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Amor Mundi: Weak Comparisons

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.

Weak Comparisons

The comparisons between President Trump and Adolf Hitler are multiplying. Somehow, this week, the President’s stupid and mean and racially charged calling of certain poor countries with black populations “shitholes” has re-energized those who see the President as an authoritarian and totalitarian rule. This despite the fact that the entire political establishment—federal and local as well as Democrat and Republican—repudiated Trump’s remarks. Corey Robin does some empirical history to remind us of the vast differences between one year of Trump and one year of Hitler.

Many of Hitler’s opponents did initially dismiss him as a buffoon. But one year into power? They either were dead, in concentration camps or running for their lives.

Ironically, in the same article, Yglesias offers an excellent if unintentional rebuttal to his own analogy:

Public opinion polling suggests that the merged Trump-establishment party is hideously unpopular and headed for electoral defeat. If that happens and Democrats gain control of at least one house of Congress, then the system of checks and balances will begin to operate as designed.”

Imagine a comparable passage in January 1934, one year into Hitler’s reign of terror. It only works as satire or science fiction.

As soon as Trump became a serious contender for the presidency, journalists and historians began analogizing him to Hitler. Even the formulator of Godwin’s Law, which was meant to put a check on the reductio ad Hitlerum, said: “Go ahead and refer to Hitler when you talk about Trump.” After Trump’s election, the comparisons mounted, for understandable reasons.

But as we approach the end of Trump’s first year in power, the Hitler analogies seem murky and puzzling, less metaphor than mood.

Just consider that this was a year that saw:

Perhaps some literalness is in order.

On 19 January 1934, the 354th day of Hitler’s reign, the Nazi regime closed the Kemna concentration camp, where anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 political prisoners – most of them Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists – had been held and tortured (the press spoke obliquely of “enhanced interrogations”) for months. People could hear the prisoners’ screams from almost a half-mile away. The prisoners were moved to other concentration camps.

On 9 January 2018, the 354th day of Trump’s reign, the president was anxiously monitoring news of a best-selling book – filled with leaks from his own top advisers, testifying to the addled state of his mind and rule – hoping against hope to stop any and all discussion of his fitness for office.

Trump’s lawyers had already tried to force the book’s publisher and author to cease publication, issue a retraction, and apologize. Their reply? We “do not intend to cease publication, no such retraction will occur, and no apology is warranted”.”

Ugly Truths

“Funny things are often mean,” writes Titus Techera. This means that comedy is threatened when we can’t laugh at our own or others’ expense. Techera respects what he calls the “agony of comedy,” which reveals to ourselves that fact that we are both “more noble and more contemptible than we are supposed to be.” Comedy attacks our pride and our hypocrisy. It reminds us all of our human foibles. But in a hyper-partisan age, comedy is in danger of taking sides and losing its humanity. Which is why Techera applauds the new comedy special by Dave Chappelle; Techera argues that Chappelle’s comedy is important because it tells ugly truths.

Dave Chappelle starts his new Netflix comedy special, The Bird Revelation, with a brief statement of the problem of democracy. Funny things are often mean, and everything’s funny until it happens to you. It’s hard to have comedy anymore for that reason. We cannot bear the thought that the public would like to humiliate us. The problem is not one comedian who says something nasty — it’s how many people spontaneously laugh, and thereby reveal that they take pleasure in our humiliation. That makes us lonely, which is hard to bear. Jokes are inevitably at someone’s expense, and we the people cannot tolerate to be laughed at. We live with this fear of public humiliation, and our nice, inclusive public life is all about avoiding giving and taking offense, which ends up killing comedy, albeit unwittingly. This is because we take insult at so many things directed not at us personally but at any number of more or less abstract group identities. We become outraged early and often these days, and that reveals, behind the labels and categories of politics, our existential fears and a deeply personal sense of shame. Comedy becomes a mere weapon of partisanship. This is because the primary way we take responsibility for public things is to divide them up into partisan camps where people have to be nice to each other, savage to the other camp. You can humiliate people of the other party, but not of your own. We split human nature into parts we like and parts we don’t — and then congratulate ourselves for perpetrating this mutilation! But of course comedy is part of our nature, just like indignation, and it should give us a self-understanding broader than mere partisanship. For that’s what lies behind the enthusiasm and hysteria of politics: human nature, the one thing that cannot be discussed in public in America. But we all know it is there and we know that we cannot remove from our nature our awareness that we constantly, inevitably, do and say crazy and stupid things, often without realizing it. That flaw is part of our nature, and so is the knowledge of it. We are defined by knowing how ridiculous we can be. Once you see this, you begin to suspect that we organize a lot of partisanship just to be able to acknowledge, without feeling ashamed of ourselves, the crazy built into human nature — it’s only the other party who is flawed and laughable….

So listen to Chappelle, because he gives you ugly truths with every laugh, and that is true morality — the things you admit are true against your own vanity or self-righteousness. He tells you, yes, that Martin Luther King Jr. had affairs with women and was immoral — but he was also a moral and political hero, and better than the people, liberal and conservative, who wanted to bring him down by spying on his sexual misconduct. Maybe it’s not an accident that he was also the last political champion of natural rights. Yes, liberals want progress, but they also have to learn to stop fainting like fainting goats. It’s bad for them and bad for America and bad for comedy, because you can’t laugh if you’re busy throwing fits.”

Making Us Dumber

Jesse Singal writes about the viral video that appears to show Steven Pinker praising racists. It was misleading. For Singal, this is further evidence of how social media is making us dumb.

“This week, a video surfaced of a Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, which appeared to show him lauding members of a racist movement. The clip, which was pulled from a November event at Harvard put on by Spiked magazine, showed Mr. Pinker referring to “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right” and calling them “internet savvy” and “media savvy.”

The clip went viral. The right celebrated; the left fumed. The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website ran an article headlined, in part, “Harvard Jew Professor Admits the Alt-Right Is Right About Everything.” A tweet of the video published by the self-described “Right-Wing Rabble-Rouser” Alex Witoslawski got hundreds of retweets, including one from the white-nationalist leader Richard Spencer.

“Steven Pinker has long been a darling of the white supremacist ‘alt-right,’” noted the lefty journalist Ben Norton. “And he returns the favor.” Others reacted to the rumor with simple exasperation: “Christ on a crutch,” said the liberal commentator and biologist PZ Myers, who also wrote a blog post denouncing Mr. Pinker for this supposed alliance.

The idea that Mr. Pinker, a liberal, Jewish psychology professor, is a fan of a racist, anti-Semitic online movement is absurd on its face, so it might be tempting to roll your eyes and dismiss this blowup as just another instance of social media doing what it does best: generating outrage.

But it’s actually a worthwhile episode to unpack, because it highlights a disturbing, worsening tendency in social media in which tribal allegiances are replacing shared empirical understandings of the world. Or maybe “subtribal” is the more precise, fitting term to use here. It’s one thing to say that left and right disagree on simple facts about the world — this sort of informational Balkanization has been going on for a while and long predates Twitter. What social media is doing is slicing the salami thinner and thinner, as it were, making it harder even for people who are otherwise in general ideological agreement to agree on basic facts about news events.

That’s because the pernicious social dynamics of these online spaces hammer home the idea that anyone who disagrees with you on any controversial subject, even a little bit, is incorrigibly dumb or evil or suspect. On a wide and expanding range of issues, there’s no such thing as good-faith disagreement.

The online anger aimed at Mr. Pinker provides a perfect case study.

The clip was deeply misleading. If you watch the whole eight-minute video from which it was culled, it’s clear that Mr. Pinker’s entire point is that the alt-right’s beliefs are false and illogical — but that the left needs to do a better job fighting against them.”

Time to Resist

Andrew Sullivan argues that it is time to resist the #metoo movement.

“No one is or should be defending abuse of power. It’s foul. I’m glad certain monsters have been toppled. (For the record, I routinely believe the women in specific cases. I believed Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick and did so on the record.) But nuance, context, and specifics matter. The Deneuve letter rightly insisted: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.” The manifesto observed the censorious Victorianism about some of the rhetoric, and the public invasion of private matters. But the French signatories also worried about due process: “This expedited justice already has its victims, men prevented from practicing their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual.” South Park, as usual, was ahead of the curve. Its season finale last month portrayed an office romance between PC Principal and a new character, Strong Woman. And at the mere suggestion of an affair between them, everyone instantly projectile vomits in disgust. What other response could there be to the idea of a relationship between co-workers?

And this week, rumors spread of the impending publication of an essay by Katie Roiphe in Harper’s magazine that might take a similarly skeptical tack. Some believed that Roiphe might even hold the instigator of the legendary Shitty Media Men list accountable, and that this person might thereby be subjected to online abuse. And so a Twitter campaign was launched, in a backlash-backlash, to preemptively stop the publication of an essay no one had actually read. One Twitter activist, Nicole Cliffe, went further: “If you have a piece in the hopper over at @Harpers, ask your editor if the Roiphe piece is happening. If it is, I will pay you cash for what you’d lose by yanking it.” This strikes me as a new development for the social-justice left: They now believe in suppressing free speech — even before they know its content! It also strikes me as ominous for journalism as a whole. When journalists themselves wage campaigns to suppress the writing of other journalists, and intend to destroy a magazine for not toeing their ideological line, you can see how free speech truly is on the line. Why not simplify this and publish a blacklist of writers whose work, based on previous ideological transgressions, cannot and should not be published?

Pretty quickly, others on Left Twitter offered money for other authors to pull their pieces from the issue — and a few writers said they had agreed to do so. Cliffe was admirably blunt about her intent: “If I have my druthers, the March issue of Harper’s will consist of a now-toothless 200-word piece on the list that doesn’t name anyone and a long meditation from the editor on raw water.” Then this Twitter threat: “If Katie Roiphe actually publishes that article she can consider her career over.” Meanwhile the very people who were up in arms about possible online harassment of the list organizers, went online to call Roiphe “pro-rape,” “human scum,” “a ghoul,” a “bitch,” “the definition of basura,” a “bag of garbage,” and “a misogynistic bottom-feeder.” That’s another thing with ideological fanatics: Irony tends to elude them.”

The Radical MLK

Brandon M. Terry offers a warning to those who would cheapen Martin Luther King Jr. with too much praise.

“In the year before King’s death, he faced intense isolation owing to his strident criticisms of the Vietnam War and the Democratic Party, his heated debates with black nationalists, and his headlong quest to mobilize the nation’s poor against economic injustice. Abandoned by allies, fearing his death was near, King could only lament that his critics “have never really known me, my commitment, or my calling.”

Fifty years after his death, we are perhaps subject to the same indictment. As we grasp for a proper accounting of King’s intellectual, ethical, and political bequest, commemoration may present a greater obstacle to an honest reckoning with his legacy than disfavor did in the case of Du Bois. There are costs to canonization.

The King now enshrined in popular sensibilities is not the King who spoke so powerfully and admiringly at Carnegie Hall about Du Bois. Instead, he is a mythic figure of consensus and conciliation, who sacrificed his life to defeat Jim Crow and place the United States on a path toward a “more perfect union.” In this familiar view, King and the civil rights movement are rendered—as Cass Sunstein approvingly put it—“backward looking and even conservative.” King deployed his rhetorical genius in the service of our country’s deepest ideals—the ostensible consensus at the heart of our civic culture—and dramatized how Jim Crow racism violated these commitments. Heroically, through both word and deed, he called us to be true to who we already are: “to live out the true meaning” of our founding creed. No surprise, then, that King is often draped in Christian symbolism redolent of these themes. He is a revered prophet of U.S. progress and redemption, Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or a Christ who sacrificed his life to redeem our nation from its original sin.

Such poetic renderings lead our political and moral judgment astray. Along with the conservative gaslighting that claims King’s authority for “colorblind” jurisprudence, they obscure King’s persistent attempt to jar the United States out of its complacency and corruption. They ignore his indictment of the United States as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his critique of a Constitution unjustly inattentive to economic rights and racial redress, and his condemnation of municipal boundaries that foster unfairness in housing and schooling. It is no wonder then that King’s work is rarely on the reading lists of young activists. He has become an icon to quote, not a thinker and public philosopher to engage.

This is a tragedy, for King was a vital political thinker. Unadulterated, his ideas upset convention and pose radical challenges—perhaps especially today, amidst a gathering storm of authoritarianism, racial chauvinism, and nihilism that threatens the future of democracy and the ideal of equality. What follows is an effort to recover those unsettling ideas by shedding light on three of the most important and misunderstood elements of King’s mature thought: his analysis of racism; his political theory of direct action and civil disobedience; and his understanding of the place of ethical virtues in activism and social life.”

Why Hierarchy Matters

Hannah Arendt mused that she should have called her essay “What Is Authority?” “What Was Authority?”  Her point is that authority—unquestioned belief in the legitimacy of power and institutions—is simply incompatible with the autonomy of post-enlightenment politics. Some celebrate the loss of authority and the tumbling of hierarchy as an advance of freedom. The danger of a world without authority is that we don’t end up with freedom but the anarchy of an Hobbesian state of nature. And in such a state of nature, victory goes to the most powerful. Which is why Niall Ferguson seeks to remind us of the value of hierarchies.

“Neither history nor science predicted that everything would be awesome in a world of giant, online networks—quite the contrary. And now that it becomes clear that a networked world may be an anarchic world, we begin to see—as previous generations saw—the benefits of hierarchy.

The word hierarchy derives from ancient Greek (hierarchia, literally the “rule of a high priest”) and was first used to describe the heavenly orders of angels and, more generally, to characterize a stratified order of spiritual or temporal governance. Up until the 16th century, by contrast, the word “network” signified nothing more than a woven mesh made of interlaced thread.

For most of history, hierarchies dominated social networks, a relationship exemplified by the looming Gothic tower that overshadows the Tuscan town of Siena’s central piazza. This is roughly how most people think about hierarchies: as vertically structured organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control and communication. Historically, they began with family-based clans and tribes, out of which more complicated and stratified institutions evolved: states, churches, corporations, empires.

The crucial incentive that favored hierarchical order was that it made the exercise of power more efficient. Centralizing control in the hands of the “big man” eliminated or at least reduced time-consuming arguments about what to do, which might at any time escalate into internecine conflict. The obvious defect of hierarchy—in the mid-19th century words of Lord Acton, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”—was not by itself sufficient to turn humanity away from the rule of “big men.”

There have been only two eras of enhanced connectedness, when new technology helped social networks gain the upper hand. The second is our own age. The first began almost exactly half a millennium ago, in 1517, and lasted for the better part of three centuries.

When the printing press empowered Martin Luther’s heresy, a network was born. Luther’s dream was of a “priesthood of all believers.” The actual result of the Reformation he inspired was not harmony, but 130 years of polarization and conflict. But it proved impossible to kill Protestant networks, even with mass executions. Hierarchy had to be restored in the form of the princely states whose power the Peace of Westphalia affirmed, but this restoration was fleeting.”

Posted on 14 January 2018 | 8:00 am

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