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Amor Mundi: Crises Of Democracy

Crises Of Democracy

We are experiencing a worldwide rebellion against liberal democracy. In Hungary, Russia, Turkey and other countries across Europe, right- and left-wing parties flirt with authoritarian rule. In the United States, President Donald J. Trump channels the voices of the self-described disenfranchised. Representative governments everywhere are shown to be corrupt, inefficient, and undemocratic. The great political achievement of the modern era — stable representative democracy — is everywhere under attack.

Hannah Arendt rooted the crisis in democracy in the dissipation of public power. She understood how cynicism invalidates factual truth and fans the creation of conspiracies and coherent fantasies. Arendt saw how cynicism turns us away from the common public world and leads to a narcissistic preoccupation with our internal feelings and personal beliefs. More than ever our world needs Arendt’s fearless and bold inquiry into the political and ethical results of cynicism.

Arendt knew that despair, hopelessness, and homelessness lie at the root of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, conditions too frequently the result of a globalized, cosmopolitan society. In times of mass cynicism we need to join together and affirm common values. The Hannah Arendt Center works to keep Arendt’s vision of loving the world alive even in the darkest times.

There are 3 days left in our annual Summer Membership Drive. Join or Renew your membership now.

Members get TWO free tickets to our 10th Annual Conference, “Crises of Democracy” on Oct. 12-13, 2017. Members also get free access to our Virtual Reading Group, in which we are reading On Revolution beginning in September. We also feature great deals like a dual membership with the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Forward.

In these dark times, Arendt’s courageous and deeply honest writings are more relevant than ever. On questions of authoritarianism, refugees, cynicism, and above all on the importance of truth-telling, Arendt can help us understand and rethink our present predicaments.

Bold thinking about politics in the humanist style of Hannah Arendt is profoundly necessary in our increasingly thoughtless era. The Arendt Center exists to nurture provocative thinking about politics and ethics. We are grateful for your confidence in us and your engagement in our work to build a community around the thinking of Hannah Arendt.

We thank you in advance and look forward to seeing you at our future events.

Roger Berkowitz

The Mafia State


Karina Orlova and Damir Marusic offer a deep dive into the corruption of the Russian mafia state and its ties to the family and associates of President Donald Trump.

“The truth is, there is no such thing as an independent billionaire in Russia. The line between “the state” and “private” enterprise is more than just blurry; in many cases, it doesn’t exist at all. The security services are not just responsible for intelligence gathering; they also run extortion rackets and take cuts of everything from the illicit drug trade to cross-border financial transactions. Every larger business needs a krysha (literally “roof”, or protection) from someone in power. As Russian corruption-fighter and opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s most recent exposé showed, the extravagant looting has directly benefited the second most powerful man in Russia, former Western darling Dmitry Medvedev. Estimates of Putin’s own take vary, but it is no longer much in dispute that the Russian President is the King of the Kleptocrats. Of course businesses and companies exist in Russia, but the larger they get, the more their corporate structure becomes nothing but a thin veneer of legitimacy over corrupt patronage schemes that flaunt both the spirit and the letter of the law.

The passage of the Magnitsky Act in 2012 seriously upset a large subset of the Russian mafia state, including Putin himself. To those unfamiliar with how Russia works, this might seem puzzling at first. Why all the drama over sanctions on a few oligarchs? But to those more attuned with Russia’s inner workings, it’s much less perplexing. As American financier Bill Browder, whose wildly successful asset management company Hermitage Capital had been the target of a state-backed raid and takeover attempt in the 2000s, explained to us last week when we caught up with him, Putin and his subordinates live by a kind of Faustian deal.

“[Putin] allows people to get rich off the proceeds of government service,” Browder said, “and then he asks them to do services he’s interested in for the state.” In the process, Putin takes a cut for himself, and of course jealously guards his loot. But there is also a larger contract being observed that forces Putin to act forthrightly. “He asks [his subordinates] to do very terrible things—to torture people, to kill people, to kidnap people, in order for the government to seize people’s properties. And in return he offers them impunity. If all of a sudden…he can’t promise them foreign impunity, that messes up everything for him.”

Digging through the murky networks connecting the people who attended that mysterious meeting at Trump Tower last year won’t provide the definitive “smoking gun” that so many in Washington are desperate for, tying the President’s campaign to some fanciful plot hatched inside the Kremlin to subvert American democracy. But at the same time, it casts serious doubts on arguments that there is nothing to see in the meeting itself. On the contrary, there is plenty to see. Looking at these networks recasts both our understanding of the real nature of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, and of what having a purely transactionally minded businessman for a President might mean for the United States—whether there was “collusion” or not.

So let’s have a look. Bear with us, as this gets a little dense.”

In writing about the differences between traditional authoritarianism and totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt focuses on the different ways they view the state. Both forms of government emerge out of “the alienation of the masses from government” and the rising “hatred of and disgust with Parliament.” As the institutions of government came to seem corrupt, “they looked like expensive and unnecessary institutions.” The rising populist movements in the 1930s “claimed to present something above party and class interests and started outside of Parliament”; these movements felt authentic, free from hypocrisy, and seemed “more competent, more sincere, and more concerned with public affairs.” In Italy, Mussolini’s Fascism “was not totalitarian but just an ordinary nationalist dictatorship developed logically from a multiparty democracy.” After decades of failed governance and inefficient rule, Mussolini’s “seizure of the state for the advantage of one party can come as a great relief.” Once Mussolini seized the state, however, his movement had largely succeeded. It wanted to control the state, not to destroy it. His “movement had come to an end with the seizure of power.”

The Nazi movement, on the contrary, wanted to destroy the state. The Nazis “clearly kept aloof from this Fascist form of dictatorship, in which the ‘movement’ merely serves to bring the party to power.” Whereas Mussolini strengthened the army as a national institution, the Nazis “destroyed the spirit of the army by subordinating it to the political commissars of totalitarian elite formations.” Driven by a hatred of the state, the totalitarian movements “attacked the institutions of the state and did not appeal to classes.” The Nazis embraced a mania of disruption, a mood for “change at any price (even at the price of destruction of all legal institutions)”, and presented the old parties of both the left and the right as “mere defenders of the status quo.” Unlike the Italian Fascists, the Nazis did not staff their leadership positions with old-guard bureaucrats and leaders, but brought in committed party outsiders to run the government. Arendt sees this shift from established leaders to ideologically driven Party members as one of the key shifts in the rise of totalitarian government.

The hiring of Anthony Scaramucci and the humiliating attacks on Attorney General Jeff Sessions are so disturbing because they portend a trend in which President Trump would clean house of those political leaders over whom he does not exercise full control. One of the few hopeful signs of his early months in office was his appointment of independent people like General James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Jeff Sessions, and Reince Priebus. Whatever one thought of their politics, they are strong leaders with their own views and constituencies. Now we see the President pushing out those who push back against him, circling the wagons around his family. The resemblance to Putin is sadly uncanny.

Roger Berkowitz

Convenient Targets

Masha Gessen, one of the speakers at our upcoming fall conference Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times, considers why LGBTQ rights are a common target for autocrats, aspiring or otherwise:

“The appeal of autocracy lies in its promise of radical simplicity, an absence of choice. In Trump’s imaginary past, every person had his place and a securely circumscribed future, everyone and everything was exactly as it seemed, and government was run by one man issuing orders that could not and need not be questioned. The very existence of queer people—and especially transgender people—is an affront to this vision. Trans people complicate things, throw the future into question by shaping their own, add layers of interpretation to appearances, and challenge the logic of any one man decreeing the fate of people and country.

One can laugh at the premise of the Russian ban on “homosexual propaganda”—as though the sight of queerdom openly displayed, or even the likeness of a rainbow (this claim has been made) can turn a straight person queer. At the same time, in Russia queer people make an ideal target for government propaganda because the very idea of them—of people freely choosing and expression their sexual orientation—serves as a convenient stand-in for an entire era of liberalization that is now shunned. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, queerdom was unthinkable. Afterward, it became possible along with so many other things: the world became complicated, full of possibility and uncertainty. It also grew frightening—precisely because nothing was certain any longer…

Looking at a person who embodies choice—the possibility of being or becoming different—can be like staring into the abyss of uncertainty. In this sense, seeing a Pride march or a trans person can make a person feel very queer: it demonstrates possibility, making the world frightening. It speaks to the modern predicament the social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote about in his book about the rise of Nazism, Escape from Freedom: the ability to reinvent oneself in almost every way. One is no longer born a tradesman or a peasant, or the lifelong resident of a particular quarter, or a man or a woman. This freedom can feel like an unbearable burden. No wonder the most notorious piece of American anti-transgender legislation—the North Carolina bathroom bill—focused on the birth certificate as the most important document. In mandating that people use public bathrooms in accordance with the sex assigned at birth, the law created a situation where some people who looked, acted, smelled like—who identified and lived as—women were required to use the men’s bathroom, and vice versa—but it established that one’s position in the world was set from birth.”

Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself

Eduardo Mendieta remembers the American philosopher Richard Rorty, and examines how his subordination of truth to other concerns might help guide us through our political moment:

“Last year the Oxford Dictionaries chose “Post-Truth” as the word of the year and gave us this definition: “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’” This definition reads like something that Rorty may have endorsed. Rorty wanted us to adjure talk of objectivity, of how things really are, of trying to find skyhooks on which to hang our claims to universality, to the essence of things, to how things stand as if we could see them from some eternal, unchanging, unsoiled, unbending, unassailable standpoint. Rorty thought that the pursuit of truth, and the consequent yearning after objectivity, were leftovers from the Middle Ages, when we pined after a God who would guarantee the eternity and universal validity of our beliefs. For Rorty, deference to truth was not unlike deference to God, to something external to our communities, to something extra mundane and nonhuman. To abandon this yearning for something other than human communication and human history was for Rorty a sign of cultural maturity. For this reason, Rorty thought that his project was that of advancing the aims of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, both of which jettisoned all subordination to anything other than human purposes and human means and human deliberation. To stop talking about truth was in fact ceasing to bring up topics that would be “conversation stoppers.” To give up on all truth talk was to have become mature and confront the contingency of our vocabularies and the fact that there is no final one that can grant a final authority to our institutions, beliefs, and practices. All we have is our history, our narratives, and most importantly our imaginations…

For someone who indeed did not have a theory of truth, and thought that none could be either developed or proffered, he went looking for it, like a matador courts the bull. What would Rorty, the matador of truth, have to say to Trump the prevaricator, the peddler of so-called “truthful hyperbole,” the regurgitator of a “litany of claptrap,” to quote writer Sandy Hingston from his essay “Remember When People Told the Truth?” from the May issue the Philadelphia Magazine? To a president whose tweets are but “a cascading Bellagio of mendacity,” to quote from comic writer Jo Miller’s interview with Terry Gross (Miller writes for comedian Samantha Bee)? What would Rorty say about Kellyanne Conway’s invocation of “alternative facts”? Are not “alternative facts” just what you get from “rediscriptions,” to use Rorty’s favorite word in the lexicon of poetic transformation?”

"Weren't We Soldiers Like Everybody Else?"

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s first book, an oral history of women soldiers during WWII, has just been published in English:

“We began to study. We studied the regulations: of garrison service, of discipline, of camouflage in the field, of chemical protection. The girls all worked very hard. We learned to assemble and disassemble a sniper’s rifle with our eyes shut, to determine wind speed, the movement of the target, the distance to the target, to dig a foxhole, to crawl on our stomach—we had already mastered all that. Only so as to get to the front the sooner. In the line of fire … Yes, yes … At the end of the course I got the highest grade in the exam for combat and noncombat service. The hardest thing, I remember, was to get up at the sound of the alarm and be ready in five minutes. We chose boots one or two sizes larger, so as not to lose time getting into them. We had five minutes to dress, put our boots on, and line up. There were times when we ran out to line up in boots over bare feet. One girl almost had her feet frostbitten. The sergeant major noticed it, reprimanded her, and then taught us to use footwraps. He stood over us and droned: “How am I to make soldiers out of you, my dear girls, and not targets for Fritz?” Dear girls, dear girls … Everybody loved us and pitied us all the time. And we resented being pitied. Weren’t we soldiers like everybody else?”

The Yazidi Genocide

The Guardian has published an excerpt from With Ash On Their Faces: Yazidi Women and the Islamic State by Cathy Otten. Otten offers a harrowing account of genocide against the Yazidi people by ISIS.

“When Sinjar district was attacked by Isis, more than 100,000 people fled to take refuge on Mount Sinjar. Those who couldn’t flee were rounded up. Many of the men were massacred. Thousands of Yazidis were either executed and thrown into pits, or died of dehydration, injuries or exhaustion on the mountain. So many people were missing that the enslavement of women didn’t immediately come to international attention.

According to Iraqi MP Vian Dakhil, herself a Yazidi from Sinjar, an estimated 6,383 Yazidis – mostly women and children – were enslaved and transported to Isis prisons, military training camps, and the homes of fighters across eastern Syria and western Iraq, where they were raped, beaten, sold, and locked away. By mid-2016, 2,590 women and children had escaped or been smuggled out of the caliphate and 3,793 remained in captivity.

The Yazidis are a majority-Kurdish-speaking religious group living mostly in northern Iraq. They number less than one million worldwide. The Yazidis, throughout their history, have been persecuted as infidels by Muslim rulers who demanded that they convert. Rather than formal ceremonies, their religious practice involves visiting sacred places. Yazidis participate in baptism and feasts, sing hymns and recite stories. Some of the stories are about historical and mythical battles fought in protection of the religion. Others, told over the centuries by generations of women, detail methods of resistance to the same threats that Yazidi women face today.

The Yazidis had already been made vulnerable by forced displacement under Saddam Hussein, economic meltdown under UN sanctions, the breakdown of the state and security after the US-led invasion of 2003, and the political failures that followed. In Iraq there are now around 500,000 Yazidis, primarily from the Sinjar region in Nineveh province in the country’s north. The Yazidis of Syria and Turkey have mostly all fled to neighbouring countries or to Europe. In Germany, their numbers are estimated at 25,000.

“Not all violence is hot. There’s cold violence, too, which takes its time and finally gets its way,” Teju Cole wrote in a 2015 essay about Palestine. Around the world, a broader kind of cold violence continues. It’s the violence of indignity, of forgetting, of carelessness and of not listening. It’s there in the way politicians talk about refugees, and in the way the stateless are sometimes written about and photographed by the western media. It’s there in the fear of outsiders. It’s there in the way humans dismiss other humans as less worthy of protection or care. When cold violence and hot violence merge, we get mass killings inflicted on the most vulnerable.

Yazidis have suffered massacres and oppression for generations. But there was something different about the Isis attack that took place in the late summer of 2014. This time the media took notice.

Many of the stories about the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and children described them as “sex slaves” and featured graphic, sometimes lurid, accounts by newly escaped survivors. The female fighters of Kurdish militias helping to free Yazidis from Mount Sinjar became fodder for often novelty coverage. The Yazidis became the embodiment of embattled, exotic minorities set against the evil of Isis. This narrative has stereotyped Yazidi women as passive victims of mass rape at the hands of perpetrators presented as the epitome of pure evil.

It was only much later in my reporting on how some Yazidi women managed to escape and return that I became aware of how important stories of captivity and resistance were to dealing with trauma, both historically and in relation to Isis. Yazidism is a closed religion and identity, one that is passed down through generations by stories and music. These practices have been extended to dealing with the traumas of their treatment at the hands of Isis.”

One of the surviving Yazidi women who escaped and became a spokeswoman for the Yazidi cause is Nadia Murad Basee Taha, the UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking. Nadia Murad spoke on crimes committed against her people by the Islamic State to Bard students and the public at a Arendt Center event on September 23rd, 2016. You can watch the video of Murad’s lecture here.

The Banality of Twitter

The political theorist Corey Robin got into a Twitter Fight with Chelsea Clinton over the use of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the banality of evil.

“Yesterday, I got into an argument with Chelsea Clinton. On Twitter. About Hannah Arendt.

It began with Clinton tweeting this really upsetting story from the Washington Post about a man who set fire to a LGBT youth center in Phoenix. The headline of the piece read: “Man casually empties gas can in Phoenix LGBT youth center, sets it ablaze”….

I didn’t think Clinton was using Arendt’s concept of “the banality of evil” correctly. I retweeted her with some snide commentary….

Virtually nothing in the story is suggestive of the banality of evil. Not the arsonist’s motives. Nor his deeds: one of the major issues of contention in and around the Eichmann trial as well as Eichmann in Jerusalem was that this was a man who had sent millions of people to their death, without ever (or hardly ever; I’d have to re-read the whole book to say for sure), lifting a hand against them. Eichmann’s crimes were not ones of personal or direct violence; they were of a completely different order.

So that’s why, to get back to my exchange with Clinton, I tweeted that I had read the article but still wondered why she thought it held up her claim regarding the banality of evil.

Hours went by. I didn’t hear back from her, which is exactly what I would have expected.

I mean, if I were Clinton, I wouldn’t be wasting my time with me.

But I’m not Clinton, so I did waste my time with me. I tweeted out a few other comments about the strangeness of this exchange (one of which I’ll come to below).

Then, on Friday night—Friday night!—Clinton came back to the conversation.”

Posted on 30 July 2017 | 9:30 am

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