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.
As Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States, Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books writes that the Pope’s encyclical on the environment is “entirely different from what the media reports might lead one to believe.” The Pope is not simply concerned with the environmental challenges of global warming. His aim is higher, calling for a massive reconsideration of our ethical connection to the natural and technological world. “The ecological problems we face are not, in their origin, technological, says Francis. Instead, ‘a certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us.’ He is no Luddite (‘who can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?’) but he insists that we have succumbed to a ‘technocratic paradigm,’ which leads us to believe that ‘every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”…as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such.’ This paradigm ‘exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object.’ Men and women, he writes, have from the start ‘intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.’ In our world, however, ‘human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.’ With the great power that technology has afforded us, it’s become ‘easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.’ The deterioration of the environment, he says, is just one sign of this ‘reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.’ And though ‘the idea of promoting a different cultural paradigm…is nowadays inconceivable,’ the pope is determined to try exactly that, going beyond ‘urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution’ to imagine a world where technology has been liberated to serve the poor, the rest of creation, and indeed the rest of us who pay our own price even amid our temporary prosperity. The present ecological crisis is ‘one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity,’ he says, dangerous to the dignity of us all.”
Jelani Cobb, writing about the closure of his alma mater, Jamaica High School in Queens, suggests in his conclusion that there are important differences between the school reform of the late 20th century and that of today; Jelani thinks we may have been closer to getting it right before: “In a way, the protests over school closure are a bookend to the riots that broke out over busing four decades ago. Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education. Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates. But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure. In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility–of blame, really–run inward. It’s not society that has failed, in this perspective. It’s the schools. In 1954, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s arguments about the pernicious effects of racism on black children implicated white society. Sixty years later, arguments that black students associated studiousness with ‘acting white’ were seen not as evidence of the negative effects of internalized racism but as indicators of pathological self-defeat among African-Americans. The onus shifted, and public policy followed. The current language of educational reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened. Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes. Last year, a study by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found that New York has the most segregated school system in the country, a reflection of the persistence of the housing patterns that Arthur Levitt talked about in 1954 but also of the failure of the integrationist ideal that was intended to address it. From that vantage point, the closure of Jamaica seemed to be less about the interment of a single school than about the impeachment of a particular brand of idealism regarding race and, by extension, American education. Ninety years ago, the City of New York broke ground on a huge, beautiful building as a symbol of its commitment to public education. Last year, it closed the school that the building housed, purportedly for the same reasons. The people who gathered angrily outside Jamaica High School weren’t really protesting its closing; they were protesting the complex of history, policy, poverty, and race that had brought it about.” Cobb makes an excellent point. Nevertheless, what are we to make of the failure of the big, beautiful buildings and the big, well-compensated bureaucracies whose mission it is to address the inequalities and inadequacies of education in America?
Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal writes that the Trump phenomenon is manifesting a chasm between elites and the masses that threatens to transform the world of American politics. She reports anecdotal evidence of a non-partisan mass of voters from all over the political and economic spectrum gravitating toward Trump. And the overriding theme she encounters is a disdain for political, economic, and mainstream elites. “On the subject of elites, I spoke to Scott Miller, co-founder of the Sawyer Miller political-consulting firm, who is now a corporate consultant. He worked on the Ross Perot campaign in 1992 and knows something about outside challenges. He views the key political fact of our time as this: ‘Over 80% of the American people, across the board, believe an elite group of political incumbents, plus big business, big media, big banks, big unions and big special interests–the whole Washington political class–have rigged the system for the wealthy and connected.’ It is ‘a remarkable moment,’ he said. More than half of the American people believe ‘something has changed, our democracy is not like it used to be, people feel they no longer have a voice.’ Mr. Miller added: ‘People who work for a living are thinking this thing is broken, and that economic inequality is the result of the elite rigging the system for themselves. We’re seeing something big.'” The mobilization of the masses outside and beyond traditional class boundaries is, of course, the kindling for all mass movements. And as Arendt writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, movements feed on mass appeal founded upon moods and feelings rather than policies or interests: “Long before Nazism proudly pronounced that though it had a program it did not need one, Pan-Germanism discovered how much more important for mass appeal a general mood was than laid-down outlines and platforms. For the only thing that counts in a movement is precisely that it keeps itself in constant movement.” The point here is not that Trump is anything like the Nazis; he is not. But he is one of a series of politicians over the last 10-15 years that has fed upon the mobilization of masses in opposition to the perceived corruption and elitism of state and economic forces. Trump is both a symptom and a motor of the massive disillusionment of the American masses, our loss of faith in governmental and mainstream institutions from Congress to town halls, from the police to schools. Trump may be boorish, but he speaks truth to many, truths that elites would rather snicker at than engage. Whatever happens to Donald Trump’s candidacy, one wonders when, and if, the elites in this country will wake up and realize his popularity is founded upon a profound and real disdain that many, many Americans have for our advanced, progressive, and technocratic culture. What is more, at the end of her essay, Noonan writes that it is not only the masses but also the elites who think the game is rigged. This new version of what Arendt called the “temporary alliance of the mob and the elite” is worth attending to. For when the elites abandon mainstream institutions and join the mob in tearing down rather than building up, that is when the mobilization of movements threatens to get dangerous.
Jonathan Jones thinks about this week’s shootings of a television reporter and her cameraman live on the air in terms of the paradox of reality TV: “The sense that we somehow have a right to see this, the decision of many media outlets to screen it, has a lot to do with the television trappings of this crime. Because part of the attack was seen and heard live on air, because the victims and the perpetrator all worked for the same TV station, there’s something stagey about it all. Sadly people so enjoy true life crime stories and this one has a hokey TV setting that recalls many fictional plots of films and TV programs. It exposes the paradox of ‘reality television’–that people on television are not real to the audience at all. The death of a presenter is therefore something that can be replayed on screens with impunity. To see how bizarre and improper this is, imagine if anyone broadcast or hosted a serial killer’s videos of graphic murders. How is viewing this better?”
Israeli author Etgar Keret suggests there are some unique challenges to translating from Hebrew: “I think that the most dominant aspect is the language. When I published my first book, I would say 90 percent of the reviews [in Israel] were simply about the language and the choice of language. And when my books were translated, it was always about the characters, because the unique language aspect was lost in translation. Hebrew is this unique thing that you cannot translate to any other language. It has to do with its history. About 2,000 years ago, people stopped speaking Hebrew because of the diaspora. So people who went to Rome spoke Latin, people who moved to the US spoke English, people spoke Yiddish, but they didn’t speak Hebrew. They knew the words, but it was a written language–they read prayers, they knew the language well, but it wasn’t spoken. I think the logic behind it would be that you don’t need to use the language of God to ask where the restrooms are. Then somebody took this frozen language and defrosted it in the microwave of history, and people spontaneously started speaking it. And the thing that happened when people started speaking this language is it was kind of a miracle. If Shakespeare were to come here and hear us speak, he wouldn’t understand a word we were saying, but if Abraham or Isaac took a taxi in Israel, they could communicate with the taxi driver. He’d understand what they are saying because the language didn’t organically change. It was frozen, like frozen peas, fresh out of the Bible. We import words from other languages and we put them in Israeli verb form. Like for cocaine, we say in Hebrew, lesniff. We have many words like this from Russian, from Arabic. What happens when you speak colloquial Hebrew is you switch between registers all the time. So in a typical sentence, three words are biblical, one word is Russian, and one word is Yiddish. This kind of connection between very high language and very low language is very natural, people use it all the time. So when my works are being translated, I always get this question from my translators: Up or down? Which means, should it sound biblical and highbrow, or should we take it all down to sound colloquial? In Hebrew, it’s both all the time. People in Israel would write in a high register, they wouldn’t write colloquial speech. I do a special take on colloquial speech. When I started writing, I thought [the language] was telling the story of this country: old people in a young nation, very religious, very conservative, very tight-assed, but also very anarchistic, very open-minded. It’s all in the language, and that’s one thing that doesn’t translate.”
Pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante considers the influence of feminism on her writing, particularly the idea that the personal is political: “From it I learned that even the most intimate individual concerns, those that are most extraneous to the public sphere, are influenced by politics; that is to say, by that complicated, pervasive, irreducible thing that is power and its uses. It’s only a few words, but with their fortunate ability to synthesize they should never be forgotten. They convey what we are made of, the risk of subservience we are exposed to, the kind of deliberately disobedient gaze we must turn on the world and on ourselves. But ‘the personal is political’ is also an important suggestion for literature. It should be an essential concept for anyone who wants to write…In short, I am a passionate reader of feminist thought. Yet I do not consider myself a militant; I believe I am incapable of militancy. Our heads are crowded with a very heterogeneous mix of material, fragments of time periods, conflicting intentions that cohabit, endlessly clashing with one another. As a writer I would rather confront that overabundance, even if it is risky and confused, than feel that I’m staying safely within a scheme that, precisely because it is a scheme, always ends up leaving out lots of real stuff because it is disturbing. I look around. I compare who I was, what I have become, what my friends have become, the clarity and the confusion, the failures, the leaps forward. Girls like my daughters appear convinced that the freedom they’ve inherited is part of the natural state of affairs and not the temporary outcome of a long battle that is still being waged, and in which everything could suddenly be lost. As far as the male world is concerned, I have learned, contemplative acquaintances who tend either to ignore or to recast with polite mockery the literary, philosophical, and all other categories of work produced by women. That said, there are also very fierce young women, men who try to be informed, to understand, to sort through the countless contradictions. In short, cultural struggles are long, full of contradictions, and while they are happening it is difficult to say what is useful and what isn’t. I prefer to think of myself as being inside a tangled knot; tangled knots fascinate me. It’s necessary to recount the tangle of existence, both as it concerns individual lives and the life of generations. Searching to unravel things is useful, but literature is made out of tangles.”
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.
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Friday, September 11, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!
Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Jennie Han discusses how in order to live an authentic public life, one must begin in the sphere of the private where one can confront and take ownership of one’s thoughts and principles in the Quote of the Week. Also, we appreciate several annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Hans Jonas’s “The Phenomenon of Life”in this week’s Library feature.