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Amor Mundi: The Blessings of Integrity

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 Blessings of Integrity

The recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave the commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute. Tillerson spoke of the crisis of ethics and integrity in American democracy. He lauded the honor code at VMI. And Tillerson said that “without personal honor, there is no leadership. But you will now enter a world where sadly that is not the case. And your commitment to this high standard of ethical behavior and integrity will be tested.” The speech has been widely reported, but no full transcript exists. It is a long speech, and worth watching.

Tillerson’s speech is a call for a life of integrity. He says: “Choosing a life of integrity provides a wealth of blessings and benefits.” And, “committing yourselves to a life of integrity and reminding yourselves of that commitment often, can give you the strength you need to resist the easy path that leads to poor results or even ruin. It is important to remember that leadership is not a position or title, becoming a leader is what happens to those who embrace a life of integrity.” Tillerson explores his theme widely, and asks, what is integrity?

“One of Miriam Webster’s definitions of integrity is ‘the state of being complete and whole.’ As a civil engineer, I’ve always liked that definition, because I can relate to it through structural integrity, the state of being complete and whole. The structural integrity of this building–we know it has a complete and whole integrity so we can feel comfortable sitting beneath these beams and this roof that is not going to end up at our feet as we sit here. Integrity is a critical building block of trust and cooperation. It makes it possible for different people of different organizations to work together to solve the world’s most complex problems regardless of industry, project, and task, integrity frees us to innovate, collaborate and share over the long term.”

Near the end of his speech, Tillerson advises: “Carefully consider the values and culture of the organizations in which you seek to work. Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership.” It is with these words in mind, that it is worth considering a long meditation in the middle of Tillerson’s speech on the relationship between integrity and American democracy.

“Your contributions to society depend on a firm ethical foundation of personal and professional integrity. As I reflect on the state of our American democracy, I observe a growing crisis in ethics and integrity. Above the entrance to the main building on the campus of my alma mater in Austin, Texas are inscribed the words, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ It comes from the Book of John. Chapter 8, verse 32. ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’

The founders of our American democracy, were, I believe many agree, were crafting the structure and foundational documents guided by divine inspiration and not divine intervention. The central tenet of a free society, a free people, is access to the truth. A government structure and a societal understanding that the freedom to seek the truth is the very essence of freedom itself. ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’

It is only by fierce defense of the truth and a common set of facts, that we create the conditions for a democratic, free society comprised of richly diverse peoples, and that those free people can explore and find solutions to the very challenges confronting a complex society of free people. If our leaders seek to conceal the truth or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom. This is the life of non-democratic societies, comprised of people who are not free to seek the truth. We know them well, societies in Russian, China, Iran, North Korea… you can complete the list.

The responsibility of every American citizen to each other is to preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, and what a fact is, and is not. We begin by holding ourselves accountable to truthfulness, and demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises, but a clear-eyed view of the facts as they are and guided by the truth that will set us free to seek solutions to our most daunting challenges.

It is also that foundational commitment to truth and facts that binds us to other like-minded democratic nations, that we Americans will always deal with them from the same set of truths and facts; and it is truth that says to our adversaries, ‘we say what we mean, and we mean what we say.’

When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial of matters, we go wobbly on America. If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector, and regrettably at times even the non-profit sector, then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”

You can watch the entirety of Tillerson’s address beginning at minute 54 in the video of the ceremony here (on the bottom of the page).

—Roger Berkowitz

Who Speaks for the Common World

Bret Stephens has been one of President Trump’s biggest critics and also a strong defender of the media. But Stephens rightly argues that the Media loses when it misreports on the President and gives credence to his narrative that the media is liberal and biased against him.

“When Donald Trump takes his swipes at the “disgusting and corrupt media” and tens of millions of Americans agree, it’s not as if they don’t have examples in mind.

Consider this week’s implication by major news organizations that the president described all illegal immigrants as “animals” during a White House roundtable with California officials. That would indeed be a wretched thing for him to say — had he said it.

He did not. The Associated Press admitted as much when it deleted a tweet about the remark, noting “it wasn’t made clear that he was speaking after a comment about gang members.” Specifically, he was speaking after a comment about members of the Salvadoran MS-13 gang, infamous for its ultraviolent methods and quasi-satanic rituals. To call MS-13 “animals” is wrong only because it is unfair to animals.

That didn’t keep the president’s partisan critics from going berserk. “IF you are a decent person and were in a meeting where @realDonaldTrump called immigrants ‘animals,’ you will denounce him NOW,” demanded Representative Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat. “Otherwise, what makes you any different?” Maybe one answer is that they would have taken the trouble to hear what Trump said in context, without invidious media interpretations…

I know it’s infuriating that the president habitually conflates illegal immigrants with violent criminals, and that he buries the signal of his bigotries in the noise of his syntax. I also suspect that the president would be just as eager to deport Latin American immigrants and build a wall with Mexico if groups like MS-13 didn’t exist.

That doesn’t matter. We have a president adept at goading his opponents into unwittingly doing his bidding. They did so again this week. Those who despise him for his deceits should endeavor to give no impression of being deceitful in turn.”

Just today, Sunday, the New York Times ran an Opinion essay by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It is an important essay about the tradition of immigrants in America. But Thanh Nguyen repeats the very same claim that Bret Stephens points out as false in the same newspaper the day before. “Mr. Kelly feels sympathy for these people, some of whom are like my mother, born into a rural background. But Mr. Kelly — like President Trump, who last week called certain undocumented immigrants “animals” — cannot empathize with them. His inability to see or feel the world as they do is shared by many Americans.”

The Times links the word “animals” to a fact-check account in which it shows that the President was mistaken in suggesting that sanctuary cities would protect MS-13 gang members. But the fact-check, and also it seems the Times itself, is unwilling to say that the President did not call immigrants in general “animals.” Yes, President Trump has said awful things about immigrants. Yes he is mean and boorish and yes he insults good people regularly. And yes he lies. But if the Times wants to be taken seriously as a paper for all Americans, it needs to push its contributors to avoid repeating known falsehoods. Otherwise, it becomes a purveyor of a coherent and yet fictional universe, and loses its claim to speak for our common world.

—Roger Berkowitz

Light Over Dark

Last week we featured an article by Bari Weiss about the “Intellectual Dark Web.” One of the people Weiss originally hoped to include in her essay was Alice Dreger. But Dreger eventually refused to be associated with the Dark Web. Yes, Dreger likes the idea of brave intellectuals speaking truth to the people. But Dreger was suspicious about what held this motley group together. The answer she found was simply a propensity to seek fame by pissing people off. The truth, Dreger argues, is found not on the dark web, but in the light of academic inquiry.

“When I asked what this group supposedly had in common, the answer seemed to be “they’ve climbed the ladder of fame by pissing people off, saying stuff you’re not supposed to say.” They regularly made progressives angry with “politically incorrect” statements about gender, race, genetics, and so on. This troubled me the most — that one might think of pissing people off as an inherent good, a worthy end…

Opinion is not scholarship, it is not journalism, and we are dying for lack of honest, fact-based, slow inquiry. Twenty years since my first scholarship-based op-ed ran in The New York Times, here’s what I see: a postapocalyptic, postmodern media landscape where thoughtfulness and nonpartisan inquiry go to die. The Intellectual Dark Web isn’t a solution, it might just be a sign of end times.

I’m all for bringing intellectualism to the masses, but like a lot of academics, I value ambivalence itself, along with intellectual humility. Yet these values seem in direct opposition to the kind of cocksure strutting that is the favored dance move of the IDW.

What I’m left with after this experience is a sense, for myself, of how much academe matters. How we need to fight back against university administrators’ equation of “entrepreneurship,” funding, and publicity with scholarship. How, since resigning my position at Northwestern University over my dean’s censorship of my work, I miss the Intellectual Light Web, the crisscross of walking paths that bisect the campus green. How we need job security to keep people from going to the dark side.

Professors, listen to me: You don’t want to be in this dark-web thing, even if it comes with an awesome trading-card photo. You are in the right place. Carry on.”

The Courage To Be Lectures

As part of our Courage To Be program, the Hannah Arendt Center invites three speakers each Spring to talk to students about moral and political courage. The speakers are chosen by student fellows in our Courage To Be program.  And then students introduce the speakers and write up accounts of their talks. All three student posts are now up for this semester, along with recordings of the three talks. They are well worth reading and watching.

Sacha Medjo-Akono writes about the lecture by Sylvia Sumter, “Becoming a Spiritual Warrior.”

“There is both bad news and good news within this time of transition. The bad news is that no one is coming to save the world but the good news is that no one is coming because the generation that is in college right now is who we’ve been waiting for. Instead of searching for a saviour to drive the world, we are starting to focus on the empowerment of the collective rather than that of the individual being. We are in need of a group of conscious, conscientious, and compassionate individuals who have the ability to become what she calls a ‘Spiritual Warrior.'”

Rachel Braver writes about the lecture by Whitney Dow, about his documentary “The Two Towns of Jasper” and his founding of the Whiteness Project.

“Dow began by discussing his transition from advertising to documentary filmmaking, which began with the film Two Towns of Jasper. He discusses the first moment of filming, in which he realized the gravity of the project; Dow, along with creative partner and co-director Marco Williams, were capturing the reaction of the town of Jasper in the aftermath of the horrendous murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man, by three white men. This film looks at the two different narratives about race in Jasper coming from the black and white community of the town. Dow played a clip from the film in which he interviewed a white man who felt “guilty” in the presence of another race. He explained that this interview made clear to him the biggest hurdle white people face in regards to understanding the racial barriers set in society; there is no awareness that white people, when discussing their race, only talk about themselves in comparison with the other race. Dow said this interview was the first time he had heard this notion, but knew that he could do something with such information.”

And Isabella Santana writes about photojournalist, Doug Menuez, who spoke about how photographing courageous persons taught him the essential importance of holding on to a personal value system.

“Menuez is a documentary photographer and photojournalist who has photographed an extremely wide range of subjects. He spoke about the way in which he defines himself in relation to his subjects. And it is through this defining, of the self to the ‘other,’ that the individual can begin to grasp the values they hold. Once the individual begins to establish a value system, they can decide what is and is not worth acting courageously for. He admits that he had not actively engaged with the idea of courage in relation to his work, until preparing for this lecture. But once he began to ponder how the subjects of his work, and his work itself, are in dialogue with courage, that he saw courage intrinsically connected to grace under pressure. Furthermore, Menuez holds that by acting with courage, you believe your life has meaning– you claim your own dignity.”

Posted on 20 May 2018 | 8:00 am

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