Amor Mundi: The Intellectual Dark Web
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 Intellectual Dark Web
“What is the I.D.W. and who is a member of it? It’s hard to explain, which is both its beauty and its danger. Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
In the essay Weiss argues that the individuals associated with the Intellectual Dark Web—people like Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson—emerged as truth-tellers willing to speak out against their own tribe. But Weiss is concerned with the instant fame the Intellectual Dark Web confers on individuals who hold controversial opinions. Working outside mainstream media, these public intellectual figures are primarily supported by their audiences. What effect does audience driven support have on content?
“Yet there are pitfalls to this audience-supported model. One risk is what Eric Weinstein has called “audience capture.” Since stories about left-wing-outrage culture — the fact that the University of California, Berkeley, had to spend $600,000 on security for Mr. Shapiro’s speech there, say — take off with their fans, members of the Intellectual Dark Web may have a hard time resisting the urge to deliver that type of story. This probably helps explain why some people in this group talk constantly about the regressive left but far less about the threat from the right.
“There are a few people in this network who have gone without saying anything critical about Trump, a person who has assaulted truth more than anyone in human history,” Mr. Harris said. “If you care about the truth, that is quite strange.”
Emphasis is one problem. Associating with genuinely bad people is another…
Am I a member of this movement? A few months ago, someone suggested on Twitter that I should join this club I’d never heard of. I looked into it. Like many in this group, I am a classical liberal who has run afoul of the left, often for voicing my convictions and sometimes simply by accident. This has won me praise from libertarians and conservatives. And having been attacked by the left, I know I run the risk of focusing inordinately on its excesses — and providing succor to some people whom I deeply oppose.
I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.
“Some say the I.D.W. is dangerous,” Ms. Heying said. “But the only way you can construe a group of intellectuals talking to each other as dangerous is if you are scared of what they might discover.””
The New Tribalism
Andrew Sullivan reflects on Ta-Nahesi Coates’ calling Kanye West “white” and expelling him from the tribe of blackness.
“The dynamic here is deeply tribal. It’s an atmosphere in which the individual is always subordinate to the group, in which the “I” is allowed only when licensed by the “we.” Hence the somewhat hysterical reaction, for example, to Kanye West’s recent rhetorical antics. I’m not here to defend West. He may be a musical genius (I’m in no way qualified to judge) but he is certainly a jackass, and saying something like “slavery was a choice” is so foul and absurd it’s self-negating. I don’t blame anyone for taking him down a few notches, as Ta-Nehisi Coates just did in memorable fashion in The Atlantic. He had it coming. You could almost say he asked for it.
But still. And yet. There was something about the reaction that just didn’t sit right with me, something too easy, too dismissive of an individual artist’s right to say whatever he wants, to be accountable to no one but himself. It had a smack of raw tribalism to it, of collective disciplining, of the group owning the individual, and exacting its revenge for difference. I find myself instinctually siding with the independent artist in these cases, perhaps because I’ve had to fight for my own individuality apart from my own various identities, most of my life. It wasn’t easy being the first openly gay editor of anything in Washington when I was in my 20s. But it was harder still to be someone not defined entirely by my group, to be a dissident within it, a pariah to many, even an oxymoron, because of my politics or my faith.
I had to make some space to be me, and no one else, at a time in gay history when solidarity was sorely required and manifestly justified. But I hung on, refusing to allow categories to define me, until I had defined them, and reassured myself that the ground I had cleared was a place where other outliers could now gather. I never believed that the gay rights movement was about liberating people to be gay; I believed it was about liberating people to be themselves, in all their complexity and uniqueness. I believed in an identity politics that would aim to leave identity behind, to achieve a citizenship without qualification. I’m not whining about this experience, just explaining why I tend to side reflexively with the individual when he is told he isn’t legit by the group. In that intimidating atmosphere, I’m with the dissenter, the loner, and the outlier. I’m with the undocumented, the dude who has had his group credentials taken away.
And so I bristle at Ta-Nehisi’s view that West cannot be a truly black musician and a Trump admirer, based on the logic that the gift of black music “can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it … What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought — liberation from the dictates of that we.”
I bristle because, of course, Coates is not merely subjecting West to “expectation and scrutiny” which should apply to anyone and to which no one should object; he is subjecting West to anathematization, to expulsion from the ranks. In fact, Coates reserves the worst adjective he can think of to describe West, the most othering and damning binary word he can muster: white. Just as a Puritan would suddenly exclaim that a heretic has been taken over by the Devil and must be expelled, so Coates denounces West for seeking something called “white freedom””.
The Policemen of Cultural Appropriation
Writing for the Atlantic David Frum weighs in on the current debates over cultural appropriation. The recent incident of a girl in Idaho buying and wearing a traditional Chinese dress for prom, Frum argues, illustrates the fundamental problem with the logic of those who argue that “there is something wrong and oppressive about people of one background adopting and adapting the artifacts of another.”
“Like the idea that audiences should refrain from talking while music is performed, the idea that women should be able to move about as freely and easily as men is a cultural product—popularized by the North Atlantic world in the period after the First World War. If it’s wrong for one culture to borrow from another, then it was wrong to invent the cheongsam in the first place—because not only did the garment’s shape originate outside China, but so, too, did the garment’s purposes. It was precisely because they appreciated that they were importing Western ideas about women that the inventors of the cheongsam adapted a Western shape. They took something foreign and made it something domestic, in a pattern that has repeated itself in endless variations since the Neolithic period.
The policemen of cultural appropriation do not think that way. They have a morality tale to tell, one of Western victimization of non-Western peoples—a victimization so extreme that it is triggered by a Western girl’s purchase of a Chinese dress designed precisely so that Chinese girls could live more like Western girls.
In order to tell that story, the policemen of cultural appropriation must crush and deform much of the truth of cultural history—and in the process demean and infantilize the people they supposedly champion.”
This spring marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student protest movements. Hannah Arendt was both extremely hopeful and critical of the 1968 student movements. Her essay On Violence, chronicles the ups-and-downs of violent and non-violent protest movements. She praises the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and in the same stroke criticizes the radical left for it’s glamorization of violence. The dialectical tradition of Hegelian and Marxian philosophy contained within it a legitimization of violence, that in her view, could only ever be destructive of a public realm and political action.
Writing for the New York Review of Books, Todd Gitlin, argues that in the realm of political power the 1968 movement was more of an end than a beginning. Ultimately the left was unable to achieve political power. Thinking through Arendt’s framework, this makes sense—revolution for the sake of revolution, or violence as a means to power, can never be productive of real political power. It can only destroy the public realm of human affairs.
“In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of “socialism with a human face,” the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the “silent majority” roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.
Counter-revolutions, like their revolutionary bêtes noires, suffer reversals and take time to cohere. The post-1968 counter-revolution held the fort against a trinity of bogeymen: unruly dark-skinned people, uppity women, and an arrogant knowledge class. In 1968, it was not yet apparent how impressively the recoil could be parlayed into national power. “This country is going so far to the right you won’t recognize it,” Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, said in 1969. He spoke prematurely.”
Posted on 13 May 2018 | 8:00 am
Racism and Oppression
Teaching Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man last semester, my students rebelled against the novel in a way I had never experienced. They criticized Ellison for imagining that the main character could be empowered and claimed that Ellison was ignoring the trauma of racism. When I suggested that there is an important difference between racism that is potentially traumatic and racism that actually traumatized, some students rebelled. For them, all potential traumas are traumatic. They insisted this was the new way students use the word trauma. As if in response, Eboo Patel asks an important question: Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that someone who experiences racism has internalized racist oppression?
“In a conversation on issues of diversity, a white person will open by checking his/her/their white privilege.
Here is how the student at the elite private school in the Midwest did it. “As someone who presents as white and male and therefore has never known oppression …”
I politely interjected: “Are you saying that because I’m not white I have known oppression?”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I’m not quite sure why. When a white person says to a person of color that he isn’t oppressed because he is white, the suggestion seems to be that said person of color views himself as oppressed because he’s not.
I think the uncomfortable silence in the room was a function of me disrupting what is often (though of course not always) something of a logic model. If white equals privileged, then person of color equals oppressed.
I want to say this loud and clear, even if I am the only person of color who feels this way: I do not want anyone, either subtly or overtly, to assign me a subordinate role, a specific psychology or a particular worldview based on the color of my skin.
Is it safe to assume that people who are not white have experienced racism? I think the answer to that is yes. I have, I still do, and it sucks. But isn’t it massively presumptuous to suggest – directly or indirectly – that said racism has been internalized as oppression?”
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