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Amor Mundi: The Age of Loneliness?

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.

The Age of Loneliness?

Loneliness, Hannah Arendt argues, is the foundation of totalitarianism. While it is no doubt true that loneliness is an age-old human experience, it was typically a “borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age.” In the modern age, Arendt argues, loneliness “has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” It is the spread of loneliness that makes masses of people desire the “suicidal escape from this reality” that totalitarian fantasies promise. To believe in an ideological certainty—be it the superiority of Aryans, the destined rule of the working class, the power of whiteness, or the purity of social justice—is to trade the metaphysical loneliness and rootlessness of modern life for the certainty and shared purpose of mass movements. Given this deep connection between loneliness and modern forms of absolutism, Samantha Hill argues we should take seriously the sudden outbreak of stories about loneliness. —RB

“The loneliest bird in the world died last week. Nigel, a gannet bird who lived on Mana Island off the coast of New Zealand was found dead near a decoy mate he spent years trying to court. According to an article in the Washington Post, Nigel migrated to the island in 2013, which was populated with some 80 decoys birds, meant to entice other followers. Nigel fell in love with one of the wooden birds, grooming her, building her a nest, nuzzling her fading paint.

Nigel is not alone. In the past week Quartz, The Cut, the New York Times, TIME, and The Washington Post have all published articles on loneliness.

Last month Britain appointed a Minister of Loneliness to help deal with the rising rates of isolation individuals feel. Reports revealed that roughly 15 to 20 percent of British citizens regularly feel lonely. The appointment was in part a response to the 2016 murder of Jo Cox, who was killed by a man with connections to the far-right. Loneliness had been one of her primary policy issues. Prime Minister Theresa May said of the appointment:

“We should all do everything we can to see that, in Jo’s memory, we bring an end to the acceptance of loneliness for good,” May said in a statement in mid-January. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”…

It is not surprising that loneliness is appearing at this moment as a Western problem. Loneliness, as a condition of modernity, has always posed a threat to democracy. And right, democracy is suffering. The two go hand-in-hand. When people feel cast out, unable to connect and find meaning, they often turn toward social movements or ideological leaders in order to become a part of something. Theodor Adorno called this the “American Joiner Mentality.” Hannah Arendt argued that loneliness was the breeding ground for totalitarianism.”

A Boycott Proposal

Last week I discussed an essay by Roger Cohen arguing that the grave threat posed by President Trump was moral and legal corruption. I referred to an essay written shortly after the 2016 election in which Jonathan Rauch quoted Benjamin Wittes about the danger Trump posed to the norms of small ‘r’ republicanism. In that essay by Rauch, he cites Wittes who said:

“The first thing you’re going to blow through is not the laws, it’s the norms.” By “norms,” [Wittes] means such political and social customs as respecting the law, accepting the legitimacy of your political opponents, tolerating speech you disagree with, performing civic duties like voting and staying informed, treating public office with dignity, and not lying. Fervently and frequently, the Founders warned that the Constitution would stand or fall on the public’s commitment to high standards of behavior—what they called republican virtue. James Madison said “parchment barriers” could not withstand the corruption of democratic norms. George Washington, in his farewell address, said, “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” John Adams warned that “avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net.” When Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government the Constitution established, he replied: “A republic—if you can keep it.”

Now Rauch and Wittes, two of the country’s finest, most independent, and least partisan journalists, have co-authored an essay in The Atlantic that makes the case that we are at a moment of reckoning. It is time, they argue, to recognize that not only President Trump, but also the Republicans who enable him, are a clear and present danger to the republic. They call for Republicans and others to boycott the Republican Party.

“A few days after the Democratic electoral sweep this past November in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, The Washington Post asked a random Virginia man to explain his vote. The man, a marketing executive named Toren Beasley, replied that his calculus was simply to refuse to calculate. “It could have been Dr. Seuss or the Berenstain Bears on the ballot and I would have voted for them if they were a Democrat,” he said. “I might do more analyses in other years. But in this case, no. No one else gets any consideration because what’s going on with the Republicans—I’m talking about Trump and his cast of characters—is stupid, stupid, stupid. I can’t say stupid enough times.”

Count us in, Mr. Beasley. We’re with you, though we tend to go with dangerous rather than stupid. And no one could be more surprised that we’re saying this than we are.

We have both spent our professional careers strenuously avoiding partisanship in our writing and thinking. We have both done work that is, in different ways, ideologically eclectic, and that has—over a long period of time—cast us as not merely nonpartisans but antipartisans. Temperamentally, we agree with the late Christopher Hitchens: Partisanship makes you stupid. We are the kind of voters who political scientists say barely exist—true independents who scour candidates’ records in order to base our votes on individual merit, not party brand.

This, then, is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just Donald Trump; it’s the larger political apparatus that made a conscious decision to enable him. In a two-party system, nonpartisanship works only if both parties are consistent democratic actors. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for nonpartisans evaporates. We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to do as Toren Beasley did: vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).”

It is important to understand the reason Rauch and Wittes offer what they call a “counsel of desperation.” It is not their dislike for Republican policies. Nor is it simply a fear or hatred of President Trump. Instead, they argue that what motivates them is the shocking fact that the Republican Party “has proved unable or unwilling (mostly unwilling) to block assaults by Trump and his base on the rule of law. Those assaults, were they to be normalized, would pose existential, not incidental, threats to American democracy.”  Specifically, the Republicans have been unwilling (or unable) to restrain Trump’s attacks on law enforcement that is eroding the independence of the justice system; and they have looked the other way at  his encouragement of a foreign power in its meddling with United States elections. But above all, we witness the erosion of constitutional and republican norms when Republicans accept as normal attacks on the media, justice system, and civil service that would have been condemneds as outlandish and impeachable if they had been done by President Obama or a President Clinton. The situation is dire and the only way forward is for the electorate to hand Republicans a stunning defeat in November. That is why Rauch and Wittes call on all right-thinking Republicans to boycott Republicans and vote Democratic for the good of the country.

—Roger Berkowitz


Against the Boycott

Ross Douthat is one of those Republican “never-Trumpers” who is part of the target audience for Rauch and Wittes’ call for a boycott of Republicans. But Douthat demurs and pushes back. While he concedes Republican leaders should do more to rein in the President’s moral and character failings, Douthat argues that Republicans are actually succeeding in keeping the President under control.

“So according to authors who are trying to convince Trump-skeptical Republicans to vote against every single G.O.P. politician on principle, many Trump-era Republicans have 1) defended and protected a sweeping probe into their president’s campaign and possibly his family’s finances; 2) passed legislation punishing Russia for its interference; and 3) conducted a “serious Russia investigation” from within the United States Senate. All of which seems like … quite a bit? Perhaps even a sign that many prominent Republicans are not really just “enabling” Trump at all?

Now it’s quite true that other Republicans, especially in the House, have run interference for Trump’s attacks on Mueller’s probe, and encouraged rank-and-file conservatives and frequent “Hannity” viewers to believe the worst about the F.B.I. and other “deep state” organs. But partisan attacks on a special counsel’s probe are not the same thing as a sustained presidential assault on democratic institutions. Nor are angry presidential tweets that lack any sustained follow-through: If the president yells about his persecutors and little or nothing happens — the Mueller probe continues, Rod Rosenstein keeps his job, etc. — what’s undermined is presidential authority, not the rule of law.

And if many House Republicans are working to enable Trump’s authoritarian instincts while various Senate Republicans work to constrain them, surely that’s cause for precisely the kind of discriminating thinking that Wittes and Rauch want their Republican readers to rule out — for praising Richard Burr and criticizing Devin Nunes, let’s say, or for hoping Republicans keep the Senate while not minding if they lose the House, or otherwise judging conservative leaders case by case rather than insisting that they’re all rubber-stamping an incipient dictatorship.”


The Real-World Echo

Andrew Sullivan argues that the censorship and self-censorship that has been rising on elite college campuses is spreading into the wider society.

“Over the last year, the most common rebuttal to my intermittent coverage of campus culture has been: Why does it matter? These are students, after all. They’ll grow up once they leave their cloistered, neo-Marxist safe spaces. The real world isn’t like that. You’re exaggerating anyway. And so on. I certainly see the point. In the world beyond campus, few people use the term microaggressions without irony or an eye roll; claims of “white supremacy,” “rape culture,” or “white privilege” can seem like mere rhetorical flourishes; racial and gender segregation hasn’t been perpetuated in the workplace yet; the campus Title IX sex tribunals where, under the Obama administration, the “preponderance of evidence” rather than the absence of a “reasonable doubt” could ruin a young man’s life and future are just a product of a hothouse environment. And I can sometimes get carried away.

The reason I don’t agree with this is because I believe ideas matter. When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education as we have long known it toward the imperatives of an identity-based “social justice” movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well. If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristics like race or sex or sexual orientation, then sooner rather than later, this will be reflected in our culture at large. What matters most of all in these colleges — your membership in a group that is embedded in a hierarchy of oppression — will soon enough be what matters in the society as a whole.

And, sure enough, the whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit — as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege” — is increasingly suspect. The Enlightenment principles that formed the bedrock of the American experiment — untrammeled free speech, due process, individual (rather than group) rights — are now routinely understood as mere masks for “white male” power, code words for the oppression of women and nonwhites. Any differences in outcome for various groups must always be a function of “hate,” rather than a function of nature or choice or freedom or individual agency. And anyone who questions these assertions is obviously a white supremacist himself…

And yes, I’m not talking about formal rules — but norms of liberal behavior. One of them is a robust public debate, free from intimidation. Liberals welcome dissent because it’s our surest way to avoid error. Cultural Marxists fear dissent because they believe it can do harm to others’ feelings and help sustain existing identity-based power structures. Yes, this is not about the First Amendment. The government is not preventing anyone from speaking. But it is about the spirit of the First Amendment. One of the reasons I defended Katie Roiphe against a campaign to preemptively suppress an essay of hers (even to the point of attempting to sabotage an entire issue of Harper’s) is because of this spirit. She may be wrong, but that does not make her a hobgoblin whose career needs to be ended. And the impulse to intimidate, vilify, ruin, and abuse a writer for her opinions chills open debate. This is a real-world echo of the campus habit of disrupting speakers, no-platforming conservatives, and shouting people down. But now this reflexive hostility to speech is actually endorsed by writers and editors. Journalism itself has become a means of intimidating journalists.”

Stop Whispering

After much anticipation, Harper’s published Katie Roiphe’s essay on the #metoo movement this week. In it she describes about what she calls The Other Whisper Network. Much of the piece is a response to the social media attention it received before she even finished writing it. As a result, Roiphe ends up concentrating on the negative effects social media is having on this new wave of feminism. Ultimately, she sees it pushing important, critical and nuanced voices away from the conversation. After chronicling a list of insults, she asks: “With this level of thought policing, who in their right mind would try to say anything even mildly provocative or original?”

In the break of #metoo many women feel like they can’t say openly what they’re thinking for fear of reprisal. Not from men, but from other women. Instead of whispering about shitty men behind closed doors, now women are whispering about shitty feminism, and other women. This Twitter feminism, as Roiphe calls it, demands a form of moral absolutism, and she is unapologetically unwilling to go there. Instead, she leaves us in the rich complexity of what is happening. —SH

Roiphe writes,

“To hold a lot of opposites in our minds seems to be what the moment calls for, to tolerate and be honest about the ambiguities. If we are going through a true reckoning, there should be space for more authentically diverging points of view, a full range of feelings, space to hash through what is and is not sexual misconduct, which is an important and genuinely confusing question about which reasonable people can and will disagree.”

Humor-Positive Feminism

The politics of #metoo, and direct accusations against several prominent male comedians, has exposed a crack in the facade of modern comedy: sexual assault as a topic of humor. Danielle Bobker presents three questions addressing “principles and practices for humor-positive feminism.”

“There are of course, limits to the comparison of sex and humor, especially given that the impact of hetero-patriarchy on sex is much more immediately visible. Nevertheless, I would suggest that sexuality and humor are not merely analogous, but are in fact overlapping categories of feminist experience. Both are understood to be culturally coded but with powerful bases in the body. Like sex, laughter has historically been considered an unruly instinct, even by the very philosophers who have most rigorously examined it. As scholars like Anca Parvulescu, John Morreall, and Linda Mizejewski have variously shown, the stigma of humor, like that of sex, has been intricately interwoven with its designation as an irrational impulse and with gendered and racialized notions of embodiment. Moreover, there is a shared double standard regarding both laughter and sex: both have been imagined, paradoxically, as things that men have to cajole “respectable” (implicitly white, cisgendered, pretty, heterosexual) women to do and, at the same time, as things that transgressive women instinctively want to do, in excess. The dangers of both sex and humor have been encapsulated in the figure of a woman open-mouthed and out of control. In the early ’80s, the influential sexuality scholar Gayle Rubin observed that the most common symptom of our culture’s general fear of sex, or “sex negativity” as she called it, is the very impulse “to draw and maintain an imaginary line between good and bad sex.” That is, while various mainstream discourses of sex differ from one another in terms of the value systems they deploy and their level of overt misogyny, their views of sex are, ultimately, remarkably uniform: “Most of the discourses on sex, be they religious, psychiatric, popular, or political, delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as sanctifiable, safe, healthy, mature, legal, or politically correct” and, once the lines are drawn, “[o]nly sex acts on the good side […] are accorded moral complexity.” Wary of simply rerouting sexual shame, sex-positive feminists instead actively cultivated a nonjudgmental stance.”

Oppressive Symbolism

Joshua Rhett Miller reports on an incident at Princeton University, where complaints have been filed against a Professor for using the n-word in class.

“An anthropology professor at Princeton University allegedly used the n-word multiple times during a lecture this week, prompting several students to walk out as well as an expletive-laced in-class confrontation.

Several students told The Daily Princetonian that professor Lawrence Rosen used the word “n—-r” when asking a question Tuesday during his Anthropology 212 course, “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy and Pornography.”

“What is worse, a white man punching a black man, or a white man calling a black man a n—-r?” Rosen allegedly said during a lecture on oppressive symbolism.”

I was teaching Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech last week. She asks the question: How do words wound? It is an essential question and she offers an answer: We are all constituted by language. We have identities and see ourselves as dignified persons. When someone addresses us and uses a word that has concrete historical connotations of denigration, such an address can undermine our own ability to define ourselves. Now it is true that no one can fully define themself. All of us have to deal with people and institutions and events that frustrate our efforts at self-definition. It is also true that such addresses are not always successful. We can, and often do, resist and even find power in countering the linguistic degradations by others. But this does not change the fact that words can undermine; they can get under our skin; and they can demean and denigrate. And yet, as powerful as words are—as like to violence as they may be—they still are not the same as a punch or a bullet.  it is a good question that Professor Rosen asked his class.

I know in my class discussion about hate speech, most students used the shortened form n-word. One African American student was the first to say the full word out loud. And I know that I was unsure of whether to put the word into the room from out of the mouth of the professor.

Not having been there, I can’t judge the context and tone with which Professor Rosen employed the full n-word and apparently did so multiple times. Whether or not his use was necessary and justified, we do need to be able to have real discussions about deeply important and difficult questions. With that in mind, it is worth considering that at least one member of the faculty is supporting Professor Rosen. In a letter to the editor, anthropology department chair Carolyn Rouse argued that Rosen was right to use the n-word and that he was importantly trying to help the “students to move beyond their common sense” to see how culture has shaped their beliefs. —RB

Rouse wrote:

“Importantly, why did Rosen’s example of a student wiping her feet on the American flag not elicit any anger, while the use of the N-word did? In a different setting — a different university for example — the student response might have been the reverse. A student wiping his or her feet on the American flag might have caused a riot. So, whose feelings should the law protect? And why? This is a critical question now before the courts. Should a baker, for instance, be allowed to refuse service to a gay couple because he or she finds homosexuality offensive or blasphemous? For students who would like to be able to answer those questions, for students who are interested in law for example, Rosen’s course helps do just that.

In the last two years academic institutions have been caricatured as liberal bastions for snowflakes. Actually, that has never been the case. In the Department of Anthropology, for example, our entire pedagogical mission has never been about reaffirming the political points of view of the day, right or left. Our goal is to get students to move beyond their common sense to see how culture has shaped their beliefs and emotions. If our students leave our classes knowing exactly what they knew when they entered, then we didn’t do our jobs.”

Posted on 11 February 2018 | 8:00 am

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