solitude that we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are. (If we’re unable to be separated from our smartphones, Turkle says, we consume other people ‘in bits and pieces; it is as though we use them as spare parts to support our fragile selves.’) Through the conversational attention of parents, children acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them. (Turkle believes that regular family conversations help ‘inoculate’ children against bullying.) When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins. (A recent study shows a steep decline in empathy, as measured by standard psychological tests, among college students of the smartphone generation.) And conversation carries the risk of boredom, the condition that smartphones have taught us most to fear, which is also the condition in which patience and imagination are developed.”


boringGayatri Devi wants us to embrace boredom: “So lean in to boredom, into that intense experience of time untouched by beauty, pleasure, comfort and all other temporal salubrious sensations. Observe it, how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored. This form of metathinking can help you overcome your boredom, and learn about yourself and the world in the process. If meditating on nothing is too hard at the outset, at the very least you can imitate William Wordsworth and let that host of golden daffodils flash upon your inward eye: emotions recollected in tranquility–that is, reflection–can fill empty hours while teaching you, slowly, how to sit and just be in the present. Don’t replace boredom with work or fun or habits. Don’t pull out a screen at every idle moment. Boredom is the last privilege of a free mind. The currency with which you barter with folks who will sell you their ‘habit,’ ‘fun’ or ‘work’ is your clear right to practice judgment, discernment and taste. In other words, always trust when boredom speaks to you. Instead of avoiding it, heed its messages, because they’ll keep you true to yourself.”

amor_mundi_sign-upSelling Yourself

personal brandingAnn Friedman tried, like we all must now, to build a personal brand and was not exactly sold on the process of the personal elevator pitch: “I don’t want to live in a world in which everyone must be able to summarize and publicize their work in order to be professionally successful. I think those journalists in Alaska should have decent salaries and job security just because they report the news well, not because they have a lot of Twitter followers and a flashy personal web site. The same goes for janitors and call-center employees and anyone else who doesn’t have a branding-friendly job. It’s ridiculous to think that, even in the age of widespread access to social media, everyone has the freedom and time to brand themselves. Peters saw personal branding as a way for average workers to become something more than corporate drones. But in reality, that’s still a luxury reserved for the privileged. There’s also something inherently fake about having a carefully constructed identity. The more we think of ourselves as brands, the less personal everything becomes. Instead of the real you, with all your quirks and shortcomings, we get a polished YOU™, the version that is marketed to the world. Maybe, if you’re making a CEO-level salary, the trade-off is worth it. Maybe, if you’re naturally outgoing and find yourself in the right industry, it doesn’t feel like a trade-off at all. But it seems wrong to extol the virtues of personal branding without at least acknowledging this disconnect. Anything less would be inauthentic.”

Can’t Stay, Can’t Go

eu migrant crisisHugh Eakin sees the roots of Europe’s refugee crisis, a crisis that extends beyond the fleeing Syrians we’ve come to associate with it in recent days and weeks, as a simple fact: “there are virtually no legal ways for a refugee to travel to Europe. You can only apply for asylum once you arrive in a European country, and since the EU imposes strict visa requirements on most non-EU nationals, and since it is often impossible to get a European visa in a Middle Eastern or African country torn apart by war, the rules virtually require those seeking protection to take a clandestine journey, which for most would be impossible without recourse to smugglers. This situation has led to a vast, shadowy human-smuggling industry, based in Turkey, the Balkans, and North Africa, which European officials have recently estimated to be worth as much as $1 billion per year. Just months before the current refugee crisis erupted this summer, European leaders launched a ‘war on smugglers,’ a controversial plan to crack down on criminal networks in Libya that control what European officials call the ‘Central Mediterranean’ migration route. As Libya descended into growing instability and violence following the 2011 revolution, it became a haven for human smugglers, who specialize in ferrying asylum seekers to Lampedusa, off the coast of Sicily. The smugglers are paid upfront and do not themselves navigate the boats; they have every incentive to put as many people as they can onto small, wooden crafts, leaving it to Italian and European naval forces to rescue them when they flounder. (According to European security experts, the smugglers offer a ‘menu’ of different levels of service for these terrifying journeys, charging more if you want to have a lifejacket, or to sit near the center of the boat, where you are less likely to wash overboard.) This is not a new phenomenon: the Missing Migrants Project, a database run by the International Organization of Migration in Switzerland, has recorded more than 22,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean since the year 2000. But over the past eighteen months, as demand has gone up and smugglers have grown more reckless, the number of fatalities has increased dramatically, with more than five thousand deaths since the beginning of 2014. This year, in the month of April alone, a record 1,200 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya. ‘How many more deaths will it take for us to call these guys [i.e., the smugglers] mass murderers?’ a migration official for a Northern European government told me. In late September, the UN Security Council was to vote on a draft resolution authorizing European forces to seize and even destroy smugglers’ boats off the coast of Libya.”

How to Get There Once You’re Gone

migrant journeyGhaith Abdul-Ahad, who himself once was conned out of a significant sum trying to get smuggled out of Iraq, tracks the routes that migrants take to get from the Mediterranean Coast through Greece or Turkey and into Europe: “Following the route laid out by my Facebook friend, most of these migrants would stop briefly in Athens and then travel on to Thessaloniki. It’s a six-hour walk from the train station there to the Macedonian border. Next to a deserted petrol station–used by no one, since fuel is cheaper on the other side of the border–is a two-storey motel, a place to rest, buy provisions and charge up your phone. Presumably, this place was once as deserted as the petrol station but now it was a modern-day caravanserai, the lobby stacked high with overpriced canned food, trainers, backpacks and bottled water. Two elderly Greek cooks were ladling out beans and rice for €10 a plate. Every table, chair and corner was occupied. A group of Syrians sat smoking and nattering away; next to them a table full of Eritreans drank beer in silence. The patron of the motel was charging round in a rage shouting orders, behaving as if his fine establishment had been invaded by vermin rather than clients. Business was so good that neighbouring tavernas and places with rooms to let had all hung out signs in misspelled Arabic in the hope of luring in some of the new clientele. Most of the migrants had money to spend and didn’t mind the prices. They had come with a few thousand euros, cash from houses and cars sold back home to fund the journey to Europe. Being charged €5 for a can of Coke was a trivial exploitation compared to the thousand or so euros each had had to pay for a trip on an inflatable dinghy that would have cost €15 on a ferry.”

The EU and Data Privacy

eu data privacyThe European Parliament has released a study “Big Data, Smart Devices, and their Impact on Privacy” that concludes, “the data-driven economy poses significant challenges to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, notably in the fields of privacy and personal data protection.” The study is overly bureaucratic but is worth slogging through. Here are the key findings: “Big Data can be broadly depicted as the massive and rapid processing of data (through modern data analytics) in the search for information (including unforeseen information). The practice of data mining poses a significant challenge due to the degree of opacity characterising many contemporary data processing activities. Envisioned through the lens of Big Data, smart devices are singled out for their ability to further extend data mining practices. The production of data by smart devices can be quite varied (such as sensors planned for data capture); the pervasive and extensive routine data production of smart devices might not be fully grasped by individuals. Data mining practices may result in ‘behavioural targeting’ and further encourage a ‘datafication’ of society that poses significant challenges for privacy and digital rights in general. Due to such risks as statistical discrimination, there are calls for up-to-date regulations.”

Friday Night Lights

american footballCharles P. Pierce takes stock of American football in the week after a high school player “took a hard hit” and died: “Let us be plain. For the moment, anybody who writes about sports who chooses to boycott American football because of the inherent and inevitable damage it does to the individuals who play the game is doing only half of their job. American football is the great, gravitational force at the center of the universe in which our spectacle sports operate. It is fine to operate from the moral high ground, but the fact remains that the existential crisis of physical destruction in American football is an existential crisis at the heart of American sports. It requires a serious moral calculation on the part of everyone who makes a living within the game, who makes a living transmitting the game out there to all the Evan Murrays watching at home, who involves him or herself vicariously through fantasy leagues, and who works at covering the complex at any level of journalism. Too much of American journalism–and, therefore, too much of what Americans think they know about their country–is corrupted by a kind of anesthetic generality. To cover American sports while boycotting football is to make a conscious choice to ignore the most garish form of the basic commodification of human beings that is fundamental to all of the games. At the same time, that same moral calculation requires an acknowledgement that the essence of American football is the destruction of the human body and that it alone among the institutions of sports spectacles involves the death of children”


Featured Events

Marcus Llanque engages with Arendt’s original intention, which was not to criticize the idea of human rights as such but the specific concept of that idea that prevailed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which dominates human rights discourse in our times. In Arendt’s view, human rights can only guide actions, but they cannot replace them. Historically, human rights were most successful when they were linked to the foundation of a polity guided by the principles that human rights stand for. Her argument reflects a classical republican position by emphasizing that norms are nothing without actors and that it is the purpose of human beings, not just to enjoy as many rights as possible but to also be able to act in the first place.

Marcus Llanque is Professor for Political Theory at University of Augsburg/ Germany. He’s published several books on the theory of democracy, republicanism, and the history of political ideas. He is the editor of Hannah Arendt’s “What is Politics?” within the upcoming critical edition of Arendt’s complete works.

Free and Open to the Public

Monday, October 5, 2015

Room 203, Olin Hall, Bard College, 5:00 pm

clinton hillary debateDemocratic Debate Screening

Please join us at The Hannah Arendt Center for the first Democratic Debate on Tuesday October 13th.

Light refreshments will be served.

Space is limited, so please R.S.V.P. to

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, Time TBA

Privacy debate bannerBard College Public Debate

Resolved: “National security is more important than the individual right to privacy.”

Please join us for an exciting public debate inspired by the topic of this year’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference, “Why Privacy Matters.” The debate will feature Bard Debate Union members, Bard College faculty, and cadets and faculty from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Free and Open to the Public

Campus Center, Multipurpose Room, 7:00pm

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 CLOSED except for on-site registration, which is subject to availability and will cost $45 for ALL interested parties except those of the Bard community.

We will be offering a live webcast to individuals who are interested in watching one or both days of the conference. To learn more, please click here.

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

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

hannah arendt poetryNo Word Breaks Into the Dark – The Poetry of Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt always returned to poetry and kept the language of German poems in her hinterkopf. For Arendt, poetry is the closest form we have to thought itself, bearing the burden of language and memory. It should then be no surprise that Arendt herself wrote poems.

The poems now appear in translation for the first time, edited and translated into English by Samantha Hill and into French by Karin Biro. Biro and Hill join us to read from their translations and discuss Arendt’s poetry, the work of translation, and the place of poetry across Arendt’s political and philosophical works.

Free and Open to the Public, but space is limited. Please RSVP to

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center, 1:00 pm

david brinDoes Literature Become More Relevant When We Incorporate History, Science, and Other Elements of Change?

National Endowment for the Humanities/Hannah Arendt Center Distinguished Visiting Fellow DAVID BRIN is a scientist who has served as a NASA visiting scholar in exobiology. As a writer of science fiction, he has received the Nebula award, two Hugo awards, and four Locus awards, and has published books including Earth and The Postman. He is also the author of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?

Free and Open to the Public

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Bard Hall, Bard College, Time TBA

albert knollAlbert Knoll, of the Dachau Archives, Will Be Honored as Archivist of the Year

The special event will take place in Manhattan on Oct. 26, 2015, 6.30pm, at the Bard Graduate Center at 38. West 86th Street, New York, NY, in conjunction with The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The Introductory Presentation will be by Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, author of the acclaimed, new book, KL: A History of the Concentration Camps.

Honoree Albert Knoll, b. 1958, has served the mission of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since 1997. In addition to maintaining and expanding its archival work and databases, he has been instrumental in assisting relatives of former inmates as well as guiding researchers, scholars and authors around the world – including Awards Event speaker Nickolaus Wachsmann. Knoll has written articles on illegal photos, homosexual prisoners, contemporary Nazi press coverage of Dachau, etc, and contributed to the International Tracing Service’s first scholarly yearbook. He has also organized international workshops on the gathering of data on all categories of National Socialist victims.

Invitation Only. RSVP Required. Please contact

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bard College Graduate Center, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY, 6:30 pm

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group – Session #14

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, November 6, 2015, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Ian Storey discusses how the modern Chinese state under President Xi Jinping is an exceedingly different beast than the regimes Arendt understood as inaugurating totalitarianism in the Quote of the Week. Peter Drucker offers his views on asking the wrong questions in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Peter Baehr analyzes “Stalinism in Retrospect“, Arendt’s contribution to Columbia’s Seminar on Communism, with respect to her theories on totalitarianism. Finally, we appreciate the various annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of “The Will of Zeus” in this week’s Library feature.


Amor Mundi 11/9/14

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 Creep In Our Kitchen, In Our Car, And Everywhere

internet of thingsSue Halpern writes that the internet is getting creepy. Beyond smart phones and smart watches, we now also are confronted with smart cars and smart refrigerators. Cars remember where we like to go and can direct us there; they will soon even drive for us. Refrigerators know our favorite milk and our guilty pleasures and can order them to be delivered before we realize we need them. All these smart appliances are wired, connecting us and the immense and revelatory data of our lives to the world of commerce and security. Companies can, of course, pay for that data and subtly or not suggest new products. And the government, or others, can hack into the streams of data we trail behind us to know where we’ve been, what we’re doing, and even what we want. Halpern cites Jeremy Rifkin, an evangelist of the coming internet of things, who is clear that in this new age, there will be no privacy: “Connecting everyone and everything in a neural network brings the human race out of the age of privacy, a defining characteristic of modernity, and into the era of transparency.” For Rifkin, we should have no qualms about trading privacy for a coming age of unparalleled convenience and security. The more information about ourselves we offer up to the internet of things, the more benefits we will receive. As Halpern argues this week in the NY Review of Books, “These trade-offs will only increase as the quotidian becomes digitized, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities to opt out. It’s one thing to edit the self that is broadcast on Facebook and Twitter, but the Internet of Things, which knows our viewing habits, grooming rituals, medical histories, and more, allows no such interventions-unless it is our behaviors and curiosities and idiosyncracies themselves that end up on the cutting room floor.” We are entering a world in which we need to rethink what it means to be private in a world when we are so connected to the internet of things that the internet-and those who can mine it-knows more about ourselves than we do.

The Decadent Introvert

alonenessLinda Holmes talks up the pleasure of being alone and asks how, if at all, we can truly be by and with ourselves: “We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can’t tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it. Most of the time, I want good company, like most people do. But the experience of earned, voluntary aloneness is, among other things, instructive. I don’t think you can really understand how accustomed you are to being scheduled and operating off an internal to-do list at almost all times until you think to yourself, ‘My goal will be to get to Providence by 4,’ and then you think, ‘Why is there a goal?’ And then it begins to make you internally rebellious: What if I drove with no goal? What if I had nowhere to be all day until it was time to sleep and I discussed with no one where to stop and take a picture, where to have lunch, what shop to go in, or which way to turn on the trail? What would I do if I could do anything – in this micro-environment, in this moment, at the point of this particular pause, what is my wish?”

The Courage to Speak Up

Alayne FleischmannAttorney General Eric Holder is about to resign. His legacy: after six years as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, no one has gone to jail either for breaking American laws against torture or for breaking U.S. laws regarding financial fraud relating to the financial crisis. In a recent speech at NYU, Holder explained why it is that corporate executives are not criminally prosecutable: “Responsibility remains so diffuse, and top executives so insulated, that any misconduct could again be considered more a symptom of the institution’s culture than a result of the willful actions of any single individual.” As Matt Taibi glosses such doublespeak in Rolling Stone, “In other words, people don’t commit crimes, corporate culture commits crimes!” Taibi’s moral clarity comes in an article on Alayne Fleischmann: “the central witness in one of the biggest cases of white-collar crime in American history, possessing secrets that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon late last year paid $9 billion (not $13 billion as regularly reported – more on that later) to keep the public from hearing. Back in 2006, as a deal manager at the gigantic bank, Fleischmann first witnessed, then tried to stop, what she describes as ‘massive criminal securities fraud’ in the bank’s mortgage operations. Thanks to a confidentiality agreement, she’s kept her mouth shut since then. ‘My closest family and friends don’t know what I’ve been living with,’ she says. ‘Even my brother will only find out for the first time when he sees this interview.'” Fleischmann saw crimes committed, blew the whistle on them, and is angry that these crimes are still not being prosecuted. Her choice to speak now appears to be a brave one: “And now, with Holder about to leave office and his Justice Department reportedly wrapping up its final settlements, the state is effectively putting the finishing touches on what will amount to a sweeping, industrywide effort to bury the facts of a whole generation of Wall Street corruption. ‘I could be sued into bankruptcy,’ she says. ‘I could lose my license to practice law. I could lose everything. But if we don’t start speaking up, then this really is all we’re going to get: the biggest financial cover-up in history.'”

Oligarchy, From Left And Right

James BurnhamIn a short essay seeking to revive the 20th century American conservative James Burnham, Daniel McCarthy argues that we need to learn from Burnham’s combination of unblinkered realism regarding power and insight into the non-ideological managerial elite. He suggests that, as a political culture, there’s just one way forward: “What has happened in America since the end of the Cold War, however, is that competition for popular favor has been reduced to a propaganda exercise-employing myths, symbols, and other ‘derivatives’-disconnected from policies of material interest to the ruling class. Thus monetary policy, foreign policy, and positions on trade and immigration vary little between Republican and Democratic presidents. This is a terrible situation-if you’re not part of the elite. If you are, all the gridlock and venom of our politics is simply irrelevant to the bottom line. For the non-elite, however, insecurity of all kinds continues to rise, as does a sense that the country is being sold out from under you. America’s ruling class has bought itself time-for continuing capitalism in an age of worldwide managerial revolution-at the expense of America’s middle and working classes. Reform, alas, will not come from ‘throw the bums out’ populism of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street varieties. It can only come from two directions: the best of the people must grow conscious of how oligarchy operates and why populist leadership is a paradox, and new factions among the elite must be willing to open competition on more serious fronts-campaigning not only on myths and formulas but on the very substance of the managerial revolution.”

No Good Sports

sportsmanshipCharles P. Pierce takes on the myth of American sportsmanship: “Sports today are conducted in a context that makes true sportsmanship – which is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that your opponent is basically the same common clay deserving of the same respect as you are, not because of talent, but simply because he or she is another human being – almost impossible. Sports today, at almost every level, have arranged themselves in such a way that the athlete is made a commodity. The games are a clash of walking narratives, of competing sales campaigns, of a design competition between marketing techniques and strategies. This has exacerbated the emotional conflict that always has been present when we talk about our athletes – we want ferocious, brain-scrambling passion from them when the ball is in play, and conspicuous public politesse when it is not. If the latter gets tangled up in the former, then we get what seem to be endless arguments about how America is being wussified, and how we have become a soft and passive people, and a lot of rancid talk about people playing in skirts and so on. It’s a wonder more athletes don’t simply go mad.” But if sportsmanship is a no go, what’s left? Ultimately, Pierce wonders if it is anything more or less than kindness.  

What’s the Matter With Goodness?

Toni MorrisonIn a conversation with Angela Davis, Toni Morrison gives a short history of the end of goodness: “It wasn’t true in literature in the early days. There was always a hero who prevailed. As awful as things could happen in a Dickens novel, it ended up with the survival and triumph of high morality, of people who deserved to triumph. But something happened. Now, I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think it is after World War I with novelists at any rate, and certainly some of the war poets. Perhaps they understood themselves as attacking evil but they ended up theatricalizing it and the good people were fairly stupid or unlucky or what have you. There are references in literature to the silencing of goodness … I am interested in pulling from the modern canon what I know and what I believe about this adoration and fascination, this compulsion to display evil. Even if there is a mild attempt to say that it is evil, nevertheless, it’s hogging the stage in many novels. I think goodness is weak in literature almost like it is in the culture. This is just a general observation.”

Featured Events

Alexei GloukhovLunchtime Talk with Alexei Gloukhov

Arendt and the Question of Positive Freedom

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

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



From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin reflects on Arendt’s understanding of violence and the origins of power in the Quote of the Week. John Stuart Mill provides this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. In our Video Archives, we look back on a 2010 Lunchtime Talk with Ursula Ludz, a former visiting scholar of the Hannah Arendt Center. And we appreciate a copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera in our Library feature.


The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?

(Featured Image – The American Flag, Source: The Sleuth Journal)

Parts of this post have appeared before; it is rewritten and presented in preparation for this week’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?

On Thursday and Friday of this week, “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideals Worth Fighting For?” will gather leading public intellectuals, lawyers, students, professors, writers, politicians, business people, philosophers, and citizens to think together about what American ideas, if any, can inspire Americans to sacrifice and struggle for the common good. Continue reading


The Two American Constitutional Freedoms

It is hard to disagree with the claim that government is too big and too bureaucratic. Citizenship is in decline. The legitimacy of representative democratic government is experiencing a crisis around the world. These are common refrains, heard often on the left and the right. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are evidence of the general dissatisfaction with big, unresponsive, administrative government. California is thinking of splitting itself into six states. Even the New York Times Magazine, in its cover story today, suggests that the time for the Libertarian movement may have finally arrived. Continue reading

Is Democracy Over?


Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk argue in a long essay in The Nation that the democratic moment is passing if not yet already passed. The sweep of their essay is broad. Alexis de Tocqueville saw American democracy replacing the age of European aristocracy. He worried that democratic equality would be unable to preserve the freedoms associated with aristocratic individualism, but he knew that the move from aristocracy to democracy was unstoppable. So today, Meaney and Mounk write, we are witnessing the end of the age of democracy and equality. This is so, they suggest, even if we do not yet know what will replace it.


Source: The Spectator

Meaney and Mounk build their argument on a simple critical insight, a kind of “unmasking” of what might be called the hypocrisy of modern democracy. Democracy is supposed to be the will of the people. It is a long time since the small group of Athenian citizens governed themselves. Modern democrats have defended representative democracy as a pragmatic alternative because gathering all the citizens of modern states together for democratic debate is simply impossible. But technology has changed that.

As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner. The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves.

In short, democracy understood as self-government is now once again possible in the technical age. Such techno-democratic possibility is not, however, leading to more democracy. Thus, Meaney and Mounk conclude, technology allows us to see through the illusions of democracy as hypocritical and hollow.

The very word “democracy” indicts the political reality of most modern states. It takes a considerable degree of delusion to believe that any modern government has been “by” the people in anything but the most incidental way. In the digital age, the claim that the political participation of the people in decision-making makes democracy a legitimate form of government is only that much hollower. Its sole lingering claim to legitimacy—that it allows the people the regular chance to remove leaders who displease them—is distinctly less inspiring. Democracy was once a comforting fiction. Has it become an uninhabitable one?

Such arguments by “unmasking” are attractive and popular today. They work, as Peter Baehr argued recently in a talk at the Arendt Center, through the logic of exposure, by accusing “a person, argument or way of life of being fundamentally defective.” It may be that there are populist democratic revolts happening in Turkey and Thailand, revolts that are unsettling to elites. Similarly, the democratic energies of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are seen by many as evidence of the crisis of democracy. Democracy, it is said, is defective, based on a deception and buttressed by illusion. But it hardly does a service to truth to see democratic ferment as proof of the end of democracy.

Meaney and Mounck argue that there are three main reasons that have brought democracy to the brink of crisis. First, the interrelation of democracies within a global financial world means that democratic leaders are increasingly beholden to banks and financiers than to their citizens.

[W]ith world trade more pervasive, and with the domestic economies of even the most affluent nations deeply dependent on foreign investments, the ideological predilections of a few governments have become the preoccupation of all. There is a reason why all mainstream politicians now make decisions based on variables such as the risk of capital flight and the reactions of bond rating agencies, rather than on traditional calculations about the will of their electorates. As the German economist Wolfgang Streeck has argued, this shift in political calculus occurred because the most significant constituency of democracies is no longer voters but the creditors of public debt.


Second, democracies have come to be associated not just with self-government, but with good government leading to peace and plenty. But this is a fallacy. There is no reason that democracies will be better governed than autocracies or that economic growth in democracies will outperform that of autocracies. This creates an “expectations gap” in which people demand of democracies a level of success they cannot deliver.

Third, democracy has largely been sold around the world as “synonymous with modernization, economic uplift and individual self-realization.” Democratic politicians, often an elite, wrapped their power in largesse and growth that papered over important religious and moral differences. Today populism in Thailand, Egypt, and Turkey clashes with the clientism of democratic rulers and threatens the quasi-democratic alliance of the elites and the masses.

Meaney and Mounk are no doubt correct in perceiving challenges to democracy today. And they are right that democratic citizens consistently prefer technocratic competence over democratic dissent and debate. As they write,

…we live in highly bureaucratic states that require ever-increasing degrees of technical competence. We expect our governments to do more and to do it better. The more our expectations are addressed, the more bureaucratic and opaque government becomes and the less democratic control is possible.

The danger of representative democracy is that it imagines government as something we outsource to a professional class so that we can get on with what is most important in our lives. There is a decided similarity between representative democracy and technocracy, in that both presume that political administration is a necessary but uninspiring activity to be avoided and relegated to a class of bureaucrats and technocrats. The threat of representative democracy is that it is founded upon and regenerates an anti-political and apolitical culture, one that imagines politics as menial work to be done by others.

What Meaney and Mounk overlook, however, is that at least in the United States, we have never simply been a representative democracy. The United States is a complicated political system that cannot justly or rightly be called either a democracy or a representative democracy. Rightly understood, the USA is a federal, democratic, constitutional republic. Its democratic elements are both limited and augmented by its constitutional and federalist character as well as by its republican tradition. At least until recently, it combined a strong national government with equally strong traditions of state and local power. If citizens could not be involved in national politics, they could and often were highly involved in local governance.  And local institutions, empowered by the participation of energized citizens, were frequently more powerful or at least as powerful as were national institutions.

Of course, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed a tectonic constitutional shift in America away from local institutions and toward a highly powerful, centralized, and bureaucratized national government. But this shift is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Indeed, largely driven by the right, the new federalism has returned to states some traditional powers. These powers can be used, however, by the left and the right. As Ben Barber has been arguing from the left, there is an opportunity in the dysfunctional national government to return power and vitality to our cities and our towns. Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party show that there are large numbers of people who are dissatisfied with our political centralization and feel disenfranchised and distant from the ideals of democratic self-government. The Tea Party, more than Occupy, has channeled that disenchantment into local political organizations and institutions. But the opportunity to do so is present on the left as well as on the right.


There is a deeply religious element to American democracy that is bound up with the idea and reality of American exceptionalism, a reservoir of democratic potency that is not yet tapped out. Meaney and Mounk see this, albeit in a throwaway line that is buried in their essay:

Outside of a few outliers such as India and the United States, where deep in the provinces one still encounters something like religious zeal for democracy, many people in nominal democracies around the world do not believe they are inheritors of a sacral dispensation. Nor should they.

We are witnessing a crisis of democracy around the world, in the sense that both established and newer democracies are finding their populations dissatisfied. While it is true that people are not flocking to technical versions of mass democracies, they are taking to the streets and organizing protests, and involving themselves in the activities of citizenship. Meaney and Mounk are right, democracy is not assured, and we should never simply assume its continued vitality. But neither should we write it off entirely. Their essay should be read less as an obituary than a provocation. But it should be read. It is your Weekend Read.

Why Must We Care


Is there such a thing as too much free speech? The Editors at N+1 think so. They posted an editorial this week lamenting the overabundance of speaking that has swept over our nation like a plague:

A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us.

The N+1 Editors feel besieged. And we can all sympathize with their predicament. Too many people are writing blogs; too many voices are tweeting; too many friends are pontificating about something on Facebook. And then there are the trolls. It’s hard not to sympathize with our friends at N+1. Why do we have to listen to all of these folks? Shouldn’t all these folks just stop and read N+1 instead?


Of course it is richly hypocritical for the Editors of an opinion journal to complain of an overabundance of opinions. And N+1 acknowledges and even trumpets its hypocrisy.

We are aware that to say [that others should stop expressing their opinions] (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.

Beyond the hypocrisy N +1 has a point: The internet has unleashed packs upon packs of angry often rabid dogs. These haters attack anything and everything, including each other. Hate and rage are everywhere:

The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-­professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.

Wouldn’t it be nice of public discourse were civil and loving? I too would prefer a rational discussion about the Boycott, Diversity, and Sanction movement. I would be thrilled if the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could join forces to fight political corruption and the over-bureaucratization of government that disempowers individuals. And of course I would love it if those who religiously attack Hannah Arendt for her opinion that Adolf Eichmann was a superficial and banal man responsible for unspeakable evils could find common cause with those who find her provocative, moving and meaningful.

Of course it is exhausting dealing with those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. And there is always the impulse to say simply, “enough! I just don’t want to hear your opinions anymore.” This is precisely what N+1 is saying: “We don’t care!”

We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.

Underlying N+1’s ironic distance from the arena of opinions and discord is a basic anti-political fantasy that opinion is a waste of time, if it is not destructive. Wouldn’t it be better to skip the opinions and the battles and the disagreements and just cut straight to the truth? Just listen to the truth.

Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.

What N+1 embraces is truth over opinion and escapism against engagement with others. What they forget, however, is that there are two fundamentally opposed routes to truth.

In one, the truthseeker turns away from the world of opinion. The world in which we live is a world of shadows and deceptions. Truth won’t be found in the marketplace of ideas, but on the mountaintop in the blinding light of the sun. Like Plato’s philosopher king, we must climb out of the cave and ascend to the heights. Alone, turned toward the heavens and the eternal truths that surf upon the sunrays, we open ourselves to the experience of truth.

A second view of truth is more mundane. The truthseeker stays firmly planted in the world of opinion and deception. Truth is a battle and it is fought with the weapons of words. Persuasion and rhetoric replace the light of the sun. The winner gains not insight but power. Truth doesn’t emerge from an experience; truth is the settled sentiment of the most persuasive opinion.

Both the mountain path and the road through the marketplace are paths to truth, but of different kinds. Philosophers and theologians may very well need to separate themselves from the world of opinion if they are to free themselves to experience truth. Philosophical truths, as Hannah Arendt argues, address “man in his singularity” and are thus “unpolitical by nature.” For her, philosophy and also philosophical truths are anti-political.

Politicians cannot concern themselves with absolute truths; they must embrace the life of the citizen and the currency of opinion rather than the truths of the philosopher. In politics, “no opinion is self-evident,” as Arendt understood. “In matters of opinion, but not in matters of [philosophical] truth, our thinking is discursive, running as it were, from place to place, from one part of the world to another, through all kinds of conflicting views, until it finally ascends from these particularities to some impartial generality.” In politics, truth may emerge, but it must go through the shadows that darken the marketplace.

What Arendt understands about political truths is that truths do indeed “circulate” in messy and often uncomfortable ways that the n+1 editorial board wishes to avoid. Political thought, Arendt argues, “is representative.” By that she means that it must sample as many different viewpoints and opinions as is possible. “I form an opinion by considering a given issue from different viewpoints, by making present to my mind the standpoints of those who are absent; that is, I represent them.” It is in hearing, imagining, and representing opposing and discordant views that one comes to test out his or her own views. It is not a matter of empathy, of feeling like someone else. It is rather an imaginative experiment in which I test my views against all comers. In this way, the enlarged mentality of imaginative thinking is the prerequisite for judgment.

When Arendt said of Adolf Eichmann that he was possessed of the “fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil” because he did not think, what she meant was that he was simply incapable or unwilling to think from the perspective of others. His use of clichés was not thoughtlessness itself, but was evidence that he had barricaded himself inside an ideological cage. Above all, his desire to make others including Jews understand his point of view—his hope that they could see that he was a basically good man caught up on the wrong side of history—was for Arendt evidence of his superficiality and his lack of imagination. He simply could not and did not ever allow himself to challenge his own rationalizations and justifications by thinking from the perspective of Jews and his other victims. What allowed Eichmann to so efficiently dispatch millions to their deaths was his inability to think and encounter opinions that were different from his own.

In the internet age we are bombarded with such a diversity of angry and insulting and stupid and offensive viewpoints that it is only naturally to alternate between the urge to respond violently and the urge to withdraw.


It is easy to deride political opinion and idolize truth. But that is to forget that “seen from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.”

Political thinking requires that we resist both the desire to fight opinions with violence and the desire to flee from opinions altogether. Instead, we need to learn to think in and with others whose opinions we often hate. We must find in the melee of divergent and offending opinions the joy that exists in the experience of human plurality. We don’t need to love or agree with those we find offensive; but so long as they are talking instead of fighting, we should respect them and listen to them. Indeed, we should care about them and their beliefs. That is why the N+1 manifesto for not caring is your weekend read.


The Educated Citizen in Washington


Last week the Arendt Center held its Sixth Annual International Conference, “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” The conference was an incredible success. More than double the number of people registered for the conference this year over last year; more than 1,000 people attended over two days; another 250 watched the conference live on the web. You can now watch the whole conference here.  Above all, the conference generated incredible discussions and provocations. Here is one response we received from someone on a post-conference survey sent to attendees:

“Richard Rodriguez’s opening keynote lecture was a model of lucidity and profundity. It set the tone for two days of discussion about the tense boundary between private and public personhood and citizenship. The interaction of Rodriguez’s call to speak with strangers and Leon Botstein’s defense of a public self was clear and powerful, and contrasted meaningfully with James Tooley’s advocacy for private schools. The combination was deeply meaningful and provocative.”

For your Weekend Read, here is a transcript of Roger Berkowitz’s introductory remarks. You can watch his speech and the entire conference here.

Richard Rodriguez giving the keynote lecture at the Arendt Center Conference.

Richard Rodriguez giving the keynote lecture at the Arendt Center Conference.













Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis

Roger Berkowitz

Oct. 3, 2013

In the early years of our federal-constitutional-democratic-republican experiment, cobblers, lawyers, and yeoman farmers participated in Town Hall meetings.  They would judge how much to pay in taxes in order to pay for how many teachers and how many firemen. By engaging citizens in governance, town hall meetings imbue in citizens the habit of democratic self-governance.

Today, few of us have the experience or the desire to govern and we have lost the habit of weighing and judging those issues that define our body politic. Why is this so?

Are we suffering an institutional failure to make clear that participation in governance is a personal responsibility?

Do the size and complexity of bureaucratic government mean that individuals are so removed from the levers of power that engaged citizenship is rationally understood to be a waste of time?

Or do gerrymandered districts with homogenous populations insulate congressmen from the need for compromise?

Whatever the cause, educated elites are contemptuous of common people and increasingly imagine that the American people are no longer qualified for self-government; and the American people, for their part, increasingly distrust the educated elite that has consistently failed to deliver the dream of a well-managed government that provides social services cheaply and efficiently?

It is against this background that we are here to think about “The Educated Citizen in Crisis.”  Over the next two days, we will ask: What would an educated citizen look like today?

Maybe it’s the homeowner underwater on his mortgage who, in 2010, disgusted with decades of failed policies that enabled the largest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, was shocked to see Congress award a bailout to the very bankers who were responsible for the crisis.

Maybe its woman who told the pollster that people are mad about what has happened, but that they are even angrier that “no one in Washington is listening to them.”

Maybe it’s the author who concludes:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business.

That author was John Rauch of the Brookings Institute. He goes on to say that the American Government

has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.

Or, maybe it is a reader of Hannah Arendt who is struck by Arendt’s bracing claim that the

transformation of all government into bureaucracies… may turn out to be a greater threat to freedom and to that minimum of civility… than the most outrageous arbitrariness of past tyrannies has ever been.

In all these personas, today’s concerned and educated citizen is angry at the betrayal of American democracy. He or she is dismayed that at the power of money, the legal corruption of lobbyists, and a bureaucracy that seems impervious to popular control.

Such a citizen might, very well, in 2013—and here I beg the self-satisfied partisan liberals amongst you to suspend your disbelief for a moment—look and sound a lot like Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives.

To be clear, there is no claim that Hannah Arendt would be or should be a supporter of the Tea Party. She was not the type to join a movement and certainly not one with as much ugliness and racism circulating around it.

But as we stare blankly upon the theatre of the absurd in Washington, it behooves us to take Representative Cantor and his fellow House Republicans seriously; at least, that is, if we are serious about thinking about what it means to be an educated citizen.

First, let’s dispose of any elitist condescension that portrays Cantor and his fellow Republicans as wild children in need of stern parenting. This begins with Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, who joys in describing the House Republicans as “vexatious,” “banana Republicans” who are engaged in “kid’s stuff.” He vowed every day this week not to negotiate with “anarchists” and “extremists.”

Representative Cantor is a man who has a B.A. from The George Washington University, a J.D. from The College of William and Mary, and his MA from Columbia University in New York. Interestingly enough, his website fails to say what that Masters degree was in. A little digging shows it was in Real Estate Development.  But I ask you: don’t sit here at Bard and be snarky and condescending — and relieved that Cantor’s Masters is not in something serious like political science or philosophy.

Ok, But isn’t Senator Reid right that Cantor and his ilk are churlish juveniles laying waste to the common good? President Barack Obama—another deeply educated citizen—has put the matter clearly. The country had a debate about health care. The President and his party won. The Republicans lost. The Supreme Court has upheld the President’s healthcare law. The President was reelected. The Healthcare law is the law of the land. Given these facts, it is irresponsible and petulant for a small group of Republicans to demand concessions in return for passing a budget. As the President says, if he negotiates with the Republicans now, every future President will be subject to the same kind of shakedown on any issue every time an important piece of legislation needs to be passed. This is hardly a recipe for good governance.

Educated citizens must ask: is the shutdown of government coercion instead of persuasion? Consider this quotation reported yesterday from Cantor’s House colleague Steve King:  “Now the pressure will build on both sides, and the American people will weigh in.” He is right. The American people will weigh in. And if Americans weigh in on the side of the President and the Democrats, the consequences for the Republican Party will be disastrous – something for which many here might well celebrate Cantor and King.

Cantor and his colleagues are not actually threatening anyone. They are with utter clarity of purpose standing up for a principle; and they are taking a huge risk that they can convince the American people that the Affordable Care Act and other entitlements are part of the general overreaching and enlargement of government that has eroded the power of individual self-government and thus brought about a crisis of educated citizenship.

Cantor’s is an unpopular and uphill struggle to say the least. It is further corrupted by association with racist elements. Moreover, it is also dishonest to the extent that it refuses to own up to the pain his plans will cause. For all these reasons, it is likely that the House Republicans will fail. [Update. as of today, Friday Oct. 11, it seems that the Republicans are admitting defeat and agreeing to accept the Affordable Healthcare Act, although the negotiations are ongoing.]

But success or failure is not the point.

The educated citizen must ask himself today whether good governance is what is called for. Certainly the freedom riders of the Civil Rights Movement did not think good governance was called for. Nor did the Texas State Senator Wendy Davis when she filibustered a Texas bill that restricted abortions.  It will be easy to say that there is a difference between fighting for civil rights and fighting to take away health insurance. There is a difference. And yet both fights are waged in the name of freedom, albeit two very different ideas of what freedom means.

Freedom is at the very center of Hannah Arendt’s political thinking. To be free, Arendt thought, was what it meant to be human. Politics exists because it is in and through politics that human beings can build common worlds in which we can speak and act together in ways that are new and surprising. Arendt’s valuation of freedom, however, made her deeply suspicious of education, at least in its relation to politics.

In “The Crisis in Education,” Hannah Arendt writes: “education can play no part in politics, because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated.” What Arendt means is that in democratic politics we are all equal and no one has the authority to teach others. Some may be geniuses, and others loved. Some are liberals, other conservatives. Some may be racist. And some may hate rich people. But whatever our private feelings, in politics we encounter each other on a field of equality and respect as educated citizens.

Politics for Arendt is allergic to truth claims. It is about opinion and for this reason respectful and reasoned “debate constitutes the very essence of political life.”

Arendt worried that when politicians, pundits, or people talk about educating voters—when they complain that other citizens are ignorant or condescend to speak and argue with those they demean—they are really seeking to use the rhetoric of education to achieve a unanimity that is foreign to politics.

During the recent presidential election, the candidates frequently appealed to education as the panacea for everything from our flagging economy to our sclerotic political system. How to solve poverty? Education.  How do we address global warming? Education. How to heal our divided country? Education.

Behind such arguments is the unspoken assumption: “If X were educated they would see the truth and agree with me.” But that is not the way human nature or politics works. Education will not make people see eye to eye, end political paralysis, or usher in a more rational polity.

What then is the value of education? And why is that we so deeply need great schools and great teachers?

Hannah Arendt saw education as “the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” The educator must love the world and believe in it if he or she is to introduce young people to that world as something noble and worthy of respect. In this sense education is conservative, insofar as it conserves the world as it has been given.

But education is also revolutionary, insofar as the teacher must realize that it is part of that world as it is that young people will change the world. Teachers simply teach what is, Arendt argued; they leave to the students the chance to transform it.

For Arendt, Education teaches self-thinking. Education propels us from the darkness of private life into the bright light of the public sphere. In short, education leads us into the common world where we can take our place as an equal and free already-educated citizen.

We are asking over the next two days, “What is an educated citizen?” And “why is the educated citizen in crisis?”

We might ask, then, why it is that so few on the left are responding to the attack on the healthcare bill and entitlements more generally? Why is it that the only Americans who are upset enough at what is going on in Washington to protest, mobilize, and get involved are members of the Tea Party? Where is the new left that pundits like Peter Beinart argue is in ascent? Where is Occupy Wall Street? Are they biding their time? Are they waiting for the right time to pounce and to respond? In my world, they are qvetching on Facebook and Twitter.

Or might it be that Americans on the left—especially younger Americans who have grown up in an era of state-sponsored capitalism and Occupy Wall Street—harbor such a deep cynicism toward the federal state and government that their support for entitlements is deflated by their disdain for government.

We are witness today to a widespread distrust and disdain for government. Few people seem to care. On both left and right, government and politics no longer embody our collective aspirations to care for the common good. Government is administratively necessary, but an irritant to daily life; it is a set of services we outsource rather than an activity we engage.

Confronting unprecedented challenges from the environment to terrorism and the decline of the middle class, we need to resurrect our political institutions. We need to inspire citizens to once more care about the common world that we—through politics—build together. New institutions are needed—political, technological, and social—to bring citizens together to speak and act alongside those with whom we disagree but share a more fundamental commitment to a common good.

Our goal, over the next two days, is to think together about what it means to be an educated citizen. In the most literate and technologically savvy society of all time, we have produced politically uneducated and disengaged citizens. What would it mean to reverse that trend? And how do we do so? These are the questions I ask you to keep in your mind as you listen to the excellent speakers who have generously agreed to guide and provoke us over the next two days.


You can watch Roger Berkowitz deliver his speech and the entire conference here.


Ideological Blindness


It would be too much to hope that my plea to end the ideological warfare over Hannah Arendt would win over either those who insist she is a Nazi-lover or those who thinks she walks on water. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised that most people saw my essay for what it was: a call for an end to the ideological warfare that leads both Arendt’s supporters and critics to interpret every fact and every statement as evidence for their side. Similarly, I ended my essay with a claim about the relevance of Arendt’s work in today’s overly heated ideological environment.


I expressed the hope that thinking deeply about Arendt’s characterization of Adolf Eichmann as a joiner might help defuse the petrified ideological positions of contemporary politics. I wrote:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom. 

Good luck. In a post responding to my essay in the Magazine Commentary, Jonathan Tobin has this to say:

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject.

Let’s note a few facts. First, as Tobin admits, I nowhere mention the Tea Party. Second, he somehow insists that my worry about middle-class, anti-state, movements is a “not terribly subtle” left-wing swipe at the Tea Party. Third, Tobin decides to ignore what I write, inserts his own interpretation, and concludes that I  am disqualified as a rational voice on the subject.  Talk about chutzpah!

If Mr. Tobin had simply bothered to do a modicum of homework, he could have found past articles in which I ascribed anti-state tendencies to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Here is one example from 2011: “Occupy Wall Street is, like the Tea Party, driven by an apparent disdain of government, elites, and traditional institutions.”  My argument is clearly a critique of tendencies on both the left and the right.

What is more, in the version of the essay that I originally wrote and handed in to the Times, I mentioned four groups in the final paragraph as examples of what I meant as “idealistic anti-state movements.” Yes, I included the Tea Party. But I also mentioned Occupy Wall Street, the radical environmental movement, and the anti-tax crusade. Hardly a one-sided and partisan group.

What unites these diverse movements is that they are all anti-state in important ways. The Tea Party and the anti-Tax movement seek to limit or immobilize government. At the same time, Occupy Wall Street and radical environmental movements are decidedly internationalist movements that either reject national politics in the favor of international solidarity or seek to subordinate national democratic will to international bureaucratic regulations. What all of them share, as movements, is a drive to create adherents and victories rather than a desire to actually govern.

Granted these examples are not in the final version run by the Times, but with or without my examples, there is absolutely nothing in my essay to suggest a liberal or a conservative agenda. This does not stop Tobin from branding me a “liberal ideologue” who seeks to tar “contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns.” Honestly, how he gets from my essay to such a ridiculous conclusion beggars belief. Tobin’s perverted fantasy of what he thinks I may have written is simply a prime example of the rabid ideological fervor that grips so many in this country, on both sides of the ideological divide.

Tobin displays an extraordinary ignorance beyond his ideological blindness. He writes:

Contrary to [Berkowitz’s] assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

Excuse me, but Nazism was not a movement that worshipped the state, and to say that it was is simply false. Nazism was an imperialist and internationalist movement. Like Bolshevism, it sought a world-wide community based on a tribal identity (Aryanism or Bolshevism). What Hitler desired was an international “Third Reich” that stretched beyond the German state. In Mein Kampf, he wrote, that in Vienna he “laid the foundations for a world concept in general and a way of political thinking in particular.” Hitler spoke of a German people (Volk) that stretched beyond state borders, saying, “Wherever we may have been born, we are all the sons of the German people.” Ernst Hasse, founder of the anti-Semitic Pan-German League, wrote that the German people (and not the German state) “had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe.” As Arendt concludes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Hostility to the state as an institution runs through the theories of all pan-movements…. The Pan-Germans, who were more articulate politically, always insisted on the priority of national over state interest, and usually argued (citing the founder of modern anti-Semitism Georg Ritter von Schoenerer) ‘world politics transcends the framework of the state,’ that the only permanent factor in the course of history was the people and not states; and that therefore (citing Ernst Hasse again) national needs, changing with circumstances, should determine, at all times, the political acts of the state.”


In the pursuit of world domination, Nazism elevated party membership and blood purity above state identity. It set the party and national Volk above the institutions of the state.  It was an imperialist and global movement, one that saw traditional state boundaries and institutions as bourgeois limitations that interfered with its global ambitions.  That Tobin condemns me for saying so and simply asserting that Nazism “worshipped the state” is simply to parade his ignorance.

Tobin’s screed is filled with similar unsupported assertions, as when he writes “most serious thinkers understood [Arendt’s] misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history.” The most esteemed historical biographer of Adolf Eichmann, Bettina Stangneth, largely embraces Arendt’s account, but not as a fawning admirer, just as someone who looks objectively at the facts. She takes issue with a few particular conclusions Arendt arrives at, but largely confirms Arendt’s understanding of Eichmann. And even the much more partisan and anti-Arendt-book by David Cesarani concedes that Arendt was generally right, and that Eichmann was no monster. But admitting these clear facts is something Mr. Tobin is clearly incapable or unwilling to do.

Shouting the same tired slogans over and over plays to the converted. But I ask you to judge whose arguments should be disqualified from rational discourse. You can read Tobin’s rant here, if you want. Compare it to my essay in the New York Times.


Power, Persuasion, and Organization


John Duncan has in interesting response to Bill Dixon’s Quote of the Week this week. Dixon wrote about the importance of power (as opposed to violence or domination) in political life. And he worried that power was being lost and, what is more, becoming impossible to hold on to or acquire in the modern world. He writes:

The dilemmas of modern powerlessness are peculiarly wrenching in large part because they are not readily negotiable by political action, by those practices of public creativity and initiative that are uniquely capable of redefining what is possible in the common world.  Rather, these “choices” and others like them seem more like dead-ends, tired old traps that mark the growing powerlessness of politics itself.

Duncan wonders how power can be created and made in our world. He answers:

Express, discuss, decide, persuade, negotiate, compromise: these are the skilled activities that bring power into existence. These are the skills that direct the course of an organization and allow it to change without losing support of its individual members. The skills are used with other people (which is why they’re political). The skills require a space where their use can take place; imply a basic equality of participation; a reason or purpose to be together; and a love and respect for language and the power of well chosen words.

I am particularly taken by Duncan’s discussion of persuasion as a source of power.

Persuading is the art of convincing and winning-over others in a non-manipulative way. It presupposes strong convictions in one’s view of reality — particularly opportunities, threats, organizational strengths and weaknesses. It requires a well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way. It also implies a willingness to be persuaded oneself, to recognize and accept superior insights and understandings of others.

These thoughts on the possible manufacture of power in modern politics raise important points about modern social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and also the horizontalidad movement in Chile. One question we should ask is why the Chilean movement has proven so powerful whereas OWS (and now it seems also the Tea Party) has fizzled and died.

Exploring the lessons of the Chilean movement is indeed the theme of an interview Zoltan Gluck conducted with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman, leaders of the social justice movement in Chile (Zoltan is a former student of mine, just a shout out of congratulations!)

In response to a question about the connection between leaderless and consensus based ideology of OWS and how it relates to the Chilean movement, Noam Titleman answers:

Let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.

Organization is, of course, another way power can be created in modern politics. That is, unless protest leaders are so caught up in theories of oppression, domination, and hierarchy that they are unwilling or unable to organize or lead.

Thomas Frank makes this point vividly in a recent essay in The Baffler. Frank is reviewing a series of recent books about Occupy Wall Street. Frank is clear-sighted in detailing not simply the limits of OWS, but of the books that are now pouring forth about the movement. The books are all, he writes, “deeply, hopelessly in love with this protest. Each one takes for granted that the Occupy campaign was world-shaking and awe-inspiring.” Not only is this wrong, it prevents these authors and I would add most liberal supporters of Occupy Wall Street from confronting the stunning failure of Occupy Wall Street. Here is Frank:

The question that the books under consideration here seek to answer is: What is the magic formula that made OWS so successful? But it’s exactly the wrong question. What we need to be asking about Occupy Wall Street is: Why did this effort fail? How did OWS blow all the promise of its early days? Why do even the most popular efforts of the Left come to be mired in a gluey swamp of academic talk and pointless antihierarchical posturing.

What Frank points to is the dominance of academic talk and theorizing. Surprisingly he makes the case that this is true of both OWS and the Tea Party. The books about OWS and the protesters, Frank writes, cared more about the “mechanics” of the protest—the fact that it was non-hierarchal, open, inclusive, and consensual—than any ends, goals, or accomplishments. Whereas the Chilean movement embraced getting things done and working to build institutions, the anti-institutional bias of the theorists within Occupy Wall Street militated against building an organization. Talk was allowed, but no persuasion.

As John Duncan writes in his comments, persuasion cannot be empty or purely mechanical. It requires a “well articulated vision of what the enterprise might become that is inspiring while solidly grounded. It requires a belief that the right words will bring others around to see things your way.” This is deeply true and it requires the openness to leadership and inspiration that the forces guiding Occupy Wall Street would not allow.

What distinguishes revolutions from rebellions is that while rebellions merely liberate one from rule, revolutions found new institutions that nurture freedom. What has happened in Egypt is so far only a rebellion. It has liberated Egypt from the yoke of tyranny. Time will tell whether Egypt will experience a revolution that builds institutions of freedom. At the core of Arendt’s political thinking is her insistence that freedom cannot exist outside of institutions. As had Montesquieu before her, Arendt saw that power, freedom, and collective action belong together.

What the new experience of American power meant was that there could not be and could never be in the United States a single highest and irresistible power that could exert its rule over the others. The states would limit the federal government; the federal government would contest state power; legislative power limits executive power; judicial power bridles the legislature; and new forms of power in voluntary organizations, political clubs, and advocacy groups all limit the power of professional politicians. Since written laws cannot control power, but “only power arrests power,” freedom depends upon institutions that can continually give birth to new centers and sources of power. Together, this diffusion of power in the United States meant the “consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.”

What Dixon, Duncan, Titleman, and Frank help us see in an Arendtian vein is that power today will only reappear if we work to build and found new organizations and new institutions. Such a building requires vision as well as tactics. Arendt offers us one vision: it is the ideal of federalism, the radical diffusion of multiple sources of power throughout society. That vision is in danger of disappearing today under the fiscal and political forces of centralization. If it is to be resisted, those who would resist it will have to be willing to articulate a vision of a different way. In Frank’s words, it will require a movement.

whose core values arise not from an abstract hostility to the state or from the need for protesters to find their voice but rather from the everyday lives of working people. It would help if the movement wasn’t centered in New York City. And it is utterly essential that it not be called into existence out of a desire to reenact an activist’s fantasy about Paris ’68.

Frank’s essay is bracing reading and should keep you warm with thoughts over this cold weekend. Enjoy. It is your weekend read.


The Crisis Must Matter

The crisis must matter.

The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.

The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference “Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair.”

A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a “crisis” as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.

It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won’t be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.

We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don’t trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.’s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have “A great deal” of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.

According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:

We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once.  Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.

Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that “our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent.” Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.

Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.

Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.

Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.

Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. “A crisis,” she saw, “becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices.” The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age.  It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.

There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.

If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend “read”.


Does the President Matter?

“Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.”

                        —Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom?

This week at Bard College, in preparation for the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Does the President Matter?”, we put up 2 writing blocks around campus, multi-paneled chalkboards that invite students to respond to the question: Does the President Matter?  The blocks generated quite a few interesting comments. Many mentioned the Supreme Court. Quite a few invoked the previous president, war, and torture. And, since we are at Bard, others responded: it depends what you mean by matters.

This last comment struck me as prescient. It does depend on what you mean by matters.

If what we mean is, say, an increasing and unprecedented power by a democratic leader not seen since the time of enlightened monarchy, the president does matter. We live in an age of an imperial presidency. The President can, at least he does, send our troops into battle without the approval of Congress. The President can, and does, harness the power of the TV, Internet, and twitter to bypass his critics and reach the masses more directly than ever before. The president can, and does, appoint Supreme Court Justices with barely a whimper from the Senate; and the president’s appointments can, and do, swing the balance on a prisoner’s right to habeas corpus, a woman’s right to choose, or a couple’s right to marry.

And yet, what if by matter, we mean something else? What if we mean, having the power to change who we are in meaningful ways? What if by matter we mean: to confront honestly the enormous challenges of the present? What if by matter we mean: to make unpredictable and visionary choices, to invite and inspire a better future?

­On the really big questions—the thoughtless consumerism that degrades our environment and our souls; the millions of people who have no jobs and increasingly little prospect for productive employment; the threat of devastating terrorism; and the astronomical National Debt: 16 trillion and counting for the US. — That is $140,000 for each taxpayer. — Add to that the deficiency in Public Pension Obligations (estimated at anywhere from $1 to $5 trillion.) Not to mention the 1 trillion dollars of inextinguishable student debt that is creating a lost generation of young people whose lives are stifled by unwise decisions made before they were allowed to buy a beer.

This election should be about a frank acknowledgement of the unsustainability of our economic, social, and environmental practices and expectations. We should be talking together about how we should remake our future in ways that are both just and exciting. This election should be scary and exciting. But so far it’s small-minded and ugly.

Around the world, we witness worldwide distrust and disdain for government. In Greece there is a clear choice between austerity and devaluation; but Greek leaders have saddled their people with half-hearted austerity that causes pain without prospect for relief.  In Italy, the paralysis of political leaders has led to resignation and the appointment of an interim technocratic government. In Germany, the most powerful European leader delays and denies, trusting that others will blink every time they are brought to the mouth of the abyss.

No wonder that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in the US, and the Pirate Parties in Europe share a common sense that liberal democratic government is broken. A substantial—and highly educated—portion of the electorate has concluded that our government is so inept and so compromised that it needs to be abandoned or radically constrained. No president, it seems, is up to the challenge of fixing our broken political system.

Every President comes to Washington promising reform!  And they all fail.  According to Jon Rauch, a leading journalist for The Atlantic and the National Journal, this is inevitable. He has this to say in his book Government’s End:

If the business of America is business, the business of government programs and their clients is to stay in business. And after a while, as the programs and the clients and their political protectors adapt to nourish and protect each other, government and its universe of groups reach a turning point—or, perhaps more accurately, a point from which there is no turning back. That point has arrived. Government has become what it is and will remain: a large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform. And this evolution cannot be reversed.

On the really big questions of transforming politics, the President is, Rauch argues, simply powerless. President Obama apparently agrees. Just last week he said, in Florida: “The most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside.”

A similar sentiment is offered by Laurence Lessig, a founding member of Creative Commons. In his recent book Republic 2.0, Lessig writes:

The great threat today is in plain sight. It is the economy of influence now transparent to all, which has normalized a process that draws our democracy away from the will of the people. A process that distorts our democracy from ends sought by both the Left and the Right: For the single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself. We have created an engine of influence that seeks not some particular strand of political or economic ideology, whether Marx or Hayek. We have created instead an engine of influence that seeks simply to make those most connected rich.

The system of influence and corruption through PACs, SuperPacs, and lobbyists is so entrenched, Lessig writes, that no reform seems plausible.  All that is left is the Hail Mary idea of a new constitutional convention—an idea Lessig promotes widely, as with his Conference On the Constitutional Convention last year at Harvard.

For Rauch on the Right and Lessig on the Left, government is so concerned with its parochial interests and its need to stay in business that we have forfeited control over it. We have, in other words, lost the freedom to govern ourselves.

The question  “Does the President Matter?” is asked, in the context of the Arendt Center conference, from out of Hannah Arendt’s maxim that Freedom is the fundamental raison d’etre of politics. In “What is Freedom?”, Arendt writes:

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organization at all. Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’être of politics is freedom.”

So what is freedom? To be free, Arendt says, is to act. Arendt writes: “Men are free as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

What is action? Action is something done spontaneously. It brings something new into the world. Man is the being capable of starting something new. Political action, and action in general, must happen in public. Like the performing arts—dance, theatre, and music—politics and political actions requires an audience. Political actors act in front of other people. They need spectators, so that the spectators can be drawn to the action; and when the spectators find the doings of politicians right, or true, or beautiful, they gather around and form themselves into a polity. The political act, the free act must be surprising if it is to draw people to itself. Only an act that is surprising and bold is a political act, because only such an act will strike others, and make them pay attention.

The very word politics derives from the Greek polis which itself is rooted in the Greek pelein, a verb used to describe the circular motion of smoke rings rising up from out of a pipe. The point is that politics is the gathering of a plurality around a common center. The plurality does not become a singularity in circling around a polestar, but it does acknowledgement something common, something that unites the members of a polity in spite of their uniqueness and difference.

When President Washington stepped down after his second term; when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves; when FDR created the New Deal; when President Eisenhower called the Arkansas National Guard into Federal Service in order to integrate schools in Little Rock; these presidents acted in ways that helped refine, redefine, and re-imagine what it means to be an American.

Arendt makes one further point about action and freedom that is important as they relate to the question: Does the President Matter? Courage, she writes, is “the political virtue par excellence.”  To act in public is leave the security of one’s home and enter the world of the public. Such action is dangerous, for the political actor might be jailed for his crime or even killed. Arendt’s favorite example of political courage is Socrates, who was killed for his courageous engagement of his fellow Athenians. We must always recall that Socrates was sentenced to death for violating the Athenian law.

Political action also requires courage because the actor can suffer a fate even worse than death. He may be ignored. At least to be killed for one’s ideas means that one is recognized as capable of action, of saying and doing something that matters. To be ignored, however, denies the actor the basic human capacity for action and freedom.

One fascinating corollary of Arendt’s understanding of the identity of action and freedom is that action, any action—any original deed, any political act that is new and shows leadership—is, of necessity, something that was not done before. It is, therefore, always against the law.

This is an insight familiar to readers of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov says:

Let’s say, the lawgivers and founders of mankind, starting from the most ancient and going on to the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth, that all of them to a man were criminals, from the fact alone that in giving a new law they thereby violated the old one.

All leaders are, in important ways, related to criminals. This is an insight Arendt and Nietzsche too share.

Shortly after we began to plan this conference, I heard an interview with John Ashcroft speaking on the Freakonomics Radio Show. He said:

“Leadership in a moral and cultural sense may be even more important than what a person does in a governmental sense. A leader calls people to their highest and best. … No one ever achieves greatness merely by obeying the law. People who do above what the law requires become really valuable to a culture. And a President can set a tone that inspires people to do that.”

My first reaction was: This is a surprising thing for the Attorney General of the United States to say. My second reaction was: I want him to speak at the conference. Sadly, Mr. Ashcroft could not be with us here today. But this does not change the fact that, in an important way, Ashcroft is right. Great leaders will rise above the laws in crisis. They will call us to our highest and best.

What Ashcroft doesn’t quite say, and yet Arendt and Dostoevsky make clear, is that there is a thin and yet all-so-important line separating great leaders from criminals. Both act in ways unexpected and novel. In a sense, both break the law.

But only the leader’s act shows itself to be right and thus re-makes the law.  Hitler may have acted and shown a capacity for freedom; his action, however, was rejected. He was a criminal, not a legislator.  Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi also broke the laws in actions of civil disobedience. Great leader show in their lawbreaking that the earlier law had been wrong; they forge a new moral and also written law through the force and power of moral example.

In what is perhaps the latest example in the United States of a Presidential act of lawbreaking, President George W. Bush clearly broke both U.S. and international law in his prosecution of the war on terror. At least at this time it seems painfully clear that President George W. Bush’s decision to systematize torture stands closer to a criminal act than an act of great legislation.

In many ways Presidential politics in the 21st takes place in the shadow of George W. Bush’s overreach. One result is that we have reacted against great and daring leadership. In line with the spirit of equality that drives our age, we ruthlessly expose the foibles, missteps, scandals and failures of anyone who rises to prominence. Bold leaders are risk takers. They fail and embarrass themselves. They have unruly skeletons in their closets. They will hesitate to endure and rarely prevail in the public inquisition that the presidential selection process has become.

These candidates, who are inoffensive enough to prevail, are branded by their consultants as pragmatists. Our current pragmatists are Products of Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. Mr. Romney loves data. President Obama worships experts. They are both nothing if not faithful to the doctrine of technocratic optimism, that we with the right people in charge we can do anything. The only problem is they refuse to tell us what it is they want to do. They have forgotten that politics is a matter of thinking, not a pragmatic exercise in technical efficiency.

Look at the Mall in Washington: the Washington monument honors our first President,  the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  There is not a monument to any president since FDR. And yet, just 2 years ago we dedicated the Martin Luther King Memorial. It doesn’t seem like an accident that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were not politicians. Our leaders today do not gravitate to the presidency. The presidency does not attract leaders. Bold leaders today are not the people running for office.

Yet, people crave what used to be called a statesman. To ask: “Does the President Matter?” is to ask:  might a president, might a political leader, be able to transform our nation, to restore the dignity and meaning of politics? It is to ask, in other words, for a miracle.

At the end of her essay, “What is Freedom?”, Hannah Arendt said this about the importance of miracles in politics.

Hence it is not in the least superstitious, it is even a counsel of realism, to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect “miracles” in the political realm. And the more heavily the scales are weighted in favor of disaster, the more miraculous will the deed done in freedom appear.

She continued:

It is men who perform miracles—men who because they have received the twofold gift of freedom and action can establish a reality of their own.

I don’t know if the president matters.

But I know that he or she must. Which is why we must believe that miracles are possible. And that means we, ourselves, must act in freedom to make the miraculous happen.

In the service of the not-yet-imagined possibilities of our time, our goal over the two days of the conference days was to engage in the difficult, surprising, and never-to-be-understood work of thinking, and of thinking together, in public, amongst others. We heard from philosophers and businessmen, artists and academics. The speakers came from across the political spectrum, but they shared a commitment to thinking beyond ideology. Such thinking is itself a form of action, especially so in a time of such ideological rigidity. Whether our meeting here at Bard gives birth to the miracle of political action–that is up to you.  If we succeeded in thinking together, in provoking, and in unsettling, we perhaps sowed the seeds that will one day blossom into the miracle of freedom.


Watch Roger’s  opening talk from the conference, “Does the President Matter?” here.