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Amor Mundi: War, Democracy, and Tyranny

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.

War, Democracy, and Tyranny

Andrew Sullivan reprises his argument that America is looking more and more like the late-stage democracy Plato describes in books eight and nine of The Republic. Plato shows how, in Sullivan’s words, “a late-stage democracy, dripping with decadence and corruption, with elites dedicated primarily to enriching themselves, and a people well past any kind of civic virtue, morphs so easily into tyranny.” It is not hard to see in the rebellion against the absolute license of late-stage democracy in politics today. As Sullivan writes:

“When Plato’s tyrant first comes to power — on a wave of populist hatred of the existing elites — there is a period of relative calm when he just gives away stuff: at first he promises much “in private and public, and grant[s] freedom from debts and distribute[s] land to the people and those around himself” (or, say, a trillion-dollar unfunded tax cut). He aims to please. But then, as he accustoms himself to power, and feels more comfortable, “he suspects certain men of having free thoughts and not putting up with his ruling … Some of those who helped in setting him up and are in power — the manliest among them — speak frankly to him and to one another, criticizing what is happening … Then the tyrant must gradually do away with all of them, if he’s going to rule, until he has left neither friend nor enemy of any worth whatsoever.””

Plato of course saw the oscillation between democracy, Oligarchy, and Tyranny to be a cyclical fate, something deeply inherent in human nature. What Plato does not suggest is that by bringing to light the fact that democracies tend toward tyranny, he arms democrats with the power to struggle to rejuvenate those corrupt democracies.

For Hannah Arendt, politics is never a matter of fate. Her effort to “think what we are doing” is always born of the conviction that human beings are more free to make and remake their political fate than it may seem. There are, she argues, strong and sometimes seemingly unstoppable trends. The loneliness of modern society breeds totalitarianism. The rise of science introduces certainty into human relations that opposes and threatens human freedom. The advent of automation and artificial intelligence threatens to so free mankind from labor as to render his humanity superfluous. While Arendt spent much of her life seeking to understand these real threats to human freedom, she insisted that humanity always retained the freedom to re-interpret and frustrate the seemingly unstoppable consequences of these developments.

In his essay, Sullivan also recognizes that we should not see in Plato’s account a fatalistic descent into tyranny.  Or at least he offers some hope that he may be wrong to see in Donald Trump evidence that the American experiment in democracy is teetering on the bring of tyranny.

“Part of me, of course, has long worried and hoped that my assessment of Trump as truly the tyrant of Plato’s imagination is melodramatic overkill. I’m given to excitability, even catastrophism. I’ve been wrong before. And there are many ways in which American life still seems the same. Political tribalism didn’t begin with Trump; neither did the appeal of populist authoritarianism, or the celebrification of politics. We still hold elections — even if the president asserts that they are all rigged against him. In November, we have a chance to use the ballot box to save this country, and there are some signs that a wave is building. The courts still have some independence and feistiness; the media is still free, if now accompanied by a full-bore state propaganda channel.

But I worry that the more Trump is opposed and even cornered — especially if he loses the House this fall — the more dangerous he will become. If Mueller really does have the goods, and if the Democrats storm back into congressional power, then Trump may well lash out to protect himself at all costs. We know he has no concern for the collateral damage his self-advancement has long caused in his private and public life. We know he has contempt for and boundless ignorance of liberal democracy. We know he is capable of anything — of immense cruelty and callousness, of petty revenge and reckless rhetoric, of sudden impulses and a quick temper. We also know he is commander-in-chief, who may soon need the greatest distraction of all. War is coming. And there will be nothing and no one to stop him.”

That war is coming, while not a fated certainty, does seem to be a warranted prediction. And it may be a devastating war, involving the most widespread and catastrophic use of nuclear weapons in human history. Such a war will, most certainly, open a path for a democratically elected leader with anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies to transform himself into a tyrant. But there are other possibilities as well, even in the midst of the real possibility and even the reality of war.

—Roger Berkowitz

The Rule of Law and Tyranny

William Galston quotes Senator Lindsey Graham, who predicts that if President Trump were to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, it would be the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. Graham insisted, “We’re a rule-of-law nation.” To which Galston answers: “We had better hope Mr. Graham is right.” For Galston, the American tradition of the rule of law is what will keep us from the very real danger of tyranny.

“The rule of law is what protects citizens from a government driven by the passions and prejudices of its leaders. Some laws are better than others, of course. But the basic structure of law—a system of rules applied fairly to all—is the best way to restrain the worst threats to liberty.

It is often said that the Founders established a government of laws and not of men. The truth, however, is more complicated, since laws cannot interpret or enforce themselves. Judges, juries, prosecutors and government agencies (among others) all participate in turning written words into institutional practices. Possibilities for error exist at each step. So do opportunities to turn law into an instrument of self-interest or partisan advantage.”

The appeal to the rule of law is understandable and important. That we live under a government of laws and not of men is, as Aristotle argued, one of the defining elements of a constitutional government.

At the same time, it is a mistake to think that laws themselves and the appeal to the rule of law will save us. As Hannah Arendt understood, laws and constitutions are paper tigers. In the face of political power, and even in the face of violence, laws offer little protection—unless they are defended. Even our American Constitution—insofar as it is understood as a super-rule-of-law — can be gotten around, invalidated, or simply ignored. We must, and should, defend our legal and political institutions. But Arendt understood that the true source of protection against demagogues and tyrants in the United States is not the laws, but the tradition of citizen action, civil disobedience, and local power.

“Consent and the right to dissent became the inspiring and organizing principles of action that taught the inhabitants of this continent the ‘art of associating together,’ from which sprang those voluntary associations whose role Tocqueville was the first to notice, with amazement, admiration, and some misgiving; he thought them the peculiar strength of the American political system…. Alas, under the condition of mass society, especially in the big cities, it is no longer true that their spirit ‘pervades every act of social life,’ and while this may have resulted in a certain decline in the huge number of joiners in the population… the perhaps welcome refusal to form associations ‘for the smallest undertakings’ is paid for by an evident decline in the appetite for action…. It is my contention that civil disobedients are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association, and that they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.”

The lesson Arendt took from the Civil Rights Movement and other democratic struggles is that civil disobedience and citizen action—and not simply faith in the rule of law—are what can protect the United States from the descent into tyranny. Which is why the 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference will be on “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.” Save the Date, Oct. 11-12, 2018.

—Roger Berkowitz

The Free Press and Democracy

Miklos Haraszti, in Vienna, 3 July 2008.

The Hungarian scholar, activist, and journalist Miklos Haraszti spoke at the European Press Prize ceremony in Budapest this month. Detailing the pessimism that can follow from the rise of illiberal democracy in Hungary, Haraszti speaks to “our common experience that democracy’s institutions must sooner or later get into trouble if the trust in the media is shaken. I wished to assure you that in this country, however heavy the assault of illiberal populism and crony capitalism, the trust in a shared sense of media freedom is alive and ready to strike back.” Haraszti offers the hope that even amidst the rise of illiberal democracy, there are ways that the people can fight back against the tyrannical and totalitarian desire to create a total and dominating fictional reality.

“Here [in Budapest] you find an audience which can fully appreciate the dangers that the established democracies face when outside forces pump fake news into the public space.

We share your indignation hearing about the most impertinent of all fake news, which is when populist politicians cry fake news, slandering the work of responsible journalists. The honest media has become an enemy because it is NOT fake.

But what you will experience in this country is not any more manipulations of social media, utilizing commercial algorithms of the big-data companies to distribute their garbage.

Instead, the illiberal propaganda state has become a troll factory itself. Its main objective is not simply the spreading of “alternative facts” – the aim is to squeeze out all alternatives to fake news.

As you can guess, this cannot be achieved within the media production cycle alone. To achieve this, you need fake democracy, a fake market, and fake constitutionalism.

I recommend studying the propaganda state as inherent in the warning signs you already experience at home.

Notwithstanding their camouflage of an elective democracy, these states are able to achieve a deep-seated censorship and propaganda effect, comparable to what the erstwhile totalitarian states had accomplished.

How does it work? Hanna[h] Arendt  has told us, and the method has not changed. The essence, she told us, was a concentrated state effort to actually build the fake realities, and then give up on argumentation, and only finger point at that convenient new reality. Think of the fake civil war in Ukraine to convince the public of a “fascist danger”, or the building of the border fence in Hungary, in order to convince the nation that it has to be defended, from the danger of an alien invasion and a fake Soros plan.

Naturally, Hanna[h] Arendt added, for the propaganda state to succeed, it also had to annihilate access to real news. It was one of the most sobering moments of my life when I realized that that method also works in an elective democracy, by the monopolization of broadcasting, and by fragmenting and manipulating the online social media.”

Thinking Without a Banister

Maria Popova reviews the new collection of Hannah Arendt’s posthumous essays,  Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953–1975, edited by Jerome Kohn. The Hannah Arendt Center Virtual Reading Group will be reading Thinking Without a Bannister over the next 5-6 months. The reading group is available to all members of the Arendt Center. For more information, contact us at arendt@bard.edu.

Much Bigger Than Facebook

Ethan Zuckerman argues that when Facebook permitted Cambridge Analytics to employ user data to develop psychological profiles for political purposes, Facebook acted as it is intended to act. For Zuckerman, the discomfort many feel in having their Facebook activity used to compile pychological profiles used for advertising reveals the danger in our advertising-funded model of the web.

“Speaking with Laurie Segall on CNN this week, Zuckerberg emphasized that Facebook would investigate other app makers to see if anyone else was selling psychographic data they’ve collected through the Graph API. But Zuck didn’t mention that Facebook’s business model is based on collecting this demographic and psychographic information and selling the ability to target ads to people using this data about them.

This is a known bug not just for Facebook and other social networks, but for the vast majority of the contemporary web. Like Facebook, Google develops profiles of its users, with information from people’s private searches and tools like Gmail and office applications, to help advertisers target messages to them. As you read this article on The Atlantic, roughly three dozen ad trackers are watching you, adding your interest in this story to profiles they maintain on your online behavior. (If you want to know more about who’s watching you, download Ghostery, a browser extension that tracks and can block these “third-party” trackers.) The Atlantic is not unusual. Most ad-supported websites track their users, as part of agreements that seek to make their ad inventory more valuable.

I’ve referred to this bargain, in which people get content and services for free in exchange for having persuasive messages psychographically targeted to them, as the “original sin” of the internet. It’s a dangerous and socially corrosive business model that puts internet users under constant surveillance and continually pulls our attention from the tasks we want to do online toward the people paying to hijack our attention. It’s a terrible model that survives only because we haven’t found another way to reliably support most internet content and services—including getting individuals to pay for the things they claim to value.

We become aware of how uncomfortable this model is when Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica develop personality profiles of us so they can tailor persuasive messages to our specific personal quirks, but that’s exactly what any competent advertiser is doing, every day, on nearly every site online. If that makes you feel uncomfortable: Good, it should. But the problem is way bigger than Facebook. This is a known bug not just with social networks, but with the contemporary, ad-supported web as a whole.”

Posted on 25 March 2018 | 8:17 am

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