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Amor Mundi: The Spirit of 1968

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 Spirit of 1968

Claus Leggewie interviews Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the 1968 student movement in Paris. Cohn-Bendit tells Leggewie: “[Hannah] Arendt saw 1968 as the liberating revolt of the next generation. She actually wrote at  letter to me that was supposed to be conveyed by Mary McCarthy. The letter never made ito me, but it was later discovered. It said: “Your parents would have been proud of you. Get in touch if you need help.”” Leggewie and Cohn-Bendit talk about the power of civil disobedience and how it transformed European society.

Cohn-Bendit: Even many right-wing voters profess that they like what happened in ’68. The only ones who don’t are Catholic traditionalists, like François Fillon, and the supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy. We have to understand the psychodrama of May ’68. Meanwhile, I have become the psychoanalyst of the French, so to speak. Once, after my expulsion from France had been rescinded, I got off the overnight train in Paris and was approached by a man who was perhaps ten years older than I: “Mr. Cohn-Bendit, I want to thank you.” How so? He turned out to be a member of the CRS who wanted to tell me how important ’68 had been for him as well: “It was a great time, merci.”

Leggewie: Hannah Arendt predicted at the time, “It seems to me that the children of the next century will once learn about 1968 the way we learned about 1848.” But what is it that we’re learning, exactly? In retrospect, Jürgen Habermas believes it caused a “fundamental liberalization” of German society that made it possible even for conservatives to change their views. Children’s rights have found their way into the constitution, cannabis has been legalized not just in California, same-sex marriage is now possible, women hold leadership positions—is that our time’s master narrative?

Cohn-Bendit: The revolt accelerated a development that was already in progress, which is why some contend that our societies would have modernized and liberalized anyway. Rubbish—that’s just not how history works. Yes, there was a tendency toward liberalization and democratization, but no, it was we who steered it in a certain direction.”

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Ed Pilkington writes about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The brainchild and project of Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer whose Equal Justice Initiative defends prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted and poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged  prisoners in Montgomery and around the United States. The new Memorial opened this week and “addresses head on a subject that has been marked by a booming silence until now – the enforcement of white supremacy in America through racial terrorism in the form of lynching, as well as its other guises: slavery, segregation and modern mass incarceration.” White supremacy is a term often used but rarely used well. Pilkington shows that Stevenson’s Memorial and the accompanying museum do the hard work to make an argument that gives meaning to white supremacy as an historical, present, and institutional idea.

—Roger Berkowitz

“The memorial records and honors the more than 4,000 people of color, Bunk Richardson among them, who lost their lives to terror lynching…. One of the myths of the lynching era was that black people were targeted for raping white women or for murder. But EJI’s research suggests that only a quarter of the lynchings involved sexual relations and less than a third related to allegations of violence.

Most frequently, the “crimes” committed were breathtakingly minor. Like shoving a girl off a porch, as Fred Croft found when he was forced to flee for his life. Jack Turner was lynched in Alabama in 1882 for organizing black voters. Bud Spears raised objections to the lynching of a black man in Mississippi in 1888, and for his pains was himself lynched. Many of the two dozen or so women who were lynched died because a mob couldn’t find their husbands or sons at home so grabbed them instead….

For Bryan Stevenson, such barbarism, such sadism, served a purpose. It also exacted a heavy price.

“People were being asked to prove their commitment to white supremacy by their willingness to engage in ever more extreme forms of violence,” the lawyer said. “The problem with that is you get disconnected from decency and kindness, you get lost in it. Whether you were the person cutting off fingers or the person enjoying deviled eggs and lemonade as the spectacle unfolded, something tragic and destructive was happening to you.”

As he speaks, the exceptional nature of what Stevenson has created on top of the hill becomes clear. This is not another conventional addition to black historiography. Certainly, it explores and commemorates black experience. But it also powerfully dives into the warped psyche of white Americans prepared to participate in the gruesome mutilation of other human beings.

This is not academic history, it is red-hot political challenge. It challenges the state capitol down the hill, it challenges white-dominated towns and cities across the American south and beyond, and, yes, it challenges the current occupant of the White House. It is time, the new memorial says, to confront the sins of the past and recognise the tragic consequences of white supremacy….

The treatment continues down the hill in downtown Montgomery at the new Legacy Museum which traces the unbroken path of racial violence from slavery, through lynching and Jim Crow segregation to the modern era of drug wars and mass incarceration. The exhibition is fittingly located in a slave warehouse on Commerce Street (the commerce in question having been trade in slaves) just two blocks away from the auction house where black people were sold along with mules, carts and wagons.

Stevenson’s conviction is that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved into lynching, then segregation and now into a modern dystopia where 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated and one in three black males born in America can expect at some point to go to prison.

He draws a single unbroken thread uniting all these manifestations of racial dominance: “The idea that black people are not the same as white people, they aren’t fully human or evolved, and are presumed dangerous and guilty. That’s why American society today is so non-responsive to shootings of unarmed black people, to disproportionate expulsion rates of black kids, to putting handcuffs on four- or five-year-old black girls – we’ve been acculturated to not valuing the victimisation of black people.””

Terrifying Politics

Claire Voon writes about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist, who recently defended his decision to pose for a picture with Alice Weidel, the leader of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. For Ai Weiwei, those who cannot tolerate free expression are more terrifying than the AfD.

“Many an eyebrow was raised last week when the leader of the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party shared a selfie in which she poses with artist Ai Weiwei. Politician Alice Weidel originally posted the photograph on her Twitter account with the caption,” #AiWeiwei is in the capital!!!! I almost didn’t dare ask him for a selfie ;-).” In the image, the artist sidles up close on her right and grins for the camera.

Ai is known to oblige people’s requests for selfies with him, but this documented encounter raised a few questions. Namely, some wondered, did the Chinese dissident know who his companion was? Weidel is an openly lesbian, former investment banker who opposes same-sex marriage and once referred to immigrants in Germany as “illiterate people” who “don’t have any training.” Her party, founded in 2013, is known for its anti-Islam and anti-immigration positions. Ai, on the other hand, grew up a refugee in his own country; remains an exile in Berlin; and has spent the last three years making art to raise awareness about global refugee crisis — tasteless as his efforts might be at times.

Speaking with Frieze, the artist said he had not known Weidel was an AfD politician until she told him so. Weidel had approached him at a restaurant in Berlin, he said, and clarified that AfD was “the right-wing party,” after which he agreed to pose with her. In his statement, the artist also defended his decision.

“I don’t believe that differences in political views or values between people should act as a barrier in communication,” the artist said. “My efforts are in tearing down those boundaries. Alice Weidel is a democratically elected politician and has the right to freely express her political views. Although her views are completely the opposite of mine, no one has the right to judge her personal life.

“At the same time, no one has the right to judge who I choose to take a photograph with,” he added. “If you cannot tolerate free expression, your political views are even more terrifying.”

The Deep State

The deep state exists in America for good and for evil, writes Jack Goldsmith. Since President Trump took office, the deep state has exposed a number of the President’s lies through leaks. Goldsmith suggests these leaks can be seen as well-meaning whistleblowing; but he also worries that the leaks, if not punished, can embolden a culture of secret power:

As deep state officials get a taste for the power that inheres in the selective revelation of such information, and if the leaks are not responded to with severe punishments, it is easy to imagine the tools that brought down Flynn being used in other contexts by national security bureaucrats with different commitments and interests…

America doesn’t have coups or tanks in the street. But a deep state of sorts exists here and it includes national security bureaucrats who use secretly collected information to shape or curb the actions of elected officials.

Some see these American bureaucrats as a vital check on the law-breaking or authoritarian or otherwise illegitimate tendencies of democratically elected officials.

Others decry them as a self-serving authoritarian cabal that illegally and illegitimately undermines democratically elected officials and the policies they were elected to implement.

The truth is that the deep state, which is a real phenomenon, has long been both a threat to democratic politics and a savior of it. The problem is that it is hard to maintain its savior role without also accepting its threatening role. The two go hand in hand, and are difficult to untangle.

The deep state has been blamed for many things since Donald Trump became president, including by the president himself. Trump defenders have used the term promiscuously to include not just intelligence bureaucrats but a broader array of connected players in other administrative bureaucracies, in private industry, and in the media.

But even if we focus narrowly on the intelligence bureaucracies that conduct and use information collected secretly in the homeland, including the FBI, National Security Agency (NSA), and National Security Council, there is significant evidence that the deep state has used secretly collected information opportunistically and illegally to sabotage the president and his senior officials – either as part of a concerted movement or via individuals acting more or less independently.

The hard questions are whether this sabotage is virtuous or abusive, whether we can tell, and what the consequences of these actions are.”

The Spy In the Seminar Room

Jennifer Schuessler and Boryana Dzhambazova write about the renowned scholar and feminist Julia Kristeva who has recently been accused of being a Bulgarian spy.

“But now, a furor has arisen over whether it is time to add a more surprising line to her résumé: Bulgarian secret agent.

The notion surfaced on Tuesday, when the Bulgarian government commission charged with reviewing the files of the country’s notorious Communist-era secret service released a terse document alleging that the Bulgarian-born Ms. Kristeva, who has lived in France since 1966, had served in the early 1970s as an agent known by the code name “Sabina.”

The allegation was greeted with shocked disbelief by those immersed in the work of Ms. Kristeva, who is known for her staunch defense of European democratic ideals and opposition to all “totalitarianisms,” as she puts it, whether state Communism, American-style identity politics or religious fundamentalism.

The mystery only deepened on Friday, when the commission, in response to intense international interest, took the unusual step of posting online the entire dossier on Ms. Kristeva.

The hundreds of pages of documents include Ms. Kristeva’s supposed registration card as an agent of Bulgaria’s former Committee for State Security and extensive reports of alleged conversations with her handlers in Parisian cafes and restaurants between 1971 and 1973. But there is not a single intelligence-related document written or signed by her.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Kristeva vigorously dismissed the accusation as “fake news” and a “barefaced lie” — “mud being slung at me,” she said, by unspecified people who wished her harm.

After the release of the dossier, she reiterated her denials in an interview on Friday. She had never been approached by anyone claiming to be a State Security agent, she said emphatically, and certainly never agreed to collaborate.

“These allegations are completely false,” she said, speaking in French. “I find it quite extraordinary that the commission, which read these allegations, never thought that the secret services could have been lying.””

The Great Conversation

Tunku Varadarajan writes about Elizabeth Anne Conquest, known as Liddie, the fourth and last wife to the British historian and poet Robert Conquest. Since Conquest died in 2015 at the age of 98, Liddie has been managing his literary estate, overseeing a new edition of “The Great Terror,” editing his poems, and deciding what to do with all of his love letters.

“If I look back on our marriage, I see it as a long conversation,” Mrs. Conquest says. In a way, that conversation continues, as she sorts through his vast archive and shepherds his three last books to publication. “I don’t suppose I will ever be truly happy again,” she adds, “though the pain of losing him is to some small extent mitigated by the pleasure of learning more about his life—and I already knew a lot!”

As we speak, my eye is drawn to a box of letters labeled “Wives and Lovers,” which evidently contains material of a sensitive nature. “Some of these ladies are still alive,” Mrs. Conquest says. I ask how it feels to read a husband’s correspondence with other women: “Sometimes I think, ‘Bob, Bob, Bob, if you were alive I’d give you a punch in the snoot now.’ ” But that turns out to be a flash of jest. “Bob and I—I think we were compatible because we weren’t the type of people who want to sit down and talk about our deepest, darkest feelings,” Mrs. Conquest says. Many of his poems are about her, “and many are about lots of other women, too. It doesn’t bother me.”

Doesn’t she get jealous? “No,” she says, shrugging her tiny shoulders. “I mean, who would want a man who hadn’t had a life, especially since he was 62? But sometimes I’m terribly amused.” She cites a letter he once wrote to the poet Carolyn Kizer, to whom a rival had bad-mouthed Conquest as a predatory wolf. “Carolyn was quite a sensation in London in the late 1950s,” says Mrs. Conquest, “a beautiful blond poet. And everyone was chasing her, including Bob. He wrote to her denying his wolf persona, and said, ‘Aside from an occasional burst of fireworks, I’m really fairly monogamous.’ ”

Mrs. Conquest says that “when he died, I’d been married to Bob for half my life, and it was, by far, the better half.” She believes he felt the same: “One time I found a note on my pillow when I awoke in the morning and it said, ‘Honey, I have a strange pain in my arm. It’s probably nothing, but if I don’t wake up in the morning, I want you to know you’re the dearest thing in my long life.’ ” Her reaction reflected her sturdy Texan spirit: “I wake up to this note. I look over. He’s breathing. I hit him and say, ‘Bob, if you think you’re dying in the night, wake me up. Maybe I can save your life. Don’t write me a love note!’”

The Tendency to Turn Left

Nick Phillips considers the loss of viewpoint diversity at major publications like the Atlantic, which recently fired conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson. Phillips defends the ideal of viewpoint diversity against the criticism that all publications are partisan. His argument hinges on Robert Conquest’s insight that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”

“The central premise behind the drive for viewpoint diversity in media is that, as much as possible, we should prevent people from self-siloing. Big-tent publications with broad readerships advance this goal by featuring diverse views on their opinion pages, guaranteeing that readers will encounter ideas they disagree with. Partisan publications can also contribute to a macro landscape of diversity, by ensuring that high-quality options all co-exist in dialogue with one another. But the gatekeeper publications have a special obligation to diversity, because if they mutate into echo chambers, total self-siloing becomes the likely outcome for many readers…

This mirrors the under-representation that conservatives experience in academia, another elite field whose nominal commitment to diversity of thought often collides with the political tribalism of its practitioners. Musa al-Gharbi recently documented that conservatives are the single least-represented group in the social sciences—blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are all better represented. Extreme conservative underrepresentation in academia isn’t inevitable—the problem in academia has been getting steadily worse over time, perhaps fueled by the fact that more education makes people more willing to discriminate against people who don’t share their political views.

Nwanevu sees calls for these institutions to seek greater political diversity as disingenuous. After all, he argues, if conservatives care so much about institutional neutrality, why do they respond to exclusion by creating highly partisan institutions like Fox News or Liberty University instead of forming neutral ones? “Until the Daily Caller hires a full-time writer who regularly makes the case for taking Marx and microaggressions seriously,” he writes, “the right’s complaints on this subject should be dismissed out of hand and without regret.”

Last year, centrist writer and psychiatrist Scott Alexander offered a framework to rebut this critique on his SlateStarCodex blog:

[There is] a widespread norm, well-understood by both liberals and conservatives, that we have a category of space we call “neutral” and “depoliticized”. These sorts of spaces include institutions as diverse as colleges, newspapers, workplaces, and conferences. And within these spaces, overt liberalism is tolerated but overt conservatism is banned. In a few of these cases, conservatives grew angry enough that they started their own spaces — which began as noble attempts to avoid bias, and ended as wretched hives of offensive troglodytes who couldn’t get by anywhere else. This justifies further purges in the mainstream liberal spaces, and the cycle goes on forever.

Stanford historian Robert Conquest once declared it a law of politics that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” I have no idea why this should be true, and yet I’ve seen this happen again and again. Taken to its extreme, it suggests we’ll end up with a bunch of neutral organizations that have become left-wing, plus a few explicitly right-wing organizations. Given that Conquest was writing in the 1960s, he seems to have predicted the current situation remarkably well.”

Posted on 29 April 2018 | 8:00 am

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