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Amor Mundi: How Democracy Dies

How Democracy Dies

Ian Buruma, who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference Crises of Democracy, explains why the coarseness of President Trump’s Tweets is important.

“What is astonishing, however, and deeply disturbing, is how quickly extreme violence can erupt among people who have lived peacefully together for a long time. German Jews went unmolested by their Gentile neighbors until Nazi leaders stirred up the mobs after 1933. Christians and Muslims coexisted for centuries in Sarajevo, until Serb agitators, backed by armed forces, called for violent expulsions and murder. Hindus and Muslims who had left one another alone, or even had friendly relations, suddenly went for one another’s throats when the largely Muslim north broke away from predominantly Hindu India in 1947. Muslims lived peacefully in Burma until Buddhists, egged on recently by fanatical monks, started burning down their houses and beating them to death.

Over and over again, in societies all over the world, the civilized norms that protect us from anarchy and violence turn out to be perilously thin. Some people may be more disposed to brutality than others, but aggressive impulses can be activated with surprising ease. Petty jealousies or simple greed can swiftly turn unexceptional citizens into agents of barbarism….

So far, one important difference between today’s right-wing populists, in Europe and the US, and the fascists and Nazis of the 1930s, has been the absence of storm troopers. There is no equivalent of the brown-shirted or black-shirted thugs who were given license by political leaders to beat up their opponents, or worse.

But this, too, may be changing. James Buchal, a Republican politician in Oregon, suggested in May that Republicans should hire right-wing militia groups as security guards during Republican rallies. These gun-toting extremists, whose idea of patriotism is to regard the federal government as the enemy, are different from 1930s Brownshirts only in name. All that is needed for a politics of institutionalized violence is for such people to be given official license to unleash their most brutal impulses.

This is why Trump’s tweets are not just coarse playacting. Once the highest representatives of a democracy start stirring up violence, the mob takes over. The US is no exception: at that point, democracy will die.”

Critique Of Opinion

Maximillian Alvarez makes the case for judgement:

“What do we really mean when we say we’re “entitled to our opinions”? So many questions have been asked over the past year with the hope that the answers to them may help us better understand how our dangerously absurd political moment came to be. But this question is way more revealing than most.

I’ve been fortunate enough to design and teach my own college courses exploring, from literary, historical, and philosophical angles, the many complex processes that led to a Donald Trump presidency. But, as a teacher of argumentative writing, I’ve also been given a window through which to observe some of those processes in action, to see how their effects manifest in the peculiar ways people—namely, my students—think and act. In classes where argumentation is the center of gravity for everything else we do, my students and I begin every term by discussing whether or not, in our classroom and in the world at large, we are, in fact, entitled to our opinions.

On a purely literal level, the first implication of this common refrain is that, no matter how out of wack (sic) your opinion may be, you’re entitled to have it—no one can physically stop you. Sure. That’s reasonable, if kind of banal. (You can physically punish or silence people who have certain opinions, but can you actually stop them from having the opinions in the first place?) But, as it’s generally understood, the second implication of the phrase is more troublesome.

As Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, explains it, the phrase suggests that you’re “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth.” As if there’s a social law that says all opinions are equal and all deserve, by right, to be treated equally. This is where lines start to blur—when opinions themselves are seemingly given their own protective rights—and the common refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” absorbs into itself the pseudo-noble cliché that we must always “respect other people’s opinions.” For Stokes, the obvious problem is that this kind of customary treatment devalues the ways that opinions are supposed to earn serious consideration through logical argumentation, persuasion, rigorous research, and expertise. When these are thrown out the window, people start to expect that their views deserve to not only be taken seriously, but to also be protected from serious challenges, because, well, it’s their opinion.”

Who deserves our well wishes?

This week Jonathan Graubart, a professor at San Diego State University, invoked Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in a Facebook post to express his ire at the outpouring of sympathy for John McCain’s cancer diagnosis, and was quickly met with backlash from the right.

The post has been taken down, but he wrote:

“I find myself annoyed at the groundswell of good wishes for John McCain after his diagnosis of glioblastoma and have been thinking through why. A great line from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem comes to mind regarding the valuing of elite lives over ordinary lives:

“There are more than a few people, especially among the cultural elite, who still publicly regret the fact that Germany sent Einstein packing, without realizing that it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius.”

This analogy should not be interpreted too strictly. McCain is certainly no Einstein and I don’t mean just on brains. Einstein had very appealing humanist instincts, as a socialist, antiwar, anti-imperialist, and anti-statist Zionist. McCain is a war criminal and, more to the point. someone who as a politician has championed horrifying actions and been lousy on state commitment to public health. So dying or not, he’s a risible public figure (I have no idea what he is like on the personal level and don’t care).

But ultimately what troubles me is the urge to send such well wishes to an utter stranger as it reinforces the notion that some lives are more important than others. There are lots of people with glioblastoma and who have died from it (including my mother twenty years ago). I would much rather read random good wishes to contemporary little Hans Cohns than to politicians.”

The passage that he cites from Eichmann comes at the end of Chapter VII: The Wannsee Conference, or Pontious Pilot, where Arendt uses the metaphor of little Hans as a counter argument to the prosecution’s line of questioning that implied the murder of human beings is more egregious when a culture is also destroyed. Arendt is discussing the Kastner Report and how certain Jewish elites were accorded special privileges because of their social status, and offers an example of Professor Philippsohn of Bonn who was promptly removed from his “undignified conditions at Theresienstadt” at the behest of Sven Hedin, one of Hitler’s admirers. This kind of social privilege, that determined whether one lived or died, came with a heavy price. And Arendt was confounded by Kastner’s unthinking self-appraisal. She writes,

“Even after the end of the war, Kastner was proud of his success in saving ‘prominent Jews,’ a category officially introduced by the Nazis in 1942, as though in his view, too, it went without saying that a famous Jew had more right to stay alive than an ordinary one; to take upon himself such ‘responsibilities’ – to help the Nazis in their efforts to pick out ‘famous’ people from the anonymous mass, for this is what it amounted to – ‘require more courage than to face death.’”

Arendt is raising a question of moral responsibility and complicity in the systematic murder of millions of people. Why was it accepted that “less ‘prominent’ Jews were constantly sacrificed to those whose disappearance in the East would create unpleasant inquiries”?

In context, the quote Graubart used reads:

“In Germany today, this notion of “prominent” Jews has not yet been forgotten. While the veterans and other privileged groups are no longer mentioned, the fate of “famous” Jews is still deplored at the expense of all others. There are more than a few people, especially among the cultural élite, who still publicly regret the fact that Germany sent Einstein packing, without realizing that it was a much greater crime to kill little Hans Cohn from around the corner, even though he was no genius.”

The idea that the contributions of some people, like Einstein, to a culture are more valuable is morally questionable in Arendt’s reasoning, yes. This is consistent with Arendt’s understanding of plurality, which sees each person as a unique individual who possesses the ability to begin anew. As she writes in The Human Condition, “human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.” But there is something more at stake in this passage. For Arendt it is a fundamental question of worldliness and moral responsibility. How do we value human life in a system where systematic murder has become a matter of bureaucracy?

In this sense, Graubart simplifies Arendt’s argument, abstracting the framework into the question: Why do we care more for elites than average Americans? Or, why are so many people eager to send their well-wishes and sympathy to John McCain, whom they don’t know, and oblivious to the other roughly 26,000 people that will be diagnosed with malignant brain cancer this year?[1] The implication in Graubart’s post is that not only do we care more for elites than average Americans, but that John McCain is undeserving of our goodwill, because he is morally compromised—a “war criminal”. Graubart’s uneasiness with the outpouring of sympathy for John McCain is not politically commensurate with Arendt trying to understand moral responsibility and the Holocaust. His question is about civility; Arendt’s question is about life, death, and the survival of the world.

The question of whether or not we care more for elites than average people is a good one, and one that Arendt thought critically about in the aftermath of the Second World War. The argument that we shouldn’t offer well wishes to someone who is ill because he or she is a stranger seems to be in poor spirit. We can be critical of someone’s politics while still acknowledging his or her humanity. This kind of pettiness is pernicious to collective democracy. Sending well wishes to a stranger who is also a public figure doesn’t necessarily reinforce the notion that some lives are more important than others. It does reveal a form of civility, and there is something to be said for that today. This feels even more poignant during this political moment when we are so conscious of the foreclosure of free speech, plurality, and truthfulness in public discourse.


–Samantha Hill

An Elite United Against Elitism

Grade inflation is a fact of life at colleges and universities. Now it has impacted high schools. Few defend grade inflation, but even fewer are willing or able to stop it. Defending grade inflation requires that one defend the idea of a meritocratic elite, something even fewer are willing to do. Harvey Mansfield argues that American democracy is dependent on just such a justified elite.

“This phenomenon, known as “grade compression,” is widely regarded as a vice, but the harm it does is underestimated. It may seem to be merely a failure of measurement hardened into routine because most everybody likes easy grades. But it is more: It shows disregard for the special ambition of modern, and particularly American, democracy.

At its founding America was established as a “republic” rather than a “democracy,” meaning pure democracy (see James Madison’s Federalist 10). Today we have dropped the distinction of name between the two, but the difference can be seen still in the phrases “constitutional” or “liberal” democracy, as opposed to pure democracy. A pure democracy does not tolerate differences of ability and status, but a prudently qualified democracy encourages excellence of performance and permits inequality of status.

The combination America has sought of respect for excellence and insistence on equality has always characterized American education. Such a combination is necessarily tense and difficult. Its classical expression can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal versus his acknowledgment that our democracy must make a place for the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.” The first was addressed to the world, the second occurs in a private letter to John Adams in 1813. One must be careful about announcing the need for an elite, but the need is all the more compelling as it is harder to defend.

Today the tension between equality and excellence is shown in attacks on “elitism.” This aversion would naturally arise in people who believe that they gain no advantage from excellence because they do not have it themselves. They share the spirit of democratic ostracism in the Athenians, who exiled Aristides because he was too just. In this view excellence is a source of danger to the people because it will be used to exploit them rather than benefit them. Or if excellence is not a danger, it is an irritation and its mere existence a slight to average folk. Anyone better than you has a claim on your admiration that your vanity may find irksome.

“Elitism” means taking the side of the elite against the rest. Those opposed to elitism alternate between denying the worth of any elite and alleging that people suffer under an unjustified, existing elite that is harmful. These anti-elitist folks are at present in charge of American education. They are themselves an elite, an elite united against elitism.

The elite of anti-elitists could have satisfied their opposition by giving the same average grade to all students, thus enhancing democratic equality. In so doing they could have vaunted the virtues of ordinary citizens, who are more good-hearted than hard-driving ambitious types and less pretentious than intellectuals. But instead they have chosen to swamp the elite by bestowing elite grades on average students. It is as if elitist pretension could be cured by universalizing it, forcing it on those without pretensions….

Our democracy needs an elitism of merit, of Jefferson’s “virtue and talents,” in combination with its relentless drive toward equality. It wants to include everyone, but to do this accurately and well, it must discover and nourish the merits that distinguish individuals within that “everyone.””

The True American

On the 200th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, Robert Pogue Harrison writes that Thoreau embodies the spirit and contradictions of America, that he, more than any other, is the true American.

“Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country. His peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal, for as Emerson wrote in his funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty.”

Enemy Kitchen

Lilly Lampe dines with the conceptual artist and sculptor Michael Rakowitz, who has been using food as a way of enticing Americans to think through American foreign policy:

“In the years after 9/11, Rakowitz did a lot of work that was not about Iraq or food, but, as time went on, he began to realize that “every American had a relationship to Iraq whether they liked it or not.” He admits he never set out to do work that directly addressed the war, but began to feel that not addressing the issue was in a way excusing it.

Enemy Kitchen was my first real foray into using food in art,” Rakowitz says. “[In 1991 during the Gulf War] I wasn’t old enough to think about how I could stand up to that dehumanization of Iraq and Iraqi culture, but as an established artist in 2003, I went back to my mother and said, ‘Remember what you said about there being no Iraqi restaurants? What about us using your recipes and opening up an opposition to the war or an alternative?’” He began teaching after-school Iraqi cooking classes for high-school students at the Hudson Guild Community Center, near the projects in Chelsea. Many students had family stationed in Iraq. “It turned out that the principals had mandated that teachers veer away from discussions of the war in class because it was too incendiary an issue, and I thought that was really damaging, shutting down that discussion. Here were these young people growing up in this war culture and no one ever asked them what they thought of the war.”

Rakowitz began teaching the classes in 2003; by 2006, he had received sponsorship by New York nonprofit More Art to put on several of these after-school cooking classes a week. He remembers teaching some students to make kubbah, an Iraqi dish whose most common variation is that of a meatball coated with a bulgur coating and fried. A young girl walked into the classroom and immediately began bashing the food, saying, “I don’t understand why we have to make this nasty food—they blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked over the Twin Towers.” Other students starting chiming in, saying it wasn’t Iraq that bombed the Twin Towers but bin Laden, while others said, no it was our own government. It was a panoramic snapshot of American sentiment related to the war, one that captured the tensions, distrust, and misinformation. As interest in the project grew, Rakowitz was asked to do Enemy Kitchen in art schools but found the experience disappointing; the spontaneity and honesty of the Chelsea school children wasn’t easily replicated. “[In the art schools] no one was saying anything that wasn’t polite,” he says; “[the project] needed to evolve.””

The Ends Of Public Goods

Tracey L. Meares examines the arguments, being made right now primarily by communities of color, for the abolition of the police:

Abolish the police? Unthinkable? Consider Chicago, where the homicide rate is among the ten most deadly in the United States, and the nonfatal shooting problem is even worse. Yet residents of Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods still find it difficult to swallow the notion that they must endure proactive policing tactics in order to be “safe.” Many grassroots initiatives in the city have sought to prove that alternative methods of crime reduction can be more effective than policing. For example, the organization MASK hosts a free community picnic every day on a corner known for its violence.

As the example of MASK highlights, police abolitionists’ position and methods are more nuanced and compelling than their critics typically credit them with being. Mariame Kaba has spent decades in Chicago teaching about prison and police abolitionism, drawing on arguments advanced by Angela Davis in the 1990s. Kaba understands that it would be unrealistic to simply shift the burden of police abolition to victims of violent crime by asking them to not call the police, which is often how the movement is caricatured. Her abolition project is more complex: “For me prison abolition is two things: It’s the complete and utter dismantling of prison and policing and surveillance as they currently exist within our culture. And it’s also the building up of new ways of intersecting and new ways of relating with each other…”

Aspects of public infrastructure such as highways, street lighting, and clean water are public goods. In technical terms this means goods that are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable: anyone can enjoy them without diminishing their supply, and no one in the relevant group (e.g., a given city or nation) can be excluded even if they cannot afford to pay. The state typically funds public goods through taxes because the state has a vested interest in making these goods available to its citizens and cannot rely on the market to provide them as they are not necessarily—or even ideally—profitable. National defense is a classic public good, and local policing similarly falls under the conceptual category. Unsurprisingly, most of us would think it extremely unwise—silly, even—to refuse national security or policing, just as it would seem ridiculous to forego street lights, clean water, or sidewalks.

Yet the advocacy of police abolitionists helps us see the limits of framing policing as a public good. How should we think about our public goods when they go bad? In the same way that the residents of Flint, Michigan, have a right to express outrage about the water they were provided, can’t we rightly object when the policing provided to us by the state fails our communities?”

The Poet And The Philosophers

Christopher Benfey reads George Trakl, a poet who enchanted both Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“Trakl’s poems have an imagistic clarity and seeming accessibility that may remind some readers of the 1960s “Deep Image” poetry of James Wright and Robert Bly, two of Trakl’s early translators. Trakl’s “pictorial manner,” as he described it in 1910, typically “forges together four separate image-parts in four lines of a stanza into a single impression,” as for example in the first quatrain of “Trumpets”:

Under clipped willow trees, where brown children play
And drive the leaves, trumpets sound. A churchyard awe.
Banners of scarlet drop through the maples’ mourning,
Riders along the rye fields, the abandoned mills.

There are difficulties almost immediately, however. The adjective Trakl applies to willows, verschnitten, allows for a range of meanings, from anodyne (“clipped” or “pruned”) to alarming (the translator Alexander Stillmark, no doubt aware that the word can also mean “castrated,” opts for “mutilated”). Similarly, Trakl’s Ein Kirchhofsschauer can yield either Reidel’s hushed “churchyard awe” or Stillmark’s creepier “graveyard shudder.” (Wright and Bly, translating together, ramped it up to “a quaking of cemeteries.”) Under repeated readings, Trakl’s words shift their meanings, like a piece of music in multiple performances.

So what is a poem like “Trumpets” about? The second quatrain, which mentions herdsmen singing and dancing at night, concludes: “Banners of scarlet, laughter, madness, trumpets.” Are military trumpets intruding on the pastoral realm of shepherds? Do the scarlet banners, as Reidel claims, warn of scarlet fever, another threat to the idyllic? Wahnsinn, madness, opens another interpretive direction: those mutilated willows and graveyards, and the twice-mentioned Trauer (sadness, mourning), suggest depression. Abandoned mills may even imply social trauma, an economic disruption of village life. Amid such competing meanings, the most common explanation for what Trakl’s poems are really about has gravitated toward biography.”

Posted on 6 August 2017 | 8:30 am

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