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Amor Mundi: Reconciling Ourselves to Plurality

Reconciling Ourselves to Plurality

As our readers know, there is no constitutional right to free speech on a private college campus. What there is, instead, is an intellectual need to listen and respond to people with whom we strongly disagree. As Hannah Arendt writes, “We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.” The plurality of voices in the public sphere allows each of us to encounter divergent and opposed points of view that remind us of the basic plurality of the world. Hearing opposing and unpopular views reminds us that our own view of the world is partial; it compels us to listen to the opinions of others and protects the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance. That is why for Arendt considering opposing views is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking.

I have been told that some in the community of Arendt scholars are angry that the Arendt Center invited Dr. Marc Jongen to speak at our recent conference. Apparently, there is a letter circulating that is criticizing the Arendt Center. No one who has signed the letter has shared the letter with me; no signee has asked me for a comment or solicited my opinion; not one of them has suggested to me what it is that we are supposed to have done wrong. Through a mediator, I have been told that there is a concern that by bringing Dr. Jongen to speak, the Arendt Center was at risk of somehow endorsing the Alternative für Deutschland. I want to belabor the obvious and say this is not the case.

Since the letter condemning our invitation to Dr. Jongen may one day become public, I think it worthwhile to explain why it is important that the Hannah Arendt Center exist as a place where we can listen and respond to people like Dr. Jongen, people with whom we strongly disagree. I have written an open letter explaining the decision to include Dr. Jongen as one of our speakers. In part, I argue that engaging with, understanding, and resisting opposing ideas is part of what Arendt means by reconciling oneself with the plurality of the world, which is a prerequisite for amor mundi, learning to love the world. Arendt insisted, repeatedly, that when one confronts wrongdoing and even evil, the only way to resist evil is to understand it.

“Over and again in her life, Arendt got into trouble because of her willingness to give uncomfortable and offensive views a full public hearing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann sought to understand who Eichmann was and what it was that allowed him to actively participate in the killing of millions of Jews. For many of her readers, this effort to understand Eichmann was a betrayal. They thought he should be simply and categorically condemned as a monster. Arendt also thought he should be condemned and hanged for what he did. But she insisted first on the necessity of understanding him, and coming face to face with his account of what he had done. The act of understanding evil, she believed, was fundamental to the effort to resist evil.

The strong belief that we must confront and face up to evil and offensive people and ideas also led Arendt to cite many Nazi authors in her work The Origins of Totalitarianism. She insisted that to understand Nazism and Stalinism, it was actually necessary to read and argue with both these ideologies. She has been roundly criticized for doing so, many going so far as to suggest that her extensive citations of Nazi writers betray a latent anti-Semitism. But Arendt makes the case for why it is essential that we engage with those we find to be deeply wrong.

In a letter to Eric Vogelin, Arendt writes that her problem was “how to write historically about something — totalitarianism — which I did not want to conserve, but on the contrary, felt engaged to destroy.” To resist totalitarianism meant, as she wrote in Origins, that we must first seek to comprehend it. Comprehension “means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.” Her goal was to come to understand totalitarianism as an unprecedented and uniquely modern form of total domination. Only by understanding and comprehending the foundations and origins of totalitarianism, she argued, would it be possible to resist it.

In speaking of understanding totalitarianism, Arendt writes of reconciling ourselves to the fact of totalitarianism. Arendt’s overarching project is to “come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is to be at home in the world.” Her goal is to love the world, even with evil in it. This reconciliation with an often-horrific world is, she writes, the hardest task.

Reconciliation with totalitarianism as a fact of history and thus a present possibility does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the evil of totalitarianism; rather, reconciliation means risking “the interminable dialogue with the essence of totalitarianism” that can allow us to “understand it without bias and prejudice” as something that is bound up with our own needs. Only in such an honest and dispassionate reconciliation can we recognize the stirrings of totalitarian impulses in ourselves and in our world. Such reconciliation is what allows us to at once love and resist the real totalitarian dangers of our time.”

You can read the entirety of Roger Berkowitz’s open letter on Medium.


Lottocracy

A central theme of the Arendt Center’s recent conference was the tension between democracy and technocracy. Nicholas Tampio attacks this tension head on arguing that “Democracy, instead, requires treating people as citizens – that is, as adults capable of thoughtful decisions and moral actions, rather than as children who need to be manipulated. One way to treat people as citizens is to entrust them with meaningful opportunities to participate in the political process, rather than just as beings who might show up to vote for leaders every few years.” In an essay worrying about the technocratic dominance of representative democracy, Tampio discusses the new interest in sortition, the selective of our governing representatives by lottery rather than by election.

“Guerrero, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that direct democracy cannot work because most people lack the time and ability to understand the complexities of modern public policy. Democrats have responded to this situation by creating a system of representative democracy where people vote for politicians who act as our agents in the halls of power. The problem is that most people cannot pay sufficient attention to hold their representatives accountable. Citizens are ‘ignorant about what our representatives are doing, ignorant about the details of complex political issues, and ignorant about whether what our representative is doing is good for us or for the world’. To make matters worse, powerful economic interests have the knowledge and resources to capture representatives and make them serve the rich.

The time for electoral representative democracy has passed, argues Guerrero. Rather than waste people’s votes in elections, political systems should create a lottocracy that randomly selects adults who can perform modified versions of the jobs that elected politicians presently do. Right now, US congresspersons are predominantly white, male, millionaires; a lottocracy could instantly raise the number of women, minorities and lower-income people in the legislature, and take advantage of each group’s epistemic contributions to policy debates.

Guerrero envisions single-issue legislatures whose members are chosen by lottery and serve three-year staggered terms. At the beginning of the legislative session, experts set the agenda and bring the legislators up to speed on the topic, then the legislators draft, revise and vote on legislation. Guerrero dismisses the possibility that experts ‘would convince us to buy the same corporate-sponsored policy we’re currently getting’.

On the contrary, the wealthy and powerful could easily manipulate a lottocracy. Think tanks and lobbyists, funded by economic elites, would welcome the opportunity to educate lottery-chosen legislators. Those who set the agenda make the most important decisions. This is the democratic critique of plans that tightly regulate the ways that people may participate in politics. Democracy means people exerting power, not choosing from a menu made by elites and their agents.”


Cautionary Tales

Strobe Talbott looks back to Hitler and Stalin as cautionary tales amidst the rule of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

“Of the many books that deal with these two world-changing figures, “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives,” by the British historian Alan Bullock, published in 1992, is the best — and certainly, at more than 1,000 pages, the most comprehensive. Bullock’s thesis is persuasive. Despite their differences in age, background and temperament — and despite their mortal enmity in World War II — there was a symbiosis, even an affinity, between the two: in their careers, their ideologies, their methods and their psyches.

They were both outsiders: the master of the Kremlin was a Georgian, not a Russian; the German Führer was an Austrian. Both, Bullock says, were narcissists. Both insisted on cults of personality and made themselves into high priests of warped versions of 19th-century social theories (Stalin’s Marxism, Hitler’s toxic combination of social Darwinism and the zanier ideas of Nietzsche). Both were homicidal paranoiacs, determined to deport, enslave and exterminate entire categories of human beings: in Stalin’s case, the kulaks during the collectivization campaign; in Hitler’s, not just Jews but Slavs, Romani and numerous others. Crucially, neither of these malevolent geniuses would have emerged from obscurity were it not for the first great cataclysm of the 20th century, then known as the Great War.

Stalin was already a ruthless and canny militant in the 1890s when Hitler was still a toddler. The pivotal year 1905 found him in St. Petersburg, where a wave of social unrest and political protests forced the czarist government to accede to limited democratic reforms including a parliament (Duma) and a multiparty system. That was not the outcome Stalin and his fellow Bolsheviks wanted.

Twelve years later, in November 1917, they had another chance to quash the democrats and impose a dictatorship. This time they got lucky, largely because Russia suffered a perfect storm of ill fortune and colossal folly.”


The End of the End of History

Citing Yasha Mounk, a speaker at last week’s Hannah Arendt Center annual conference, Sasha Polakow-Suransky wonders at the future of democracy, a political system that may be better supported by the old than it is by the young:

“Those who believe millennials are immune to authoritarian ideas are mistaken. Using data from the World Values Survey, the political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk have painted a worrying picture. As the French election demonstrated, belief in core tenets of liberal democracy is in decline, especially among those born after 1980. Their findings challenge the idea that after achieving a certain level of prosperity and political liberty, countries that have become democratic do not turn back.

In America, 72 percent of respondents born before World War II deemed it absolutely essential to live in a democracy; only 30 percent of millennials agreed. The figures were similar in Holland. The number of Americans favoring a strong leader unrestrained by elections or parliaments has increased from 24 to 32 percent since 1995. More alarmingly, the number of Americans who believe that military rule would be good or very good has risen from 6 to 17 percent over the same period. The young and wealthy were most hostile to democratic norms, with fully 35 percent of young people with a high income regarding army rule as a good thing. Mainstream political science, confident in decades of received wisdom about democratic “consolidation” and stability, seemed to be ignoring a disturbing shift in public opinion.

There could come a day when, even in wealthy Western nations, liberal democracy ceases to be the only game in town. And when that day comes, those who once embraced democracy could begin to entertain other options. Even Ronald Inglehart, the celebrated eighty-three-year-old political scientist who developed his theory of democratic consolidation more than four decades ago, has conceded that falling incomes, rising inequality, and the abject dysfunction of many governments—especially America’s—have led to declining support for democracy. If such trends continue, he wrote in response to Foa and Mounk, “then the long-run outlook for democracy is indeed bleak.” Part of voters’ disillusionment stems from the political establishment’s failure to confront very real tensions and failures of integration, opening the door for a web-savvy army of right-wing propagandists who put forth arguments that are both offensive and easily digestible.”


Meeting the Mayor of San Juan

(Source: Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

A month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, 80% of the population is still without power, cell phone coverage is still spotty, and clean water is a rarity. Jon Lee Anderson meets with Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the wake of hurricane Maria:

“Yulín, who is fifty-four years old, has a ready-for-action style: when she entered the stadium, she went straight into a huddle with some young volunteers wearing matching T-shirts and led them in a rousing chant. She wore a white, military-style shirt with epaulettes and green outdoor pants tucked into tall combat boots.

When we were introduced, I jokingly expressed my pleasure at meeting such a “nasty” person. Yulín smiled. “An insult from Mr. Trump is a badge of courage, thank God,” she said. She had lived on the mainland for twelve years, she said, and from that experience she knew that “there’s a stark contrast between a country with a big heart and a President with a big mouth, who doesn’t seem to have any limits on how he disrespects people that do not think or believe or act as he expects them to.”

We discussed the Trump Administration’s response to Maria, and Yulín enumerated the ways that she believed the federal government—and Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Roselló, a political rival and a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party—had failed to meet the island’s needs. “Things did not get off to a good start,” she said. “The supply chain of aid has not been robust or continuous. The logistical support seems to be insurmountable. We have been unable to get the most rudimentary of communications, and, more than not having water or energy, the lack of communication—you really cannot communicate with people, and so we don’t have the big picture, the details of the realities that are being confronted every day by citizens and mayors and volunteers.” Yulín spoke admiringly about the speed with which individual and corporate donors, the Puerto Rican diaspora, several members of Congress, and mayors of other U.S. cities had come through with aid. “The private sector and the mayors have come through; Trump’s and Pence’s visits here”—Vice-President Mike Pence visited a few days after Trump—“were just P.R. exercises.”

Yulín, who graduated with honors from Boston University and has a master’s degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon, has been in Puerto Rican public life since 1992. In 2008, she won a seat in Puerto Rico’s legislature, where she served until winning the San Juan mayor’s race, in 2012. Her party, the Partido Popular Democrático, defines itself officially as “pro-Commonwealth” and is in favor of maintaining, but improving on, Puerto Rico’s current relationship with the mainland, and supports neither statehood nor independence. Yulín is known to be personally in favor of Puerto Rico’s independence, but, like many of Puerto Rico’s politically-ambitious-yet-mainstream politicians, she is careful to use terms like “sovereignty” and “dignity” instead of “independence” outright. Yulín is expected to run for governor in 2020, when Roselló’s current term is up. (He assumed office this January, the same month as Trump.) The island’s voters are divided between those favoring statehood, those favoring the status quo, and those favoring independence. In a referendum held in June, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of statehood, but only twenty-three per cent of the electorate voted. Many Puerto Ricans abstained, seeing the vote as a political exercise organized by Roselló’s government. Still, support for statehood has undeniably been on the rise. A recent opinion poll conducted by the newspaper El Nuevo Día offered what may be a more realistic breakdown: fifty-two per cent in favor of statehood, twenty-seven per cent in favor of the current status, and fifteen per cent in favor of greater autonomy or independence.”

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I asked why we needed corporate assistance, private assistance, why it was that institutions who are supposed to take care of American citizens weren’t doing so effectively. In the wake of Maria, a humanitarian catastrophe many times greater than that of Harvey, the response of the U.S. government has been, simply, shameful. We shouldn’t be arguing about whether or not U.S. shipping protections are more important than getting supplies to U.S. citizens. We shouldn’t need Tesla to step in and rebuild the island’s power grid. There is no greatness in an America that abandons its citizens.

-Josh Kopin


A Land of Ideals

(Source: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

In a speech last week at the National Constitution Center, Senator John McCain said that “we live in a land of ideals.” This is a simple statement, but one that speaks volumes and has become profoundly controversial. On one side, there are those who are we live in a land of oppression, inequality, racism, sexism, and corruption. On the other side is the claim that the American Creed, however imperfect, calls us to an infinitely expanding pursuit of freedom and liberty. We witness today a battle between those like McCain who argue that the American Creed can still inspire us as a nation to be better, do better, and forever re-imagine the American dream. And there are those like Ta Nahesi Coates who, very much like Richard Spencer and white nationalists, offers a racially essentialized view of American society as irredeemably white supremacist. This is not to equate Coates and Spencer. But is true that for Coates, as for Spencer, racism is an irredeemable part of the American DNA. The question of whether Coates and Spencer are right that America is essentially a white supremacist country is, in many ways, the question of our time. Against Coates and Spencer, McCain argues that we must recommit ourselves to the highest ideals of the American dream.

The Hannah Arendt Center hosted a conference on precisely this question in 2014, “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For.” And just this week, Senator McCain in his speech called for a recommitment to American as a land of ideals. At a time when so many are despairing of the idea of America, it is worth recalling McCain’s passion for the Idea of America.

“Some years ago, I was present at an event where an earlier Liberty Medal recipient spoke about America’s values and the sacrifices made for them. It was 1991, and I was attending the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The World War II veteran, estimable patriot and good man, President George Herbert Walker Bush, gave a moving speech at the USS Arizona memorial. I remember it very well. His voice was thick with emotion as he neared the end of his address.

I imagine he was thinking not only of the brave Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941, but of the friends he had served with and lost in the Pacific where he had been the Navy’s youngest aviator.

“Look at the water here, clear and quiet …” he directed, “One day, what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.”

He could barely get out the last line, “May God bless them, and may God bless America, the most wondrous nation on earth.”

The most wondrous land on earth, indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It’s not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help.

But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so grateful.

What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed.

We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible. The land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future. The land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centered youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal. The land where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause, and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for president.

We are blessed, and we have been a blessing to humanity in turn. The international order we helped build from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history.

This wondrous land has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another better world. And as we did so, we made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.

To fear the world we have organized and led the three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems, is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We’ve done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.”


The Cellphone as Mental Health Crisis

Jean M. Twenge suggests that the big issue with the smart phone is not an issue of attention:

“The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

Even when a seismic event—a war, a technological leap, a free concert in the mud—plays an outsize role in shaping a group of young people, no single factor ever defines a generation. Parenting styles continue to change, as do school curricula and culture, and these things matter. But the twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”


Posted on 22 October 2017 | 8:00 am

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