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.
In 1955, Hannah Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers: “Out of gratitude, I want to call my book about political theories Amor Mundi.” She suffered through antisemitism, totalitarianism, and even genocide. But somehow, she was determined to not lose hope. Arendt eventually called her book The Human Condition (and Vita Activa in German). But what was Arendt grateful for? The question arises in the wake of terror attacks by ISIS in France and Lebanon over the past two days. Our hearts go out to the hundreds who died and the hundreds more who were wounded, senseless violence which forces us to ask ourselves: can we still find the ability to “love the world”? And if so, how? Here we look to Arendt, who leads us to recall that evil first enables the good. She writes in her Denktagebuch: “The Path of Wrong–anti-Semitism–imperialism–world historically–totalitarianism–. How is it that only the paths of wrong have been accessible, have been relevant, above all still had a relation to the actual questions, difficulties and catastrophes and that there are never paths of right and cannot be? This is the cardinal question.” Arendt’s point is that horrific wrongs are, in the end, the only meaningful events of human history. She quotes Hegel’s maxim that “a ripped stocking is better than a dirty stocking,” which she glosses to mean, “being ripped first makes noticeable the original unity…. The stocking thus appears as a ‘living unity’ in the ripped stocking precisely then when it proves its uselessness for life.” All unity and thus all being begins in negation. For Arendt, it is in confronting evil and knowing it as it is that we can imagine the good and the just. Tragedies are part of human history; without the depths of evil, we would not climb the heights of the good. This is neither to justify or excuse evil nor to accept it. Against Hegel, Arendt insists that reality may at times simply be irreconcilable, that there are some evils so horrific that they cannot be loved. But still, evil carries with in the seeds of greater good. Even as we condemn the ugliness of evil, we also affirm that with evil comes the possibility of the good. That is the beauty of the human condition: amidst the darkness, new light can shine forth. The conviction that human action will light up the dark is how and why Arendt took such pride in being able to love the world.–RB
Amy Davidson debunks the debunkers who are trying to find mistakes and inconsistencies in Ben Carson’s biography. She considers two of the more widespread stories, first that Carson made up a story about being given a small cash award for being the only student in a psychology class at Yale to have proven honest, and the second that he had been offered admission to West Point. For Davidson, in each instance, Carson’s stories hold up better than the debunkers’. What Davidson finds troublesome, however, is why the media is so obsessed with trying to debunk Carson’s biography while it refuses to seriously question his inaccurate and false claims underlying his policy proposals. “The odd thing is that the Carson campaign is what might be called a target-rich environment for journalists–or it should be. He has been utterly dismissive of climate change, and he has fostered the idea that vaccines cause autism. The numbers for his tax plan, insofar as there are any, don’t add up. He has said that Joseph, of the coat of many colors, built the pyramids in order to store the grain of the seven fat years–a statement that, as I’ve written, was troubling not because we expect our Presidents to be up on the distinction between Early and Middle Kingdom dynasties but because Carson presented it as an example of why one should reject the theories of experts and scientists and turn, instead, to the Bible. Similarly, his claim that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in elective office, when a great number of them did, is significant not only because it is false but because it speaks to a particular view of history and politics. (Carson later amended the statement to say that none had federal experience. Of course, they couldn’t have, because there was no federal government when the Declaration was signed.) He has suggested that President Obama might declare martial law, and that the 2016 elections might be cancelled amid scenes of untenable civil disorder. He has compared Obamacare to slavery and to Nazism. He has also made what PolitiFact judged to be outright false statements in the last Republican debate about his ties to a nutritional-supplement company. (In contrast, PolitiFact rated Carson’s description of West Point’s ‘scholarships’ as mostly true.) Perhaps the problem isn’t that the media is too partisan but that, in looking at Carson, there was a hope that there might be a non-partisan way to address a campaign whose success is hard for observers of American politics to understand.”
Tim Parks wonders what it means that we don’t all like the same books: “Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences? To have our contrasting positions emerge in response to these highly complex cultural artifacts? Not that superficial togetherness in celebration that the publishing industry, the literary festivals, and the interminable literary prizes are forever seeking to generate, the happy conviction that we have found a new literary hero and can all gloat together over his or her achievement. But all the heated debate that actually preceded the prize-giving; the shifting alliances as each book was discussed, the times you just couldn’t believe that the fellow jurist who supported you over book A is now seriously proposing to ditch book B, and so on. In this view our reaction to literature becomes a repeated act of self-discovery. Our contrasting reactions to the books we read tell us who we are. We are our position in relation to each other as understood in the reaction to these books. Reading other peoples’ takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we’re up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself. If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one’s own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree. Though even a fudge is a declaration of identity. And nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging.”
Louise O Fresco suggests that sustainable agriculture requires sacrificing a few sacred ideas but not just eating less meat: “The logic of farmers’ markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That’s fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it’s a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well-organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours… our thinking about sustainability should not limit itself to technical optimisation or cost efficiency. There is a cultural dimension to factor in, too. Urban consumers in the US and other affluent countries might always respond to the humanity of small-scale, traditional farming. But we must reckon with the realities of current and future food production. The belief that only small-scale, non-mechanised agriculture without the use of chemicals respects biodiversity, and that tradition is key to the future, is illusory. In reality, small-scale unfertilised farming of annual crops or unregulated grazing in the tropics are major causes of destruction of soils and forests. In reality: an ever-declining number of farmers will need to feed rapidly growing megacities.”
In the wake of the elections in Myanmar, Francis Wade takes stock of the country’s periphery: “To get something approaching an accurate reading of Burma today requires a process of telescoping in and out, of contrasting grand narratives with hyper-local experiences. The international fixation on Burma’s transition, of which the November elections have been billed as the next step in democratization, if not the final leap to democracy, obfuscates the fact that processes begun decades ago in areas of the country little scrutinized by international observers will persist, regardless of whatever changes occur in government in the coming months. The manipulation of ethnic tensions has long been a principal strategy of Burma’s rulers, for it locks ethnic groups in a state of perpetual instability that the military can profit by. The original Na Ta La villages were by and large built on land confiscated from the Rohingya, and therefore were deeply resented by Rohingya communities who could no longer work the soil and reap its produce. But these new settlers from central Burma and elsewhere in Rakhine State were also resented by local Rakhine who, while ideologically supportive of whatever strategy could weaken the Muslim population, knew that the scheme meant a further mixing of the Rakhine identity. And the Rakhine more recently resettled from Bangladesh have been gifted houses of a quality beyond the reach of most other Rakhine, thereby drawing ire from neglected communities among their own ethnicity, but also that of the Rohingya and of the older generation of resettled Bamar who, from their buckled wooden houses, wonder what became of their promises of a better life here. Burma’s rulers have been able to triangulate communal tensions in Rakhine State, as they have elsewhere, in a way that keeps each ethnicity there in a state of persistent antipathy towards one another. Local tensions then distract from the workings of their real nemesis–the central state–and weaken any prospect of a cohesive front of persecuted minorities that could rally together against it. This has been the regime’s crowning achievement, and its effects, both in Rakhine and all around Burma’s periphery, have forever stunted the country’s political and social development.”
Jelani Cobb makes an important point writing in the New Yorker: “The unrest that occurred at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, two outwardly dissimilar institutions, shared themes of racial obtuseness, arthritic institutional responses to it, and the feeling, among students of color, that they are tenants rather than stakeholders in their universities. That these issues have now been subsumed in a debate over political correctness and free speech on campus–important but largely separate subjects–is proof of the self-serving deflection to which we should be accustomed at this point.” The shouts by many about the loss of free speech at Yale are overblown insofar as all the speech that has happened at Yale has been free and none of it has been punished or sanctioned (at least so far). The original letter from the Dean was a bland and bureaucratic missive sent to thousands of students. It represented a coherent if somewhat weak official plea. For many 18 year olds, such a plea might lead to a rebellious desire to do precisely what was counseled against. But the email itself was fine and affirmed the right of free speech. Similarly, the response by Erika Christakis was quite tame. It acknowledged the good intentions of the Dean’s email, even agreed with them. Christakis simply raised an intellectual question, asking whether such good intentions were unintentionally having other negative impacts. In no way did Christakis incite students to uncivil or racist behavior. So too are the students within their rights to protest Christakis’ email and to argue that they found it offensive. None of this raises free speech issues. Finally, the extensive discussions between Christakis, her husband, and the students have been exemplary models of impassioned speech, even if some of the students became uncivil at times. None of the speech crossed the boundary into hate speech. One should also note that there have been personal insults and even death threats hurled at a few of the students, all of which must be condemned. Even when students called for Christakis to be fired, that is protected speech. Overall, what we have seen throughout this controversy at Yale is quite hopeful. Unpopular speech was met with more speech. No one was censored. We should give the Yale administration, faculty, and students credit. Those involved have been engaged in a serious and difficult debate, one that has been waged vigorously and for the most part quite respectfully.
In defending the students at Yale, however, Cobb diminishes the problem that current racial discourses pose to a free society. His central thesis is: “These [systemic racial tensions (rb)] are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.” Cobb turns the controversy around: those arguing for free speech are powerful bullies imposing on the liberty of the students to make their case about the damage that systematic racism is doing to their campus. But to see the students as “relatively disempowered” and to imagine the press as bullies is to look past the fact that the students’ case is frequently articulated in the absolutist language of affect and trauma. This is part of a broad movement on campus that holds that students should not be forced to confront ideas or texts that remind them of traumas. Just as Cobb is right to bring in the racial context at Yale to help understand the situation, so too is it important to recall the pervasive rhetoric of trauma, trigger warnings, and Title IX bureaucratic procedures to understand the worries of those defending free speech.
Take for example Cobb’s discussion of the student demand to change the name of Yale’s Calhoun College. He writes: “Six weeks ago, I participated in a forum at Yale on the massacre in Charleston. When the historian Edward Ball pointed out that the shootings had occurred on Calhoun Street, named for the intellectual godfather of the Confederacy, students immediately pointed out that Calhoun was an alumnus and that a college is still named for him. One member of the audience asked Jonathan Holloway, a civil-rights historian and the dean of Yale College, who has been at the center of the recent events, if he would remove Calhoun’s name from the college. (Holloway, who previously served as the master of Calhoun College, indicated that he had not yet decided how he would handle the matter.) To understand the real complexities of these students’ situation, free-speech purists would have to grapple with what it means to live in a building named for a man who dedicated himself to the principle of white supremacy and to the ownership of your ancestors.” Cobb raises a question: What does it mean for students (presumably of all races) to live in a building named for such a man? Good question. What does it mean? I imagine it means many, many things. For the vast majority of students, it means nothing. Some may, as Cobb implies, be bothered that Yale named a building for a man who fought for and justified chattel slavery in the South. But others might find it fascinating that Calhoun originally was a defender of Federal power but over time developed a constitutional and political theory designed to protect minority voices. That the minority Calhoun sought to protect was Southern whites does not necessarily reduce the power and importance of his efforts to develop constitutional protections against the power and potential tyranny of the majority. Students interested in questions of government corruption might also find it interesting that Calhoun as Secretary of War helped develop a professional bureaucracy that replaced the corrupt system of patronage appointments. One might hope that students living in a building named for Calhoun might be prompted to think about the republican and democratic principles at the foundation of American democracy alongside the fact that our democratic republic somehow emerged from out of a people that was deeply divided by economic, philosophical, as well as racial opinions. Would some students living in Calhoun dormitory be uneasy to know that he strongly defended chattel slavery? Surely. Are there better people to name a residential college for? Undoubtedly. But does Cobb’s rhetorical question do justice to the complex question of what to do with monuments and celebrations of great persons who were also flawed? Hardly. Instead, Cobb seems to suggest that since some students might be upset by living in Calhoun dormitory, their feelings are determinative, the complexities of the issue fall away, and it is an affront to these students that Yale has refused to rename the dormitory. It may be time to rename the College–we should hear how people feel–but the demand that some feelings necessitate action is hardly an argument.
Many at Yale are defending the student reaction as part of an overall context of racial problems at Yale. That is a good argument, and I am excited to see how quickly the original threats and demands have morphed into a serious discussion about race and justice. This speaks well for the fate of serious and difficult debate at Yale. It is time to reject the discourse of trauma and the idea of a college is a “safe space.” We must resist those who demand firing and disciplining others for nothing more than expressing their considered opinions. This is a truly corrosive idea. And it is depoliticizing in the extreme. As Cobb and others are arguing, we need to replace the language of trauma with the practice of politics.–RB
In 1962, a politically active Elisabeth Lenk moved to Paris and persuaded Theodor W. Adorno to supervise her sociology dissertation on the surrealists. Adorno, though critical of Surrealism, agreed. The Challenge of Surrealism presents their correspondence, written between 1962 and Adorno’s death in 1969, set against the backdrop of Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s disagreement about the present possibilities of future political action, crystallization, and the dialectical image. The letters offer a fresh portrait of Adorno and expand upon his view of Surrealism and the student movements in 1960s France and Germany, while Lenk’s essays and Bischof’s introduction argue that there is a legitimate connection between Surrealism and political resistance that still holds true today. Please join us at the Hannah Arendt Center for a conversation with Elisabeth Lenk and Rita Bischof to celebrate the English translation of The Challenge of Surrealism: The Correspondence of Theodor W. Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk.
Free & Open to the Public. Kaffee and Kuchen will be served!
Friday, November 20, 2015
Hannah Arendt Center, 3:00 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:30 pm
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
This week on the Blog, Charles Snyder reminds us that while human natality can make freedom appear and disappear, the busy nobody also has the capacity to block the initiative that would manifest human freedom in the Quote of the Week. William James reflects on the true and the right as expedients in the way of our thinking in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, Christo Datso shares an image of his personal Arendt library that attempts to convey how every thinker, including Arendt, comes into connection with others in this week’s Library feature.