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Amor Mundi: No Politics is Possible

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.

No Politics is Possible?

Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the The Woman’s March, is embroiled in controversy because of her support for Louis Farrakhan. Many on the left see Mallory’s support as delegitimating the Women’s March. Masha Gessen turns to Hannah Arendt to try to understand the way “oddly satisfying position” of those who would condemn The Women’s March for its association with someone who associates with anti-semites. The danger of such satisfaction is, as Gessen argues, the loss of politics. And yet, even as Gessen fears the loss of politics, she embraces the feeling of helplessness of the age and argues that we live in a time when no politics is possible. Such fatalism, however, abandons the faith in politics and revolution at the center of Arendt’s thinking. —Roger Berkowitz

“That feeling of righteousness is familiar to me from living in Russia. That’s a country that has, among other things, been killing its dissidents and exiles—through arranging car accidents, hiring icepick- or gun-wielding assassins, and, most consistently, through poisoning, as in the recent incident in Britain—for nearly a hundred years. When you are staring clear, unadulterated evil in the face—and a state that routinely practices political murder is certainly clear, unadulterated evil—your options crystallize. Politics begins to permeate everything, obliterating the division between public and private, but also imbuing action and speech with exhilarating meaning. Hannah Arendt wrote about this state of being in “Between Past and Future,” describing the private citizens who had become members of the French Resistance: “He who joined the Resistance found himself. . . . He ceased to be in quest of himself, without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction. . . . He who no longer suspected himself on insincerity, of being a carping suspicious actor of life . . . could afford to go naked. In this nakedness, stripped of all masks . . . they had been visited, for the first time in their lives, by an apparition of freedom.” Arendt might have been writing about Mallory, other Women’s March leaders, and many of the activists who have emerged since the election of Donald Trump. Their sense of purpose is palpable. But in the case of Mallory, it seems that what she thought of as a private, basically familial association with Farrakhan has taken on public, explicitly political meaning.

In her other work, Arendt showed that she was suspicious of the comfort and cohesion that stem from living under political siege. That sense of mission is a symptom of the disappearance of politics. Politics is not a war; it is the coöperation of people with disparate views, needs, and interests. “The art of compromise,” distilled from Bismarck’s definition of politics as “the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best,” is not the worst description.

But is compromise possible with a bigot? Can someone who won’t denounce a bigot be acceptable as the “next best”? Could one say that Mallory is just one of several leaders of an organization whose agenda speaks for itself, or is this bigotry by proxy so virulent that nothing but a purge can save the March now? In other words, is Farrakhan’s bigotry the same sort of unmitigated evil as, say, the murderous Russian state? (In The Atlantic, John-Paul Pagano does a thorough job of excavating the resentments and alliances that lie at the root of Farrakhan’s brand of anti-Semitism; on the other hand, in Russia, the case for political murder has been typically grounded in Russia’s litany of grievances against the West.) It’s hard, if not impossible, to make the case for compromise with—or in any way involving—Farrakhan. No politics is possible here.”

Confusing the Obvious

Robert Boyers wants to take seriously the recent focus on acknowledging privileges. There are real forms of privilege that should be interrogated in the name of comprehending and bettering society. But while the focus on privilege can be salutary, it can also and has also been perverted to simplify thinking, reduce individuals to identities, and deny obvious and meaningful distinctions.

“The most promising feature of the privilege turn was its focus not on the kinds of privilege everyone can see for themselves—expensive private schools, 10-bedroom vacation homes, inordinate tax breaks or deductions available only to the wealthy—but instead on advantages unacknowledged and pernicious. For a while it seemed a good idea to dwell upon the hypocrisies that allowed us to proceed as if class inequities were not major factors in the system that supported our habits and assumptions. We were moved to learn things we wanted somehow not to learn: that housing laws designed to help returning GIs discriminated against black veterans; that college admissions boards, even where inclined to diversify their student bodies, continued to rely upon protocols that would ensure acceptance mainly for the wealthy or the otherwise privileged; that apparently trivial slights or insults might conceivably affect people in disastrous ways, while allowing those responsible for the insults to proceed as if nothing consequential had transpired. Rankine and Loffreda argue that “whiteness has veiled from them their own power to wound,” and though what they call the “recourse to innocence: I did not mean to do any harm” has rightly been called out within the framework of “privilege,” it is surely legitimate to ask where this initially promising thrust has taken us.

For one thing, it has taken us to the domain of cliché and pure assertion. Nothing is easier than to wield the charge of privilege and thereby to win instant approval, nothing easier than to beat oneself up now and then for enjoying privilege while pretending to solidarity with the disadvantaged. There is comedy in the rush of the well-heeled and enlightened to affirm their virtue by signaling their guilt and their difference from those who have not yet mastered the rituals of self-disparagement and privilege bashing required of them. And there is temptation, surely, in the prospect of constructing a privilege-free profile: in my case, for example, by citing my own less-than-exalted childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, my struggles in three years of remedial speech courses, not to mention the fact that I could never have succeeded in life by virtue of good looks or an impressively masculine baritone voice. Thus, competitively speaking, in the precinct shaped by the privilege obsession, here I stand, nearly virtuous, though white, to be sure, and though not completely powerless, near enough to having been so to qualify for a modicum of sympathy.

The absurdity inherent in all of this should not obscure the damage it has wrought: damage in sowing confusion even about the obvious—about the difference between what is important and less important, between doing what is injurious and being deficient in doing what is positively good, between sponsoring injustice and simply living more or less modestly in an imperfect world. To be unable to make these kinds of elementary distinctions is to be radically impaired, and there seems to me no question that the tendency to invoke privilege has exacerbated that impairment. There was, at the heart of the privilege turn, an aspiration to enlightenment. But the partisans committed to promoting the privilege critique are mainly interested in drawing hard lines separating the guilty from the saved, the serenely oblivious from the righteous, fiercely aggrieved, and censorious.”

Imagining Equality

It is a truism that inequality is basic to human existence. As small bands of individuals morph into cities and civilizations, distinctions and inequalities emerge. There is a need for governors and thus for the governed. Slaves and stratifications emerge. The noble savage has transformed into the corrupted man of civilization. While well-meaning idealists might dream of eradicating inequality, the fact is that human civilization is impossible without distinction and inequality. This is a seemingly unassailable story. But David Graeber and David Wengrow aim to challenge this narrative. They argue that there is anthropological and historical evidence that shows that there have been complex and successful human civilizations that existed without inequality. In doing so, Graeber and Wengrow seek to reveal our prejudices in favor of inequality and expand our sense of the possible.

“For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true….

The pieces are there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.”

The Male Glance

Lili Loofbourow argues that the male glance disallows and refuses art made by women, unable to accept the fullness of the woman.

“To be clear, the show about boys got way too much credit, and the show about girls got way too little. This is how we approach male vs. female work. Let’s call it the “male glance,” the narrative corollary to the male gaze. We all have it, and it’s ruining our ability to see good art.

The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in an absolutely massive talent drain. We’ve been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we were so bad at seeing it.

A nefarious impulse strikes when we look at faces. It’s the result of advertising combined with centuries of male-dominated image-making. Perhaps you’ve noticed: When you look at a face you’ve been told is female, you critique it at a much higher resolution than you do that same face if it’s labeled male. Women’s skin should be smoother. We detect wrinkles, discolorations, and pores and subtract them from a woman’s beauty in ways we don’t if that same face is presented to us as masculine.

There’s a long history to grading aesthetics on a gendered curve, and we’re often tempted to consign the bad habit to history in hopes that we’ve evolved. Unfortunately, our philosophy outpaces our snap judgments. A famous Susan Sontag meditation on this aesthetic paradigm is worth repeating:

The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks—heavier, rougher, more thickly built.…There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.

This is not an essay about beauty, it’s an essay about story, but we perpetuate a critical (rather than cosmetic) version of the double standard Sontag describes here when we encounter female-driven texts. The relevant cognitive processes are intertextual, entwined. If our ability to see detail in a woman’s face is magnified by our visual habits, our ability to see complexity in a woman’s story is diminished by our reading habits. Centuries of experience in looking at the one through a magnifying glass has engendered a complementary practice of looking at the other through the wrong end of a telescope. Faced with a woman’s story, we’re overtaken with the swift taxonomic impulse an amateur astronomer feels on spotting Sirius—there it is! he says, and looks to the next star. It’s a pleasant activity because it organizes and confirms, but it produces the fantasy that a lazy reading—not even a reading but a looking—is adequate, sufficient, complete, correct.”

The Misogynist Imaginary

George Yancy interviews Drucilla Cornell about feminist responses to the #metoo movement. Cornell, a regular speaker at Hannah Arendt Center events, argues that male sexual predators are born of terror—fear of seeing a full and mature feminine woman.

The male pornographic imaginary is clearly a larger problem. But the men being named are symptoms of an even deeper one — male terror of the power of the female body to give and take away life.

The images of man as predator make it seem as though they are in charge, they have the power to bring women, often literally, to their knees. But behind this is fear and anxiety. Female bodies must be turned into objects of pleasure that can never be imagined as a whole person because it would be too scary. We have foot men, breast men and rear-end men because an embodied woman with a face, a life and a voice is something they cannot face up to.

We see this in all the legislation that attempts to control the power of women to give life and death. The endless battles against the right to abortion, the attempt to censor birth control, the demands of men that they can weigh into the decision when a woman has an abortion. Are these men powerful in the world? Unquestionably. Did they abuse their power? Unquestionably. But psychically the misogynist imaginary is one full of fear and terror of the scariest thing imaginable; a woman with power, her own voice, and her own life.

Fear is no excuse. We have to call them out as the wimps that they are. Powerful in their day to day life at work, terrified in their lives as sexual predators. That said, we need to have a deeper understanding of how the misogynist imaginary is related to the suppression in our society of the significance of the maternal body. How do we fight this horrific abuse of masculine power and at the same time understand that the misogynist imaginary is rooted in fear?

Posted on 11 March 2018 | 8:00 am

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