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Amor Mundi: Civility and Politics

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.

Civility and Politics

Civility does not mean niceness. Civility derives from the Latin cives meaning the city or the public place; it means the practice of civility is the practice of being a citizen. Someone is civil who exists not only as a private person but also as a public person with rights in the world. The importance of civility is not that it upholds morals or a culture of order. Rather, civility is a political virtue that upholds the political ideal that amidst our differences and plurality, we can still engage with each other as citizens of a common world. Roman politics was a blood sport, but it was always civil in that it was a contest over the republic, the public thing. To enter politics takes courage, the courage to risk oneself in public, which is why Hannah Arendt called courage the first virtue of politics. Ibram X. Kendi reminds us of the connection between civility, courage, and civil disobedience.

“Political confrontation and harassment is as civil as it is American. Evading confrontation as the children cry, as their oppressors cry for more cries, is as uncivil as it is un-American. Instead of encircling political confrontation and harassment in incivility, we should be recognizing the dividing line in American politics—a line that has continuously changed American history for better or worse, always to the chagrin of the gradual or do-nothing moderate Americans. The dividing line in American politics is constructive or destructive political confrontation and harassment.

Today moderates are again whiting out this dividing line, and instead drawing a line between uncivil harassers and civil unifiers. They are instructing their Republican and Democratic peers to step out of the ring of confrontation….

Today’s moderates still view confrontations as threats. They write things like, “Let us meet hate with love,” as the ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd tweeted Monday morning. “Let us meet bullying with an embrace. Let us meet vulgarity with civility. This is how our country and world win.” They imagine, like Dowd, that they are following “the path of Martin Luther King, Mandela, Gandhi.” They imagine, like the CNN political analyst David Gergen, that “the civil-rights movement” was “much more civil in tone.”

Moderates change the path and tone used by King, a strident advocate of politically harassing segregationist establishments, a strident opponent of the moderates who chastised his direct-action confrontations as uncivil. King responded to the moderates in his famed 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He distinguished the “Ku Klux Klanner” from the “white moderate” in the same way today we can distinguish the white nationalist Trump from the white moderates chastising direct action against Trump officials.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion,” King wrote, “that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is … the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’””

Kendi is right that it is civil to act as a citizen in the name of justice even when such actions are disorderly. The civil disobedient is civil not because he is nice, but because his or her disorder is claimed to be in the service of restoring the civic space to its ideals. While it may bring about temporary disorder, it is in the name of a higher order. King’s protests were disobedient, but they were civil in precisely this sense that they argued that the present order of Jim Crow segregation and racism was in fact unconstitutional and out of step with the ideals America should stand for. He was right, and the moderate clergy in Birmingham knew he was right; though they questioned his tactics, they understood the justice of his cause, and that is why King’s civil disobedience could be successful.

In our conversation about civility, we need to rethink what it means to be a citizen engaged in civil acts. Civility includes also civil disobedience, which is civil not because it is nice or orderly, but because it intervenes in the civil discourse through political acts by citizens. Because we need to rethink citizenship and civil disobedience, the Hannah Arendt Center’s 2018 Annual Conference aims to do just that. Included in the conference is “Prayers of the People,” a secular liturgical performance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, conceived by Kenyon Adams (little ray) and directed by Bill T. Jones. Registration for our conference “Citizen and Civil Disobedience” is now open.

—Roger Berkowitz

Mere Civility

President Trump’s verbal thrashing of public norms is disgusting and despite his incessant prattle on Twitter about ‘niceness,’ is not nice. But at least so far, the President has acted civilly insofar as he does not respond to critics with violence. Yes, he has wielded verbal threats and he makes prodigious use of dog whistles and bombast, but within the long tradition of verbally abusive and at times pugilistic American civic life, Trump is not such an outlier. In light of recent discussions around civility, it is worth recalling this essay from last year by Teresa Bejan, that turns back to history to argue that some kind of civility is indeed needed in political society, what Bejan, following Roger Williams, calls mere civility.

“Still, if history confirms how easily calls for civil disagreement can justify suppression and exclusion, it also demonstrates how essential civility is in navigating heated disagreement — albeit civility of a particular and peculiar kind.

Here, modern Americans could stand to learn a thing or two from the 17th-century founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams. Far from being a proto-multiculturalist, Williams was exiled from Massachusetts because his theological intolerance and evangelical zeal made even his fellow Puritans uncomfortable. He knew firsthand how accusations of incivility could be used to persecute, suppress and exclude. Nevertheless, in Rhode Island, he took up the banner of civility and in so doing created the most tolerant and inclusive society the world had ever seen.

The key to this apparent paradox was Williams’s commitment to what I call mere civility. As the minimal, often grudging conformity to social norms of respectful behavior needed to keep a conversation going, this civility falls far short of the reasonableness and mutual respect its proponents usually have in mind. Williams knew from experience that the “bond of civility ” necessary to hold a tolerant society together was less a matter of avoiding insult than cultivating the mental toughness to tolerate what we perceive as our opponents’ incivility, to live with them and continue to engage, even when we think them irredeemable. “As if because briars, thorns, and thistles may not be in the garden of the church,” wrote Williams, “therefore they must all be plucked up out of the wilderness. Whereas he that is a briar, that is, a Jew, a Turk, a pagan, an anti-Christian, today, may be (when the word of the Lord runs freely) a member of Jesus Christ tomorrow.” Accordingly, Rhode Island welcomed Catholic “anti-Christians,” as well as Jews, Muslims, American “pagans” and Protestants of all stripes. Williams was pretty sure they were all going to hell and told them so; still, he thought one must “go out of the world” entirely to avoid keeping company with such “idolators.”

As practiced by Williams, mere civility was more often an expression of mutual contempt than mutual admiration. We might recognize it as the virtue governing those unpleasant-but-unavoidable interactions with ex-spouses and bad neighbors, as well as anyone who voted for the other gal (or guy). But even mere civility can be quite demanding: In attempting to understand other minds on the model of our own, people make sense of disagreement by concluding that our opponents are stupid, bigoted, evil or even insane. Yet mere civility demands that we keep the disagreement going, no matter how disagreeable, to continue the battle of words without resorting to violence. Judging by the criteria of mere civility, Trump’s worst infractions rest less on his Lutheran talent for insult than on his record of using his wealth and position to bully his critics. As victims of civil silencing themselves, his supporters must speak out against these efforts and defend the right to free and frank speech for their opponents as well.”

The problem with the refusal to serve Sarah Sanders and her family at a restaurant and with calls to harass members of the Trump administration in their private lives, is that the objection to such tactics is not simply that they are disorderly, but that they forget the basic premise of civil life, which is to live together with others with whom we disagree.

—Roger Berkowitz

Outside the Black-White Binary

Thomas Chatterton Williams—who will speak at the Hannah Arendt Center’s Annual Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience”—profiles the artist Adrian Piper. The occasion is a new show at the MoMA, a retrospective of Piper’s work, that the artist will not see, because she is living in self-imposed exile in Germany. Williams is himself one of the most nuanced thinkers of racial categories and he finds in Piper someone who, in his words, “has been quietly conducting, from that vexed and ever-expanding blot on the American fabric where white and black bleed into each other, one of the smartest, funniest and most profound interrogations of the racial madness that governs and stifles our national life that I had ever encountered.” Williams moves from criticism to biography to articulate how and why he believes that Piper has found the freedom of what Hannah Arendt might call the conscious pariah, the freedom to see the world with the freedom of an outsider.

“To many people, Piper can seem strikingly unreasonable. Her refusal to return to America or her insistence that senior staff members at a national weekly magazine walk her through their understanding of what a “fact” is initially astonished me. But this unreasonableness, or rather this overreasonableness, this hyperliteralism, cuts both ways. It is inseparable from what makes her such a powerfully effective conceptual artist. This tendency of hers is best represented in “The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3,” perhaps her most famous late work, which won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and is restaged at MoMA. It comprises circular counters that would make sense in a Chase Bank lobby, staffed by receptionists and adorned with the phrases “I will always be too expensive to buy,” “I will always mean what I say,” “I will always do what I say I am going to do.” Viewers are given the opportunity to sign official-looking contracts that would then make the declarations binding, joining them to a larger community of trustworthy people. The work is peak Piper — a personal experience, trivial and subjective in the scheme of things, transformed through the magic prism of art into something uncanny.

Piper has said of the “Registry” that it probably arises “from my jaded attitude toward institutional authority.” It is a response, she elaborated, “to the despair induced by recognizing, at a deep level, that the human institutions that are supposed to civilize and prepare us for a stable community anchored in shared interests and values are not working, and never have worked, because institutional professions of commitment to those values almost always mask a bottomless pit of need to accumulate, preserve and extend personal power.” Yet what feels so moving about the work to the hordes of participants is precisely the opposite of whatever jadedness that spawned it. On the contrary, it is the sheer naïveté of the piece that makes it function — the chance it presents for a respite, however silly and brief, from all the incessant, sophisticated little obfuscations and half-truths most of us must rely on to make adult life bearable.

“The Probable Trust Registry” made Piper the first woman of (openly, she would caution) African descent ever to win a Golden Lion. And yet neither the mainstream press nor the black community seemed to make a very big deal of this achievement at the time or since, certainly nothing like the tremendous outpouring of racial pride that was paid, for example, to Kehinde Wiley for painting Barack Obama’s presidential portrait. Perhaps this has to do with Piper’s decision no longer to show exclusively with other artists of color, which has been perceived by some as self-loathing. In 2013, when Piper pulled her work from a group show, Valerie Cassel Oliver, the curator, responded by saying it was clear to her “that stigmas about blackness remain not only in the public’s consciousness, but also in the consciousness of artists themselves.”

In researching this article, I reached out to a half dozen of the most prominent black women artists and curators in America for their thoughts on Piper’s significance and was amazed by the resounding silence. Each declined an interview or reneged after initially agreeing, even those who clearly have been influenced by Piper’s oeuvre or were in attendance at the opening of “Synthesis,” Instagramming videos of Piper dancing. I thought about this while rereading an incredible section of “Escape to Berlin,” in which Piper writes with an unusually cleareyed self-awareness:

I am identified as “black” by others, both “black” and “white,” only when this serves to enhance their own social status, and not otherwise. Identifying myself as “black” had also very often served this function for me. I had regarded it as an honor and a privilege to be counted among the members of a community that had proved its mettle, its intelligence, and its genius by surviving and sometimes flourishing amid the most resourceful and sustained effort to destroy its humanity the world has ever seen. Outside the circle of my immediate family, however, the general presumption among both “black” and “white” Americans has been that I know nothing about the African-American experience. I now agree with that presumption. I would only add that my family and my parents’ African-American friends probably did not know anything about it either, although, like me, they may have thought they did.

Here Piper puts her finger on a most punishing aspect of black or any marginalized group identity that is seldom addressed with the honesty it requires. The idea that some black people do not even possess knowledge of their own experience when that experience strays from the predetermined plotline is itself oppressive. This is, at least in part, why Piper confessed to me in Berlin that she never would have found the freedom back home to exist outside of the black-white binary.”

Il mondo va a destra

In 1922, Benito Mussolini announced “il mondo va a destra” — “The world is turning politically to the right.” He saw that socialism and democracy were in retreat and that, in the words of the scholar of fascism Stephan Payne, “the twentieth century would be an ‘aristocratic’ century of new elites, which in Italy would carry out a spiritual and moral revolution.” At the time of Mussolini’s announcement he was the democratically elected leader of a normal multiparty coalition government. In his address to the new Italian parliament in 1922, Mussolini “sneered that he could have eliminated the assembly, and then asked for and easily received constitutional authorization by parliamentary vote to rule by decree for a year—a legal procedure, once properly voted upon.” (110)

We today are also living through a moment when the world is turning politically to the right. For some, this move to the right presages the rise of fascism. This is an important question; it is also important to recall that in the 1920s and 1930s, most countries that moved to the right did not become fascist or even authoritarian. There is no shortage of writers arguing that President Trump is a tyrant or proto fascist. John Marshall argues that “Trump is an autocrat without an autocracy. But he’s working on it and the question is whether there will be any check.” And now  Fintan O’Toole has broached the debate around fascism. Writing in the Irish Times, O’Toole argues that trial runs for fascism are in full flow around the world.

“To grasp what is going on in the world right now, we need to reflect on two things. One is that we are in a phase of trial runs. The other is that what is being trialled is fascism – a word that should be used carefully but not shirked when it is so clearly on the horizon. Forget “post-fascist” – what we are living with is pre-fascism.”

O’Toole is right in many cases such as Turkey, Hungary, Russian, and Venezuela. But O’Toole wants to make the case the President Trump in the United States is also a proto-fascist. But what is Fascism? This is not some academic question. Does describing regimes as various as Erdogan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia, Five Star’s Italy, Orban’s Hungary, Maduro’s Venezuela, and Trump’s America as pre-fascist help us to understand what is going on? Are all of these regimes pre-fascist or fascist in the same sense?

When Hannah Arendt set out to understand totalitarianism, she insisted that we not simply analogize totalitarianism to the tyrannies, monarchies, nationalisms, and imperialisms of the past, but that we seek to understand what was new and specific about totalitarianism as a 20th century movement that sought total domination. Arendt insisted that totalitarianism be distinguished from fascism and tyranny, and she argued  that Mussolini’s fascism was nationalist and statist in a way that Hitler’s totalitarianism was decidedly not. She worried that lumping all these different regimes into one category would obfuscate analysis of totalitarianism as a unique present danger.

There is a similar danger with the insistence on seeing fascism everywhere. That is why it is necessary to think about what O’Toole and others mean when they warn of impending fascism. O’Toole writes:

“Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialled in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.

But when you’ve done all this, there is a crucial next step, usually the trickiest of all. You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.

It is this next step that is being test-marketed now. It is being done in Italy by the far-right leader and minister for the interior Matteo Salvini. How would it go down if we turn away boatloads of refugees? Let’s do a screening of the rough-cut of registering all the Roma and see what buttons the audience will press. And it has been trialled by Trump: let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages. I wonder how it will go down with Rupert Murdoch.  

To see, as most commentary has done, the deliberate traumatisation of migrant children as a “mistake” by Trump is culpable naivety. It is a trial run – and the trial has been a huge success. Trump’s claim last week that immigrants “infest” the US is a test-marketing of whether his fans are ready for the next step-up in language, which is of course “vermin”. And the generation of images of toddlers being dragged from their parents is a test of whether those words can be turned into sounds and pictures. It was always an experiment – it ended (but only in part) because the results were in.

And the results are quite satisfactory. There is good news on two fronts. First, Rupert Murdoch is happy with it – his Fox News mouthpieces outdid themselves in barbaric crassness: making animal noises at the mention of a Down syndrome child, describing crying children as actors. They went the whole swinish hog: even the brown babies are liars. Those sobs of anguish are typical of the manipulative behaviour of the strangers coming to infest us – should we not fear a race whose very infants can be so devious? Second, the hardcore fans loved it: 58 per cent of Republicans are in favour of this brutality. Trump’s overall approval ratings are up to 42.5 per cent.

This is greatly encouraging for the pre-fascist agenda. The blooding process has begun within the democratic world. The muscles that the propaganda machines need for defending the indefensible are being toned up. Millions and millions of Europeans and Americans are learning to think the unthinkable. So what if those black people drown in the sea? So what if those brown toddlers are scarred for life? They have already, in their minds, crossed the boundaries of morality. They are, like Macbeth, “yet but young in deed”. But the tests will be refined, the results analysed, the methods perfected, the messages sharpened. And then the deeds can follow.”

One may wonder what O’Toole has in mind specifically with the charge that Trump rigged elections, but he is correct about the need for a committed propaganda-fueled plurality as opposed to a majority. O’Toole’s key argument, however, is that fascism feeds on the breakdown of morality. This is a more contested point. In his monumental study of Fascism A History of Fascism 1914-1945, Stanley G. Payne argues that amidst the many contradictory and distinct fascist and authoritarian movements that arose in Europe, fascism can be generally identified as coherent. Fascism, Payne argues, “was an epochal European revolutionary movement of the early twentieth century of great complexity, fomented by the new ideas and values of the cultural crisis of the fin de siècle and the ideology of hypernationalism… Above all, fascism was the most revolutionary form of nationalism in Europe to that point in history, and it was characterized by its culture of philosophical idealism, willpower, vitalism, and mysticism and its moralistic concept of therapeutic violence, strongly identified with military values, outward aggressiveness, and empire.” (487-88) There is also, Payne argues, a “style of fascism” that includes political uniforms, elaborate ceremonies and chants, black shirts, salutes, and above all a cult of violence. One of the core indicia of fascism is the “necessity and indeed vital role of violence.”

As a revolutionary movement, fascism does emerge at times of social and moral transition. But such moral disintegration is not enough. One major insight Payne offers is that Fascism took hold only in those countries that had recently secularized and that did not have a cultural history of democratic institutions. “In no case where a liberal democratic system had been established either before World War I or had existed for a full generation did the country succumb to fascism.” Another important insight is that countries with “stable party systems, such as Britain, France, and the Low Countries, were largely immune to fascism. The larger fascist parties required not merely some preparation of the soil by a preexisting movement of intense nationalism but also significant fragmentation or cleavage among the other forces.” In other words, in addition to social decay, fascism traditionally requires a breakdown of political institutions as well. Fascism emerges, or has emerged, in countries where civility in the sense of a vibrant sphere of citizenship and civil engagement, has not been established or has been lost. In that sense, the outbreak of civil unrest in the United States is a good indication of that the country is not fertile ground for fascism.

—Roger Berkowitz

Travel Ban

At the center of the question of fascism is a debate about whether President Trump is mobilizing extralegal violence. This week the United States Supreme Court split on this question when it ruled in a 5-4 decision to uphold President Trump’s “Travel Ban,” for individuals from mostly Muslim countries. The majority ruled that as offensive as President Trump’s statements about Muslims may be, his words do not make his travel ban, “neutral on its face,” a violation of constitutional and legal governance.

“Plaintiffs argue that this President’s words strike at fundamental standards of respect and tolerance, in violation of our constitutional tradition. But the issue before us is not whether to denounce the statements. It is instead the significance of those statements in reviewing a Presidential directive, neutral on its face, addressing a matter within the core of executive responsibility. In doing so, we must consider not only the statements of a particular President, but also the authority of the Presidency itself.”

Justice Sotomayor penned a piercing dissent arguing that the decision was a clear constitutional violation of the Establishment Clause which prohibits government policies “respecting the establishment of religion.” Using President Trump’s own words Justice Sotomayor argues that the ban was clearly designed to target individuals on the basis of religious affiliation, and for this reason also undermines the promise of religious neutrality embedded in the first amendment.

“Taking all the relevant evidence together, a reasonable observer would conclude that the Proclamation was driven primarily by anti-Muslim animus, rather than by the Government’s asserted national-security justifications. Even before being sworn into office, then-candidate Trump stated that “Islam hates us,” warned that “[w]e’re having problems with the Muslims, and we’re having problems with Muslims coming into the country,” promised to enact a “total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States,” and instructed one of his advisers to find a “lega[l]” way to enact a Muslim ban. The President continued to make similar statements well after his inauguration, as detailed above.”

Posted on 1 July 2018 | 8:20 am

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