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Amor Mundi: Democracy


KJ Dell’Antonia writes about going to her town meeting in Lyme, New Hampshire.

“I walked in a little late, just in time to vote — aye — on a new road grader ($329,700). Then we turned to the rerouting debate. A piece of what had been a through-road had been washed out in a storm, leaving around 40 families on the wrong side. To get to them, emergency vehicles and the school bus had to take a detour through the next town. The proposal to reroute the road involved a substantial sum of money and the taking, by eminent domain, of land belonging to a farmer who strongly opposed the whole thing….

Many of the people who were surprised by the result of the last national election have invested considerable time in trying to understand the differences in opinion that led up to it. They’ve read, debated and posted about how little Americans understand one another. But you’re far more likely to learn about the ways people who share any community can differ if you leave your laptop at home and go to the equivalent of your local town meeting. New Hampshire’s brand of direct democracy may be rare outside of New England, but there are neighborhood associations, school boards, City Councils and public hearings all across the country.

You may think “we’re all pretty much alike here in my part of the bubble.” But you’re not. You don’t all have school-aged children, you don’t all live on a dirt road, some of you are on the wrong side of the washed-out culvert. Those differences force us to ask the small questions that are also the big questions, the ones that help us figure out what connects us together as a town or a state or a country. What do we owe our neighbors? How do we value that which is not of direct value to us? Who gets to decide? The answers aren’t color-coded in red or blue.”

Dell’Antonia gets something right that so many today are missing, that democracy means realizing that are unity comes amidst real differences. It is not just that we today have contempt for those deplorables and those snowflakes we disagree with, it is that we assume that we are right and that all good and well-informed people agree with us. We are so sure of our rectitude that we forget that our neighbors, colleagues, and fellow students may actually have very different views and opinions. A large part of what it means to live in a democracy is that we must listen to others and take their opinions seriously. We can, and should, try to persuade them of what we think is right. But we also must be open to learn from them and to compromise, in the event that disagreement persists.

Hannah Arendt set such value on plurality as the condition for human speech and action because she understood that politics was always to be practiced by unique and plural persons, each with their distinctive point of view. And Arendt valued New England Town Hall meetings, Workers Councils, and debating societies because it was in these local spaces where citizens could appear both in their plurality of differences and their unity of purpose. It is not likely that Town Hall Meetings will suddenly reappear across the country. But as more Americans on both the left and the right engage in politics they will, at some point, have to work together to get things done. In doing so, they will learn that politics means listening to others and respecting them, even when you are convinced they are wrong. And it means, as well, working with those one finds wrong. Our politics would be greatly improved if more Americans actually engaged in the kind of local politics described by Dell’Antonia.


The Battle Over "Alt-Right"

Andrew Marantz looks at the war over the term “alt-right.” When Colton Merwin organized a free speech rally in Washington, many of the young conservatives signed on—until Merwin invited Richard Spencer. The reaction, Marantz argues, shows that the simmering battle over the meaning of “alt-right” has been won by Spencer and his white nationalist acolytes.

“On June 16th, nine days before the rally, Merwin announced a surprise addition to his lineup: the white nationalist and anti-Semite Richard Spencer. Spencer believes that white Americans need their own homeland—“a sort of white Zionism,” he calls it. For years, he had been a marginal figure on the far right; last year, when the alt-right became an object of popular fascination, Spencer used the notoriety to his advantage. After the election, he experienced two moments of viral fame: one shortly after Trump’s victory, when Spencer cried “Hail Trump” during a speech and appeared to lead a crowd in a Nazi-esque salute; and the other on Inauguration Day, when a masked stranger punched him in the face. Spencer is a deliberately divisive figure, and, during the past few months, many on the right have worked to distance themselves from him and his views. Lucian Wintrich, of the pro-Trump tabloid the Gateway Pundit, told me that, last year, the term alt-right “was adopted by libertarians, anti-globalists, classical conservatives, and pretty much everyone else who was sick of what had become of establishment conservatism.” Wintrich counted himself among that group. “Then Richard Spencer came along, throwing up Nazi salutes and claiming that he was the leader of the alt-right,” Wintrich went on. “He effectively made the term toxic and then claimed it for himself. We all abandoned using it in droves.”

As soon as Spencer was announced as a participant in the Rally for Free Speech, Jack Posobiecand Laura Loomer, two advocate-journalists who were also scheduled to speak, backed out. “It’s pretty simple,” Loomer, who is Jewish, told me at the time. “I’m not sharing the stage with an anti-Semite.” The next day, Posobiec announced that he would host a competing event, the Rally Against Political Violence, in front of the White House. This rally would feature a new slate of speakers, including WintrichCassandra Fairbanks, of the pro-Trump Web site Big League Politics; the political consultant and Periscope pundit Ali Akbar; and the social-media star and InfoWars contributor Mike Cernovich. The events would be held at the same time, to draw a clear distinction between people who would stand with Spencer and those who would not. In effect, the Rally for Free Speech became an alt-right event, and the Rally Against Political Violence became a right-wing event organized in opposition to the alt-right. The two factions spent the intervening week talking trash, on Twitter and YouTube, about which rally would draw a bigger crowd. To the outside world, the schism might have seemed sudden, even inexplicable. In fact, it had been developing for months.

The phrase “alternative right” has been critiqued on several grounds: that it’s too vague; that it obscures the extent to which the movement is coterminous with the rest of the Republican base; that it’s a euphemism for white supremacy. The definition has shifted over time, both inside and outside the movement, such that, for a while, it was impossible to tell whether any two people who referred to the alt-right were referring to the same thing. During the Presidential campaign, the term came to denote several intersecting phenomena: anti-feminism, opposition to political correctness, online abuse, belligerent nihilism, conspiracy theories, inflammatory Internet memes. Some pro-Trump activists adopted this big-tent definition, allowing any youthful, “edgy” critique of establishment conservatism to be considered alt-right. But a core within the movement always insisted on a narrower conception of the alt-right, one that was inextricably linked with white separatism, and with Spencer specifically.

Now the boundaries are set. Spencer and his allies have won the branding war. They own the alt-right label; their right-wing opponents are aligning themselves against it, working to establish a parallel brand. It has become increasingly clear that this is not a mere rhetorical ploy but a distinction with a difference.”

Orthodoxy Watch: When The Comics Aren't Funny

Deanna Isaacs relates the case of Michael Bonesteel, an expert on American comics and outsider art and an adjunct at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who recently resigned:

“According to Bonesteel, the first incident occurred on December 12 in his course the Present and Future of Outsider Art. During discussion of a theory that connects the most striking feature of Darger’s work—the prevalence in it of little girls with penises—with possible childhood sexual abuse, a transgender student objected.

“The student said there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused, and therefore I was wrong in proposing the theory,” Bonesteel says, adding that he agreed that there was no proof, but said many scholars thought it likely.

After this incident, Bonesteel met with a diversity counselor, and, following the counselor’s advice, posted an apology for his “insensitivity” on an SAIC website, along with a research article as background for the theory.

Dean Wainwright, subsequently ruling on this student’s complaint, found no violation of school policy, but determined that Bonesteel needed training on how to deal with “identity ­related material” in his curriculum.

Two days after the first incident, during a discussion in his other class, Comic Book: Golden Age to Comics Code, a student launched into what Bonesteel describes as “a long diatribe about perceived anti-Semitic attitudes” of the author of an assigned text, the well-regarded Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones.

Bonesteel says the student also criticized “SAIC’s policies toward minorities and transgender students specifically, leveling accusations of racism and homophobia toward me in particular.” Bonesteel made a plea for patience “during this time of transition,” but the exchange “heated up,” and in the same session the student objected about the lack of a trigger warning during a discussion of an implied rape in another book. (Bonesteel says SAIC does not require trigger warnings.)

When the student complained, “the dean ultimately ‘determined that it is more likely than not that your conduct in relation to this student constituted harassment based on gender-identity in violation of the School’s Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation,’ ” Bonesteel says.

Months later, another student in the comics class filed a complaint on the basis of having been “troubled by the incident.”

On May 30, Bonesteel says he was told that he wouldn’t be teaching any future courses in comics. His outsider art classes were to be revamped, and readings by “scholars in the field of Outsider art were to be discarded in favor of new readings from academic journals.” His hours for the 2017-2018 school year were reduced to a level at which he’d lose his health insurance benefits.”

Orthodoxy Watch: Brazilian Wax

Howard University Law Professor Reginald Robinson has been disciplined and put under administrative supervision for asking a question that involved a client upset by hypothetical question about sexual harassment during a bikini wax.

“On May 4, law professor Reginald Robinson, who teaches Critical Race Theory, was deemed responsible for sexual harassment after two students complained about a test question involving a Brazilian wax and an upset client. After a 504-day investigation, administrators determined that Robinson would be required to undergo mandatory sensitivity training, prior administrative review of future test questions, and classroom observation. Robinson also received a stern warning that any further “violations” of the university’s Title IX policies may result in his termination.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Howard on June 16 demanding that Robinson’s sanctions be removed. Howard did not respond by FIRE’s June 30 deadline.

“Robinson’s test question clearly does not constitute sexual harassment,” said Susan Kruth, FIRE’s senior program officer for legal and public advocacy. “Howard’s overreaction to a simple hypothetical question is a threat to academic freedom and a professor’s ability to effectively teach students.”

During a September 2015 class, a female student challenged a test question’s premise that a person could sleep through a Brazilian wax. After a complaint to administrators by two students and a 16-month investigation, Robinson was informed that one of the students allegedly believed the question’s premise somehow required her to reveal to the class whether she’d had a Brazilian wax. This dubious assertion, coupled with the use of the word “genitals” in the law school test question, contributed to then-Deputy Title IX Coordinator Candi Smiley’s determination that Robinson is guilty of sexual harassment.”

Thucydides As Prophet

S.N. Jaffe pushes back against recent claims by some academics that Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War suggests an inevitable war between the United States and China.

“In our attention deficit inspired media landscape, preoccupied as it is with talking points, the History of the Peloponnesian War, that most difficult and richly rewarding of ancient books, has somehow become a stockpile of “authoritative” ancient wisdom, from which one can simply grab a choice line — the work is full of arresting and contradictory statements about international politics — and deploy it to score a point or bolster an argument. By quoting Thucydides, commentators wish to communicate sophistication, signaling something like, “that’s what the ancient wise man thought, and it’s what I believe, too.” The usual victim is the poor Melian dialogue, which inevitably suffers what it must.

Yet the History is more about unsettling the reader’s pieties than it is about confirming them. In my view, the book is intended to bring about a kind of political chastening, for it throws the multitude of errors that forever bedevil politics into vivid relief. In other words, part of its goal is to shape the reader’s vision of the possibilities but also the limits of political life. This is one of the reasons the work is of interest to political theorists. I also believe the History is intended as a vicarious political education for citizens, soldiers, and statesmen, communicated through the medium of the case study of a single, cataclysmic war — for war itself, as Thucydides says, is a violent teacher.

In the spirit of encouraging a deeper engagement with the History, I want to offer an introduction for how serious political people, military and civilian, might approach Thucydides profitably. It goes without saying that some will disagree with the below remarks, for one thing that manifestly characterizes the study of Thucydides is vigorous disagreement.”

Who Killed Journalism?

“I’ve been a journalist for a long time. Long enough to know that it wasn’t always like this. There was a time not so long ago when journalists were trusted and admired.” Michael Goodwin looks at the breakdown of trust in our best newspapers and argues that the blame falls squarely on the newspapers themselves.

“For the most part, I blame the New York Times and the Washington Post for causing this breakdown. The two leading liberal newspapers were trying to top each other in their demonization of Trump and his supporters. They set the tone, and most of the rest of the media followed like lemmings.

On one level, tougher scrutiny of Trump was clearly defensible. He had a controversial career and lifestyle, and he was seeking the presidency as his first job in government. He also provided (and continues to provide) lots of fuel with some of his outrageous words and deeds. But from the beginning there was also a second element to the lopsided coverage. The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican for president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, meaning it would back a dead raccoon if it had a “D” after its name. Think of it — George McGovern over Richard Nixon? Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan? Walter Mondale over Reagan? Any Democrat would do. And the Washington Post, which only started making editorial endorsements in the 1970s, has never once endorsed a Republican for president.

But again, I want to emphasize that 2016 had those predictable elements plus a whole new dimension. This time, the papers dropped the pretense of fairness and jumped headlong into the tank for one candidate over the other. The Times media reporter began a story this way:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

I read that paragraph and I thought to myself, well, that’s actually an easy question. If you feel that way about Trump, normal journalistic ethics would dictate that you shouldn’t cover him. You cannot be fair. And you shouldn’t be covering Hillary Clinton either, because you’ve already decided who should be president. Go cover sports or entertainment. Yet the Times media reporter rationalized the obvious bias he had just acknowledged, citing the view that Clinton was “normal” and Trump was not.

I found the whole concept appalling. What happened to fairness? What happened to standards? I’ll tell you what happened to them. The Times’ top editor, Dean Baquet, eliminated them. In an interview last October with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, Baquet admitted that the piece by his media reporter had nailed his own thinking. Trump “challenged our language,” he said, and Trump “will have changed journalism.” Of the daily struggle for fairness, Baquet had this to say: “I think that Trump has ended that struggle. . . . We now say stuff. We fact check him. We write it more powerfully that [what he says is] false.”

Baquet was being too modest. Trump was challenging, sure, but it was Baquet who changed journalism. He’s the one who decided that the standards of fairness and nonpartisanship could be abandoned without consequence.”

Goodwin does not think the great American newspapers can be resurrected.

“Can the American media be fixed? And is there anything that we as individuals can do to make a difference? The short answer to the first question is, “No, it can’t be fixed.” The 2016 election was the media’s Humpty Dumpty moment. It fell off the wall, shattered into a million pieces, and can’t be put back together again. In case there is any doubt, 2017 is confirming that the standards are still dead. The orgy of visceral Trump-bashing continues unabated.”

But Goodwin does offer a glimmer of hope:

“Which brings me to the third necessary ingredient in determining where we go from here. It’s you. I urge you to support the media you like. As the great writer and thinker Midge Decter once put it, “You have to join the side you’re on.” It’s no secret that newspapers and magazines are losing readers and money and shedding staff. Some of them are good newspapers. Some of them are good magazines. There are also many wonderful, thoughtful, small publications and websites that exist on a shoestring. Don’t let them die. Subscribe or contribute to those you enjoy. Give subscriptions to friends. Put your money where your heart and mind are. An expanded media landscape that better reflects the diversity of public preferences would, in time, help create a more level political and cultural arena. That would be a great thing. So again I urge you: Join the side you’re on.”

As the Hannah Arendt Center gears up for our Summer membership drive, I encourage you to think about Goodwin’s advice: “Subscribe or contribute to those you enjoy. Give subscriptions to friends.” You can get a head start on our membership drive here.


Six Flags, One Star

I have lived in three states in my life, each hulking population centers wracked by extraordinary political divisions. The first two were blue states, but only on the level on which we make that distinction, which is to say the presidential level; the one where I was born, Illinois, is so politically dysfunctional that it just this week passed its first budget in two years, which required overriding a governor’s veto. The other, New York, is only marginally better, but it’s division is better explained a different way: In the rural part of the state where I lived, I remember distinctly a blue truck with a Confederate flag decal stuck to it’s back window. In Illinois such a symbol would make at least a little sense, even if its a funny juxtaposition with the portrait of Lincoln on the license plate. In a New York context, however, that decal becomes a powerful teaching tool; through it, you could explain much of the past half century of American history. It’s Texas, where I’ve now lived for almost four years, however, that is by far the weirdest of the bunch. Houston is the most diverse city in the country; I’m regularly told that Austin, where I live, is “different, right?” It is, but not that different. The not-Austin, not-Houston, not-San Antonio, not-El Paso, and so on, parts of the state are different too, for that matter. I haven’t lived here long enough to be able to make any sense of it, really. But Lawrence Wright, in this profile of the state’s political past, present, and future, has as good a primer as any I’ve ever read: —JK

“I’ve lived in Texas for most of my life, and I’ve come to appreciate what the state symbolizes, both to people who live here and to those who view it from afar. Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free. Outsiders see us as the nation’s id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild. Texans, it is thought, mindlessly celebrate individualism, and view government as a kind of kryptonite that weakens the entrepreneurial muscles. We’re reputed to be braggarts; careless with money and our personal lives; a little gullible, but dangerous if crossed; insecure, but obsessed with power and prestige.

Texans, however, are hardly monolithic. The state is as politically divided as the rest of the nation. One can drive across it and be in two different states at the same time: FM Texas and AM Texas. FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers, the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug—almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas: Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.

Texas has been growing at a stupefying rate for decades. The only state with more residents is California, and the number of Texans is projected to double by 2050, to 54.4 million, almost as many people as in California and New York combined. Three Texas cities—Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio—are already among the top ten most populous in the country. The eleventh largest is Austin, the capital, where I live. For the past five years, it has been one of the fastest-growing large cities in America; it now has nearly a million people, dwarfing the college town I fell in love with almost forty years ago. Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, and Kansas and Louisiana more out of whack, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.”


David Sessions decries what he calls, following Daniel Drezner, the “thought leader.”

“In his book The Ideas Industry, the political scientist and foreign policy blogger Daniel W. Drezner broadens the focus to include the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded, and expressed. Describing the public sphere in the language of markets, he argues that three major factors have altered the fortunes of today’s intellectuals: the evaporation of public trust in institutions, the polarization of American society, and growing economic inequality. He correctly identifies the last of these as the most important: the extraordinary rise of the American superrich, a class interested in supporting a particular genre of “ideas.”

The rich have, Drezner writes, empowered a new kind of thinker—the “thought leader”—at the expense of the much-fretted-over “public intellectual.” Whereas public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky or Martha Nussbaum are skeptical and analytical, thought leaders like Thomas Friedman and Sheryl Sandberg “develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot.” While public intellectuals traffic in complexity and criticism, thought leaders burst with the evangelist’s desire to “change the world.” Many readers, Drezner observes, prefer the “big ideas” of the latter to the complexity of the former. In a marketplace of ideas awash in plutocrat cash, it has become “increasingly profitable for thought leaders to hawk their wares to both billionaires and a broader public,” to become “superstars with their own brands, sharing a space previously reserved for moguls, celebrities, and athletes.””

Critical Coding

Ellen Ullman makes an important, far reaching point, one with implications for me as I type this sentence on my computer and for you, as you read it on your phone:

“Technology is not neutral; it is made by people with intentions. Machines and algorithms are imbued with the values of their makers, values that move outward into the wider, nontechnical world. It matters greatly, then, who writes the code. The vast majority of software engineers are white or Asian men under the age of forty. These programmers, along with marketers, propose new applications and their target user groups to venture capitalists, who decide which startups are funded. (And so we have yet another delivery app operating within the zip codes of the wealthy.) They write the algorithms that control trade, resource allocation, foreign aid, political and social actions—that is, life.

The penetration of technology into the interstices of human existence is nearly complete. More than half of humanity, primarily in the poorest and most politically volatile regions of the world, does not have access to the internet, but they still live within its structure. Life is enmeshed in code, and yet only a bare percentage of human beings on earth understands what a computer program actually is.

I wish to demystify code. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly an individual learns computing; the knowledge does not need to lead to professional programming. My goal is for the public to know that programs are written by human beings and can be changed by human beings, to understand the concepts, the patterns of thinking, the paths through which human thoughts get altered as they pass into the language of computers.”

Posted on 9 July 2017 | 8:00 am

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