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Amor Mundi: Off With Their Heads

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Off With Their Heads

Laura Kipnis dives into the space between power and authority to think about how traditional gender roles help create a culture of misogyny. Comparing the current cultural upheaval to a revolutionary Reign of Terror, Kipnis argues that the feudal lords are being toppled and dragged into the public square. This moment is nothing short of a gender revolution.

“Every revolution has its weapons of choice—once it was muskets and guillotines, this time around it’s “sharing” and media exposure. It wasn’t heads that were rolling, it was careers: contracts yanked, deals canceled, agents quitting, e-mail accounts shuttered. Career death is hardly nothing—it’s the modern equivalent of losing everything. (When the Times recently compiled the names of twenty-four prominent men accused of sexual harassment, it did rather bring to mind the spectacle of heads on a pike in a public square. The name conspicuously absent, unfortunately, was our groper-in-chief Donald Trump, who’s thus far managed to slither away from the variety of sexual charges lodged against him.)”

In her carefully woven analysis, Kipnis hones in on something observed and yet rarely spoken—the men at the top who abuse their power position are often not sexually desirable themselves:

“About those chopped-down potentates and lords: many of them, one couldn’t help but notice, were not the most attractive specimens on the block: bulbous, jowly men; fat men who told women they needed to lose weight; ugly men drawn to industries organized around female appearance. Men with weird hair. Is it wrong of me to bring this up? We do, after all, move through the world as embodied creatures. I wondered what it felt like, if you’re such a guy, one who’s managed to accrue some significant portion of power in the world but you’re still you—coercing sex out of underlings. When you look in the mirror, is it a great white hunter you see staring back, with women as your game of choice? Sure you’ve won, you’re on top, but isn’t every win a tiny jab of confirmation about your a priori loathsomeness? If sexual domination assuages something for certain men, is it because somewhere inside lives a puny threatened runt, and extracting sexual compliance is some form of recompense? One woman, who’d fought off the advances of a naked, pleading film producer, recalled that he thereupon broke into tears and said she’d “rejected him because he was fat.”

The essay centers around a review of former Miss America Gretchen Carlson’s recently released book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back.

“It was Carlson’s good fortune that her new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, came out two weeks after the first round of charges against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, reminding the world that she’d been the one to light the fuse that started the conflagration. Carlson’s 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox chairman Roger Ailes netted her a $20 million settlement, an apology from Fox, and Ailes’s head on a platter, handed to her by Rupert Murdoch fils. (Murdoch père then tendered Ailes a $40 million parting gift; Ailes died the following year.) Unfortunately you won’t learn any of this from Be Fierce—you don’t get $20 million without a nondisclosure agreement.”

Kipnis focuses on the toxic nature of many work places like FOX news, where women are expected to perform a certain objectified and submissive role.

“Then there’s the trademark Fox mouth: lips glossed to perpetual blow-job readiness. One illuminating tidbit from Sherman’s reporting is provided by a former Fox makeup artist who tells of female anchors dropping by to get their makeup done before private meetings with Ailes. “I’m going to see Roger, gotta look beautiful!” they’d say; at least one of them resurfaced post-meeting with the makeup on nose and chin gone.

I’m not saying that women get harassed because of the way they dress. The point is that the way Ailes expected “his” women to dress makes clear the role they were expected to play: receptacles. Whether that means blowing the boss or swallowing male fantasies generally, that’s the visual. If those who signed on had difficulty speaking out about harassment in the workplace because they felt shame regarding the trade-offs they’d made—and many have said that they did—shame is what women are meant to feel in this equation. Shame is what they’re there to absorb. Women get to be the dumping ground for every form of male weakness and self-loathing that can be offloaded onto them. The convenience of misogyny is that men are spared from hating themselves because they have women to hate instead.”

Kipnis raises a rather uncomfortable, but necessary question: If the demand of the moment is for men to be better men, then how might women be better, too? That is, how do we perform a subjectivity that is overly submissive to the sexual desires of men. It’s clear, from Kipnis’ perspective, that a lot of these men like Weinstein simply see women as receptacles for their own egos. Women become the mirror objects that shore up what power and prowess they think they have. So, how might we stop performing this function?

As the heads are piling up in the public square, defrocked and disarmed, we need to ask: can a gender revolution of this nature fundamentally reshape gender norms? Can it reshape the way some men see women as mere receptacles? Kipnis seems to get away with asking how women also participate in these power exchanges, because she’s affirmative of the revolution. Until men see women as full-fledged human beings, she says, the floodgates will remain open. Like Michele Goldberg at the New York Times, Kipnis seems willing to make the political calculation and allow innocents to be sacrificed in a necessary purging.

If nothing else, the essay reveals the violent side of what is happening right now. Hannah Arendt was critical of the French Revolution in part because it was motivated by passion and executed by violence. And for Arendt, both passion and violence rest outside the proper realm of politics. We should not make a feast of this moment. There needs to be serious political discussion about power, desire, and recognition. About how gender roles are performed, and expectations, and sexual predilections come into existence. Until then, men are never going to see women as equals.

– Samantha Hill

What Makes a Man Start Fires?

Richard Fausset interviewed a white nationalist and fascist for the New York Times. The interview caused a storm of protest. Fausset then published a short account explaining what he did and did not learn from interviewing a white nationalist.

“Why did this man — intelligent, socially adroit and raised middle class amid the relatively well-integrated environments of United States military bases — gravitate toward the furthest extremes of American political discourse?….

On the phone, Mr. Hovater responded to my question by rattling off names of libertarian academics, making references to sci-fi movies and describing, yet again, his frustration with what he described as the plodding and unjust nature of American democracy. As he did so, I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?”

To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods.

Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader.

I beat myself up about all of this for a while, until I decided that the unfilled hole would have to serve as both feature and defect. What I had were quotidian details, though to be honest, I’m not even sure what these add up to. Like other committed extremists I have known, Mr. Hovater had little time for a life beyond his full-time job and his line of activism. When he is not doing those things, he likes to be at home with his girlfriend (now his wife) and their cats.

Mr. Hovater was exceedingly candid with me — often shockingly so — but it seems as though his worldview was largely formed by the same recombinant stuff that influences our mainstream politics. There were exceptions, of course: I saw, on his bookshelf, two volumes of Helena Blavatsky’s “The Secret Doctrine,” 19th-century work of esoteric spiritualism whose anti-Semitism influenced Nazi thinking.

But even if I had called Mr. Hovater yet again — even if we had discussed Blavatsky at length, the way we did his ideas about the Federal Reserve Bank — I’m not sure it would have answered the question.

What makes a man start fires?””

The Lists Continue

This week more than 200 women working in national security signed an open letter saying that they have survived sexual harassment and assault. “This is not just a problem in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, newsrooms or Congress,” reads the letter, which was shared with TIME. “These abuses are born of imbalances of power and environments that permit such practices while silencing and shaming their survivors.”  

The open letter is titled #metoonatsec, a reference to the “Me Too” movement which sprung up on social networks in October over sexual harassment in the aftermath of explosive reports about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of abusive behavior, along with allegations about other notable men.

Meanwhile, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published an open call for people in higher education to submit stories of sexual harassment, anonymously if they wish.

“In the last month, a drumbeat of revelations about powerful men in Hollywood and other industries has forced a public reckoning with sexual harassment. Even before the recent flood of accusations, some academic disciplines were known for fostering climates that are hostile to women. Now, many people in higher education are talking about what risk factors make harassment especially pervasive in their chosen fields. Some of them are calling for tougher punishments for people found to have harassed others, too.”

It’s not clear how the Chronicle plans on researching or confirming the anonymous allegations they receive. Or, if they just plan to publish a list of names, or the stories without the names at all. On the bright side, this might free up some tenure lines.

And, Dana Nessel, candidate for Attorney General in Michigan, released a campaign ad offering a solution to the endemic of sexual harassment altogether: Elect women to public office because they don’t have penises:

Black Power

Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues that the rise of Black political power has changed the debate over Civil War monuments.

“Last year, the writer David Rieff, in a book titled “In Praise of Forgetting,” warned against what he called “too much remembering”: the inculcation of new collective memories and the creation of new monuments almost inevitably leads to new forms of injury. Rieff wrote, “Far too often collective historical memory as understood and deployed by communities, peoples, and nations . . . has led to war rather than peace, to rancor and ressentiment . . . rather than reconciliation, and to the determination to exact revenge rather than commit to the hard work of forgiveness.” When a Southern city takes down a Confederate monument, it rights an old wrong, and removes the source of an old grievance. But it also risks creating a new grievance, among those who believe their own history has been excised.

The idealistic approach to Confederate monuments—the one favored, at least until recently, by most of the Democratic Party—is to transform their meaning. In theory, this is a way out of the grievance trap. But the larger and more significant a monument is, the harder it is to transform. This is an acute problem in Richmond. The city, the journalist Tony Horwitz noted, in his 1998 book “Confederates in the Attic,” is “a vast cenotaph of secession, with tens of thousands of rebel graves, countless monuments, and the remains of Confederate bulwarks, armories, hospitals, prisons, old soldiers’ homes.” During Reconstruction, Richmond installed the mammoth Confederate heroes of Monument Avenue, where mansions were built for a resurgent white aristocracy. In 1996, the city added a bronze of Arthur Ashe, the tennis star and civil-rights hero. But, as Edward Ayers, a Civil War historian and a former president of the University of Richmond, told me, that “still doesn’t solve the problem of the monuments we have.”

This past June, Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney, a thirty-six-year-old African-American and a Democrat, created his own monuments commission, to propose ways of transforming Monument Avenue without moving any of the statues. But, in the wake of the rally in Charlottesville, Stoney went further, as much of the Virginia Democratic Party had, and asked the commission to consider whether the statues should be taken down. “I personally believe they are offensive and need to be removed,” he said.

When I visited Stoney at his downtown office this fall, I asked him what, apart from Charlottesville, had changed his mind. He told me that he had been thinking about his grandmother, who cleaned houses for a living. “Pretty much the only time black people would go into those homes on Monument Avenue would be to clean them,” Stoney said. “If we lived in Richmond, that would have been her.” The longer Confederate monuments stayed up in a predominantly black city, the more they suggested an enduring power—you could call it white supremacy—that electoral politics could not touch.

From Stoney’s office, I drove to Monument Avenue to take another look at the statue of Lee: he is on horseback, his serene gaze on the horizon. Richmond’s monuments commission has promised to deliver its final recommendations by May of 2018. Ayers told me, “What I tell people when I talk about the commission is that the loss of Heather Heyer’s life was a tragedy,” but that Richmond could be part of its redemption. “Finally, black people have some political power. They’re able to reconsider things that white people had considered settled. Nobody would have wished Charlottesville. Richmond will determine what Charlottesville meant.””

Posted on 3 December 2017 | 8:07 am

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