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Amor Mundi: Why Arendt Today?

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.

Why Arendt Today?

The annual meeting of the Hannah Arendt Circle is underway at UC Davis this weekend. I just got back from a conference on Hannah Arendt in Russia. And the latest edited collection of Arendt’s works by Jerome Kohn appeared this month. As is so often the case in recent years, Arendt is pressingly relevant. In his introduction to Volume 1 of the new Journal “Arendt Studies,” James Barry reflects on why Arendt feels essential today.

—Roger Berkowitz               

“By most accounts, more people are reading Arendt’s work today than ever before. Why now? Surely it is not because we live in a more dangerous time than Arendt did herself. After all, almost everything she published while alive was written during the Second World War and the Cold War. Are our times more dangerous than hers? If so, how can that be? Perhaps it is because the political and intellectual traditions she warned were tattered and broken have fallen in even that much more disrepair and disrepute in the last y years. More radically, one could argue that the social and political methodologies we have adopted in lieu of these shattered traditions have themselves proven increasingly unproductive. Perhaps we look to her writings because we are perplexed by the rapidly changing world in which we now nd ourselves, and because so much of her work represents an e ort to decipher the perplexities of her own time. And perhaps her perplexities are our perplexities insofar as we are still concerned with how best to live in a world that does not seem hospitable to us and for which we are nonetheless responsible. One has only to scan the great number of books, essays, and articles that have been published on the many areas of Arendt’s writings in the last ten years to gain a sense of the ways in which Arendt’s questions continue to be our questions, that her concerns resonate with our concerns about the world in which we live.

Of course, those who turn to Arendt to find specific answers to the perplexing conditions of our times will be disappointed, for Arendt was always reticent to offer solutions to our fundamental political di culties. According to her, these pressing matters must be decided by public deliberation rather that by experts of any kind. For Arendt, like her hero Socrates, it was only in the pursuit of the right questions, of digging deeper than the ordinary line of thought (or sometimes not quite as deep if the line of thinking became excessively metaphysical) that we could make some progress in addressing the perplexities of our shared public existence. The questions must be asked in the right way, in the way that begins and ends with factual reality, and the questions must bear on our shared life. Only by a collaborative facing up to our confusions and delusions can we be prepared to act effectively in addressing such difficulties. And we must be prepared to engage in this shared work over and over again. There are no permanent solutions to living together in the world, but only the chance to try again when what we have planned fails to achieve our goals.

Perhaps this is why Arendt is read so much by so many people in so many places these days. Many of us have grown tired of canned recipes and stock phrases offered as solutions to our most chronic and repetitive social and political crises. Indeed, these worn out political poses and habits represent an additional source of many of the crises that confront us. We need a fresh outlook that challenges the depleted categories that have been bequeathed to us. On matters as diverse as human rights, consumerism, racial identity, and populist uprisings, Arendt’s work provides new openings for thinking and acting. Such openings offer us new possibilities as we try to gure out how best to live our common shared life. Perhaps we are now prepared to talk to one another honestly and openly about the troubles of our world, and then to act on these conversations. And perhaps we recog-nize that our actions should be collectively thoughtful, because we want to avoid as much as possible the sort of unintended consequences that only exacerbate our puzzlement.”

Thinking Without a Banister

George Prochnik discusses Thinking Without a Banister, the new volume of Hannah Arendt’s essays edited by Jerome Kohn. Kohn was at the Hannah Arendt Center this week speaking about the essays. And the Hannah Arendt Center Virtual Online Reading Group is currently reading the collection (you can sign up for the reading group here).

“What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed,” she remarked in a 1973 interview. “If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore — and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, to be ‘re-lied,’ so to speak.” A lying government pursuing shifting goals has to ceaselessly rewrite its own history, leaving people not only dispossessed of their ability to act, “but also of their capacity to think and to judge,” she declared. “And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Almost every essay in this book contains “pearls” of Arendt’s tonically subversive thinking, and many of her observations push readers to think harder about the language in which political activity is conducted. Reflecting on the numerous allusions to “reason of state” that crept into White House discourse after Watergate, she notes how the term became synonymous with national security. “National security now covers everything,” she commented, including “all kinds of crime. For instance, ‘the president has a right’ is now read in the light of ‘the king can do no wrong.’” This is no longer a matter of justifying particular crimes, she warns, but rather concerns “a style of politics which in itself is criminal.” The indictment chimes with her taxonomy of the tyrant in an essay titled “The Great Tradition”: “He pretends to be able to act completely alone; he isolates men from each other by sowing fear and mistrust between them, thereby destroying equality together with man’s capacity to act; and he cannot permit anybody to distinguish himself, and therefore starts his rule with the establishment of uniformity, which is the perversion of equality.”

Such observations should give pause to those who would prop up a tyrant for personal ends, and must redouble the opposition’s will to depose that ruler before the public’s capacity for thought and action alike is confounded.”

The Victory of Image Making

When writing about the Vietnam War after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Hannah Arendt understood that the “basic issue raised by the papers is deception.” There were numerous deceptions involved beyond lying to the American people. The most important deception was self-deception, and above all the knowledge of the fact that the war was fought “in full cognizance of the fact that [its stated goals] could not be carried out: hence the goals had constantly to be shifted.” After listing the myriad and conflicting stated goals for the war, Arendt hones in on the one overriding goal: “‘To convince the world’; to ‘demonstrate that the U.S. was a ‘good doctor’ willing to keep its promises, to be tough, take risks, get bloodied and hurt the enemy badly’;… to keep in tact an image of omnipotence, ‘our worldwide position of leadership’;… to show ‘the credibility of our pledges to friends and allies’; in short, to ‘behave like’ the ‘greatest power in the world’ for no other reason than to convince the world of this ‘simple fact’ (in Walt Rostow’s words.” In short, Arendt summarizes, the war was fought to uphold an image: “The ultimate aim was neither power nor profit. Nor was it even influence in the world in order to serve particular, tangible interests for the sake of which prestige, an image of the ‘greatest power in the world,’ was needed and purposefully used. The goal was the image itself.”

In a Tweet (and why not, that is where political discourse is supposed to happen these days) Anne-Marie Slaughter writes:

Slaughter admits the strike was illegal. She admits it will not stop the war or save the Syrian people. But it is important as an image, as a sign, that the United States will not allow our red lines in the sand to be crossed. The United States will not take in refugees. It will not arm the opponents of the Syrian regime. We will not take any serious risks or actually seek to influence the horrific war in Syria. But we will fire off some missiles and preserve our image of ourselves as warriors for human rights.

In the wake of the recent strikes on Syria, it is worth re-reading Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics,” first published in the New York Review of Books. You can read it here.


(U.S. Air Force photo/Paul Ridgeway)

Paul Scharre reflects on the militarization of artificial intelligence and asks what happens when most countries have military drones that operate as autonomously as a self-driving car?

“Militaries around the globe are racing to deploy robots at sea, on the ground and in the air. For now, these machines operate mostly under human control, but that may not be the case for long. This raises a question: What happens when a Predator drone has as much autonomy as a driverless car?

More than 30 nations have defensive, human-supervised autonomous weapons for situations in which the speed of engagement is too fast for people to respond. Used to defend ships and bases against rockets and missiles, these systems are overseen by humans who can intervene if necessary. South Korea has deployed a robotic sentry gun to the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea. Israel has used armed ground robots to patrol its Gaza border. Those weapons aren’t fully autonomous, but the Israeli Harpy is. A loitering munition programmed to search a wide area for enemy radars, the Harpy is able to detonate without asking permission once it acquires a target. Five countries have purchased the weapon; China has reportedly reverse engineered a version of its own. And the Harpy may be only the beginning.”

I have written at length about the use of autonomous drones in war here.

—Roger Berkowitz

“Given the connection between war and the human ideals of justice, what does it mean that war is increasingly being fought by drones? The desire to substitute machines for humans is most intense precisely in those fields with the highest stakes.In a speech at Bard College in 2010, the roboticist Ron Arkin described how robots “can identify, target, and engage in the battlefield without human intervention.” … For Arkin, the use of fully autonomous drones in warfare is inevitable….Arkin and Pulford, for example, argue that drones are to be welcomed—not least because they promise to make war more ethical and more humane. Because of exhaustion, anger, or the desire for revenge, human soldiers often act rashly. Engaged in dangerous operations, soldiers tend to fire first and ask questions later. The list of war crimes that stretch back millennia is all the evidence needed to make visible the inhumanity of man amidst war. Much of this inhumanity comes from the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of training humans to suppress their natural instincts and to submit to a difficult and dangerous moral code. Drones, Arkin claims, have the potential to humanize warfare: indeed, he suggests in his lectures at Bard College that robots in war can “be more humane than humans.”

Combating Lies

Source: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs

Repeated lies do not lead to the lies being believed; they lead, instead, to cynicism, a state in which no one believes anything. And such cynicism, Arendt saw, is the fertile ground for totalitarian domination. That is why the incredible expansion of fake news and repeated lying is so dangerous. One area of widespread misinformation concerns the environment. Erica Goode reports on efforts by climate scientists to counter misinformation by climate change deniers. What we learn, over and again, is how difficult it is to establish facts in an age of fake facts.

“The scientific evidence that the polar bear’s Arctic home is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet is overwhelming, supported by reports like the National Climate Assessment, which was compiled by 13 federal agencies. In some Arctic regions, scientists have documented declines in polar bear numbers and disturbing signs of physical deterioration linked to the loss of sea ice. And last year, the Obama administration called human-driven climate change the biggest threat to the bears’ continued existence.

But to hear climate denialists tell it, polar bears are doing just fine. On Watts Up With That, Climate Depot and other websites that dispute climate science, bloggers insist that the Arctic’s receding ice is part of a natural warming cycle unrelated to human activities. Predictions about devastating declines in polar bear populations, they say, have failed to materialize.

In effect, many scientists say, the bears have been co-opted by climate denialists, and in an article published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, 14 prominent researchers argue that denialist blogs with wide followings are using the bears to spread misinformation about the causes and consequences of climate change.

The researchers also singled out Polar Bear Science, a blog run by Susan J. Crockford, a Canadian zoologist, as a primary source of dubious information about the status of polar bears. About 80 percent of the contrarian websites that the researchers studied referred to Dr. Crockford’s blog as a primary source, they said.”

Posted on 15 April 2018 | 8:37 am

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