Amor Mundi 6/14/15
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.
Zeynep Tufekci takes a critical look at a recent study (by Facebook) showing that the social media’s algorithm reduces the number of “cross-cutting” posts that we see, posts that challenge our political beliefs. In other words, if you’re liberal, Facebook highlights liberal posts, and vice versa for conservatives. It gives the people what they want, or what they think you want. “Here’s the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook’s algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives. Or, as Christian Sandvig puts it, ‘the algorithm filters out 1 in 20 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified conservative sees (or 5%) and 1 in 13 cross-cutting hard news stories that a self-identified liberal sees (8%).’ You are seeing fewer news items that you’d disagree with which are shared by your friends because the algorithm is not showing them to you…. Overall, from all aspects, this study confirms that for this slice of politically-engaged sub-population, Facebook’s algorithm is a modest suppressor of diversity of content people see on Facebook, and that newsfeed placement is a profoundly powerful gatekeeper for click-through rates. This, not all the roundabout conversation about people’s choices, is the news.” The censoring of oppositional content is subtle and minor, and yet it persists. All of this means that people with different politics will actually see different posts, making them susceptible to meaningfully different realities.
Business Week asked Paul Ford a simple question: “We are here because the editor of this magazine asked me, ‘Can you tell me what code is?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘First of all, I’m not good at the math. I’m a programmer, yes, but I’m an East Coast programmer, not one of these serious platform people from the Bay Area.'” 31,000 words and hours later, you realize Ford is telling the truth but answering like a coder. You can’t read his long essay–interspersed with video explanations and offers to learn basic coding (“We can’t teach you to code, but we can hold your hand through a live-fire exercise. It will be dry, because code is dry until it ‘clicks,’ and often even then. Want to give it a shot?”) without gaining some insight into the beauty, chaos, complexity, and importance of answering the unanswerable question. “A computer is a clock with benefits. They all work the same, doing second-grade math, one step at a time: Tick, take a number and put it in box one. Tick, take another number, put it in box two. Tick, operate (an operation might be addition or subtraction) on those two numbers and put the resulting number in box one. Tick, check if the result is zero, and if it is, go to some other box and follow a new set of instructions. You, using a pen and paper, can do anything a computer can; you just can’t do those things billions of times per second. And those billions of tiny operations add up. They can cause a phone to boop, elevate an elevator, or redirect a missile. That raw speed makes it possible to pull off not one but multiple sleights of hand, card tricks on top of card tricks. Take a bunch of pulses of light reflected from an optical disc, apply some math to unsqueeze them, and copy the resulting pile of expanded impulses into some memory cells–then read from those cells to paint light on the screen. Millions of pulses, 60 times a second. That’s how you make the rubes believe they’re watching a movie…. You can make computers do wonderful things, but you need to understand their limits. They’re not all-powerful, not conscious in the least. They’re fast, but some parts–the processor, the RAM–are faster than others–like the hard drive or the network connection. Making them seem infinite takes a great deal of work from a lot of programmers and a lot of marketers. The turn-of-last-century British artist William Morris once said you can’t have art without resistance in the materials. The computer and its multifarious peripherals are the materials. The code is the art.”
Jennifer Gonnerman’s eulogy for Kalief Browder, a young New Yorker who spent three years in jail without being charged with a crime, is an indictment of the whole criminal justice system and specifically of the cruel and unusual technique of solitary confinement: “He had been arrested in the spring of 2010, at age sixteen, for a robbery he insisted he had not committed. Then he spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times. Once, in February 2012, he ripped his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to create a noose, and tried to hang himself from the light fixture in his cell. In November of 2013, six months after he left Rikers, Browder attempted suicide again. This time, he tried to hang himself at home, from a bannister, and he was taken to the psychiatric ward at St. Barnabas Hospital, not far from his home, in the Bronx. When I met him, in the spring of 2014, he appeared to be more stable. Then, late last year, about two months after my story about him appeared, he stopped going to classes at Bronx Community College. During the week of Christmas, he was confined in the psych ward at Harlem Hospital. One day after his release, he was hospitalized again, this time back at St. Barnabas. When I visited him there on January 9th, he did not seem like himself. He was gaunt, restless, and deeply paranoid. He had recently thrown out his brand-new television, he explained, ‘because it was watching me.'” Ta-Nehisi Coates further contextualizes Browder’s short life in terms of the way the criminal justice system treats African American men.
Josh Marshall wonders at the crazy complexities of Rachel Dolezal’s existence, including the fantastic levels at which she, born white, made up a past and present life for herself as a black woman. Against criticism that she may have claimed blackness only when it suited her or that she embraced blackness to get a job at the NAACP, Marshall writes, “Maybe Dolezal had a separate life as a white person or put herself down as a white on a home loan application. (Obviously whatever her intentions she had the freedom which dark-skinned African-Americans lack to just become white again whenever she wanted.) But that’s not at all the impression I get of this woman by reading her story. I get the impression that in her mind Dolezal actually had at some level become black, possibly even to the level of some aspect of body dysmorphia. (The counter to that perception, though not necessarily invalidating it, is that according to her adopted brother she warned or perhaps even threatened family members not to expose her.)” Her embrace of her blackness even led to hate crimes being committed against her (at least some of which she fabricated). But the basic point that Marshall insists on is that Dolezal is simply a liar living in an increasingly fictional reality: “I read the Rachel Dolezal story before it got picked up by any national outlets in the original story in the Coeur d’Alene Press on Thursday (yes, epic aggregation fail … what can I say I was traveling). If you’ve only read pick-ups or follow-ups, read the original if you get a chance. It’s an amazing piece of reporting and will make you appreciate what a great thing small paper journalism is–just an amazingly detailed piece of shoe-leather reporting. Since I read it I’ve been trying to think what if anything there is to add beyond the peristaltic WTF that seems to be the near universal response. So let me just go with bullet points. Point 1: The one simple thing is the online debate about whether Dolezal is simply ‘transracial’ like Caitlyn Jenner is transgender. No. It’s not like that. In fact, I think we can dispense with this entirely because I have not seen anyone suggesting this anywhere online who wasn’t just some wingnut concern-trolling transgenderism and frankly racial identity itself. You can dress yourself up however you want and identify however you want. But when you start making up black parents and all the rest that went into this story, you’re just lying. Full stop.” Dolezal’s story may raise fascinating questions about race and identity. But let’s remember that making up coherent fantasies that one holds to in the face of facts is dangerous, demonstrating a disdain for reality. To rewrite history, even one’s personal history, diminishes the power of factual truth and habituates one to living in coherent fictions, which Hannah Arendt argues is one of the root causes of totalitarianism.
Anne Fausto-Sterling wonders how we’re supposed to know what’s good for us, especially in light of “new government guidelines released in February” that reverse a long-standing view that cholesterol should be limited. Suddenly, she writes, “It seems I am free to eat eggs, lobster, and oysters without fear for my life. How, in a mere five years, could our ideas about nutrition do such an about-face? There are several possible explanations. First, it may be really hard to do a good study linking cholesterol intake to ill health. Over time scientists may have designed better and better study methods, until, finally, a more justified truth has emerged. Second, vested interests–giant agribusinesses (purveyors of lobster, eggs, and well-larded beef) and pharmaceutical companies (purveyors of cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins)–may have influenced the guidelines. Third, foods have changed. Perhaps newer studies differ from older ones because an egg circa 1960 is not an egg circa 2000. Today’s chickens are more inbred. Their own food intake has changed, possibly altering the cholesterol in their eggs. Fourth, we have started to focus on human metabolism at the level of multi-organ interactions. Instead of treating diabetes as a disease of the pancreas and obesity as a problem of fat storage, we now talk about a metabolic syndrome, which links high blood sugar, high blood pressure, excess midriff fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. As conceptions of disease change, so do ideas about the sources of disease. And fifth, the tried-and-true ‘all of the above.'”
Zach Pontz considers Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, a retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: “Meursault has divorced himself from history, has, as he tells the investigator tasked with questioning him following his crime, given up analyzing himself. Assigning meaning to the world is something he has lost the energy to do. Harun, on the other hand, is driven by the desire to impose form on a lifetime of quasi-intelligible incidents, the foremost of which is the murder of his brother and its aftermath, which has sentenced its victims–Musa, Harun, their mother–to anonymity. ‘There’s not a trace of our loss or of what became of us afterward,’ Harun tells his interlocutor. ‘The whole world eternally witnesses the same murder in the blazing sun, but no one saw anything, and no one watched us recede into the distance.’ If Meursault is the stranger, Harun’s brother is the invisible man. But the tragedy here is that Harun understands he can’t will his brother into being, that he’s forever been written out of history by Meursault, in whose book ‘The word “Arab” appears twenty-five times but not a single name, not once.’ In this way does Daoud, a popular columnist in Algeria who has become a vocal critic of the government, set up one of his main theses: that both the French colonial system, the French Algerian population of which (known as pied-noirs) populated Algeria for a century and a half, and Algerians themselves are complicit in the country’s current state of affairs.”
Dwight Garner shares the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the newly appointed US poet laureate: “Mostly, though, you’d like to hear him at the National Mall because his work is built to be spoken aloud. His best poems are polyrhythmic and streaked with a nettling wit. He puts you in mind of something the writer Dagoberto Gilb once said: ‘My favorite ethnic group is smart.’ Witness Mr. Herrera’s long poem, ‘187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border (Remix),’ for example. In it, he flies a freak flag, in a manner that resembles a blend of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Allen Ginsberg, on behalf of his determined politics. Among those reasons Mexicanos can’t cross: ‘Because it’s better to be rootless, unconscious & rapeable’; ‘Because the pesticides on our skin are still glowing’; ‘Because pan dulce feels sexual, especially conchas & the elotes’; ‘Because we’ll build a sweat lodge in front of Bank of America’; ‘Because we’re locked into Magical Realism’; and ‘Because Freddy Fender wasn’t Baldemar Huerta’s real name.'”
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, July 10, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
The Hannah Arendt Center’s eighth annual fall conference, “Why Privacy Matters,” will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We’ll see you there!
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am – 6:00 pm
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens uses the protests in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD to understand both the differences and the relations between violence and power in the Quote of the Week. Military strategist Carl von Clausewitz discusses the effect that rules and principles have on a thinking man in this week’s Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate an image of a graduate student’s personal “shelf library” of Arendt in this week’s Library feature.
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