Amor Mundi: Civil Disobedience
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.
This 4th of July was marked by protests at the Statue of Liberty contesting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE ) and America’s immigration policies. To celebrate Independence Day, organizations and individuals decided to exercise their citizenship rights through acts of civil disobedience, calling attention to political policies they deemed unjust and un-American. Seven members of Rise and Resist were arrested at the statue for hanging a banner which called for the abolition of ICE, and Therese Patricia Okoumou was arrested for scaling Lady Liberty to protest Trump’s immigration policies. Sitting at the feet of the statue, between the folds of her robe, Okoumou called attention to family separation at the border, and asked for the children to be released. When asked why she scaled Lady Liberty, Okoumou said she was inspired by Michelle Obama, who said “when they go low, we go high.”
“Therese Patricia Okoumou, 44, pleaded not guilty on Thursday and spoke in front of a crowd gathered in front of a New York City courthouse. ‘Michelle Obama… said when they go low, we go high. And I went as high as I could,’ she said, calling President Donald Trump a ‘monster.’”
The Statue of Liberty has long been a site of American protest. According to Rick Rojas, writing for The New York Times, “Suffragists protested at its unveiling in 1886, circling the island in a boat. In 1976, members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War barricaded themselves inside the monument to protest cuts in education benefits, and last year, a group hung a banner that said “refugees welcome.”
During times of political crisis it is good to be reminded of the signs and symbols that represent the spirit of American citizenship. There is perhaps no greater image of freedom than the patinated copper monument on Liberty Island, given to us by the French in 1886. The statue sits south of Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, and has long greeted refugees and newcomers to the United States.
In Hannah Arendt’s essay “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience” she argues that civil disobedience emerges when our political institutions fail and lose their legitimacy. The nature of our political institutions requires continuing citizen participation in matters of public interest. Representative government can only retain its authority insofar as citizens have a meaningful way to engage the political institutions that give form to daily life. Arendt argues that representative government itself is in crisis today because all institutions that permitted citizen participation have been eroded by “bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.” Civil disobedience emerges amongst the people “when established institutions of a country fail to function properly and its authority loses its power.”
When the traditional institutional venues for citizens to participate in government no longer work effectively, we have recourse to civil disobedience as a means of calling attention to unjust policies. Drawing from Tocqueville, Arendt reminds us that as citizens the recourse to civil disobedience is a means by which we can freely associate with one another, and come together in the public sphere to voice dissent. Voluntary associations are the “American remedy for the failure of institutions, the unreliability of men, and the uncertain nature of the future.”
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, it is well to recall Arendt’s claim that civil disobedience is and should be a Constitutional right in the United States.
“If Montesquieu was right—and I believe he was—that there is such a thing as ‘the spirit of the laws,’ which varies from country to country and is different in the various forms of government, then we may say that consent, not in the very old sense of mere acquiescence, with its distinction between rule over willing subjects and rule over unwilling ones, but in the sense of active support and continuing participation in all matters of public interest, is the spirit of American law….
Consent, in the American understanding of the term, relies on the horizontal version of the social contract, and not on majority decisions. (On the contrary, much of the thinking of the framers of the Constitution concerned safeguards for dissenting minorities.)….
Consent and the right to dissent became the inspiring and organizing principles of action that taught the inhabitants of this continent the ‘art of associating together,’ from which sprang those voluntary associations whose role Tocqueville was the first to notice….
It is my contention that civil disobedients are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association, and that they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country.”
The 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience” will explore the outbreaks of civil disobedience today that make manifest the fraying of a consensus around questions of economic and racial equality as well as social discrimination, immigration, and the uses of American power abroad. In raising the questions of citizenship and civil disobedience, we ask if and how a new democratic American ideal can emerge. You can read more about the conference and register here.
—Samantha Hill and Roger Berkowitz
The Risks of Going Low
“Julie Nixon, the president’s daughter, also paid a price. Often a target of invective — at one rally at Smith College, which she attended, a crowd of 10,000 chanted, “Fuck Julie and David Eisenhower” — she was set to graduate in the spring of 1970 when the campuses, in the wake of Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, turned violent. Because of threats, the Secret Service insisted that the president not attend. Julie accepted the decision, writing to her father’s aide John Ehrlichman, “I truly think the day will be a disaster if he comes,” but the thought of her father missing the event brought her nearly to tears.
Hearing these stories, many will respond: Boo-hoo. What’s Julie missing her father at graduation compared to the strafing of Cambodia? But the point is not that Julie Nixon or Robert McNamara was done a grave injustice, any more than discomfort with the treatment of Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen means seeing them as victims. The reason to maintain standards of conduct and preserve a non-political space of human interaction is not to protect particular politicians and government officials. It’s to protect America, to uphold the political culture we value.
Trump and his followers have already shown their contempt for the practices and gestures that help us live amicably with our ideological opposites. Joining Trump in the project of trashing the unwritten rules of public conduct won’t change his policies or governing style. But it will betray our own values and make it harder, once he’s gone, to reconstitute a decent, humane politics. We have nothing to gain from the eradication of a politics-free zone, from a war of all against all that greenlights once-verboten behaviors and permeates once-private spaces.
Besides, as the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s show, the outrageous and obnoxious antics of the militant left ended up hurting their cause. The taunting of public figures isn’t well remembered, and neither will history long record June’s showdown at the Red Hen. But insofar as these actions stem from a determination to score political points by violating civil norms, they — and the repellent and violent methods of extreme protesters more generally — engender a backlash and alienate allies. By 1972, we should recall, a majority of Americans had come to oppose the Vietnam War, but greater numbers opposed the antiwar movement. Nixon cannily positioned himself as upholding law and order — a helpfully ambiguous phrase that lumped together the threats of rising crime, urban riots and rowdy left-wing activism. His invocation of the “silent majority” aimed to bring together those who were put off by the noisy, disruptive and politically extreme protests. Trump, who has openly borrowed Nixonian terms like “law and order” and “silent majority,” has already been using the confrontations with his administration’s officials to shift the discussion from his immigration policies and onto the left’s behavior.
There is a middle ground. It’s entirely possible to take a principled stand against the Trump administration while hewing to honorable methods. In November 2016, Vice President Elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He wasn’t turned away, yelled at, or threatened. But after the show, one actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, spoke for the ensemble in thanking Pence for his presence and then expressing their fears. “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.””
Political Party Flux
Our political parties are in flux. Some #nevertrump Republicans remain committed to an ideal of an older Republican Party while other prominent Republicans have left the party altogether. Democrats remain torn between establishment party lines and the specter of a left-wing wave with the primary election of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And still there has been much talk of a Blue Dog comeback, with conservative Democrats like Connor Lamb and Dan Lipinski.
Michelle Goldberg argued in this week’s New York Times that “The Millennial Socialists are coming,” on the tail of several primary victories. Summer Lee, Sara Innamorato, Elizabeth Fielder, and now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. While these elections appear to give Goldberg some hope in our contemporary political moment, her keenness seems overly optimistic:
“Their races were part of a grass-roots civic renewal that is happening across this country, something that is, for me, the sole source of optimism in this very dark time. Marinating in the news in New York City, I’m often sick with despair. An authoritarian president of dubious legitimacy and depraved character is poised to remake America for generations with a second Supreme Court pick. The federal government is a festival of kleptocratic impunity. Kids the same age as my own are ripped from their migrant parents.”
It is possible that the Democratic Party will swing left, but it is not clear that this kind of swing can sweep through middle-America. Reflecting on the Ocasio-Cortez’s election Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said:
“I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is. . .. I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest. . .. You need to talk to the industrial Midwest, you need to listen to the people there.”
Duckworth’s comments echoed those of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who said people should not get “carried away” over Ocasio-Cortez’s nomination.
The Republican Party is facing a similar and yet different challenge. Instead of insider candidates pushing the party’s platform further to the right, conservatives are leaving the Republican Party. Max Boot, writing in The Washington Post, reflects on Steve Schmidt’s renunciation of his party membership. Schmidt wrote on Twitter:
“29 years and nine months ago I registered to vote and became a member of the Republican Party which was founded in 1854 to oppose slavery and stand for the dignity of human life. . .. Today I renounce my membership in the Republican Party. It is fully the party of Trump.”
George F. Will, Gordon Humphrey, Joe Scarborough, Peter Whener, Steve Schmidt, and now Max Boot, too, have all disavowed their Republican membership. Explaining his decision Boot writes,
“Trumpkins ‘want to transform the GOP into a European-style nationalist party that opposes cuts in entitlement programs, believes in deportation of undocumented immigrants, white identity politics, protectionism and isolationism backed by hyper-macho threats to bomb the living daylights out of anyone who messes with us.” I still hoped then that traditional conservatives might eventually prevail, but, I wrote, “I can no longer support a party that doesn’t know what it stands for — and that in fact may stand for positions that I find repugnant.’”
Still #NeverTrump conservatives like Tom Nichols and Bill Kristol remain committed to Republicans, renouncing Trump but not the party:
“Kristol, for one, balks “at giving up the Republican party to the forces of nativism, vulgar populism, and authoritarianism.” As he notes, “It would be bad for the country if one of our two major parties went in this direction.”
Kristol’s position is not too far from Hannah Arendt’s. While it is clear that the parties have to find a way to represent the voice of the voters, they cannot succumb to winning votes on ideological grounds. Arendt warned that the collapse of the party system was an element of totalitarianism emerging. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt writes that totalitarianism is possible when political parties are reduced to ideology and when classes are reduced to masses. She writes,
“The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.”
In a newly published essay, “Reflections on the 1960 National Conventions: Kennedy VS. Nixon” in Thinking Without a Banister, Arendt considers televised nominating conventions. She worried and warned that the political party system in America was being corrupted by media and party machinery which increasingly relied on polling data. She argues that television and polling meant that the candidates were essentially pre-chosen, that voters had made up their minds before they ever heard candidates speak or make their case. Instead of voters electing candidates they wanted, they were being given a slate of options to choose from. And this crystallization of party machinery meant that voters were being pushed further and further to the sidelines of American politics.
Today we are experiencing a backlash to the alienation of voters from the party system. No election appears to be a forgone conclusion. The 2016 presidential race taught us that we cannot trust polling data, or televised debates. Mass politics emerges when citizens feel unrepresented by the established political party system. Arendt cautioned that these voters were the perfect target for propaganda because they did not hold strong political views of their own. Instead, they were easily swayed by slogans, and racial or class ideology.
Moving too far to the right or left is not going to shore up political commitment among the voters, though it might invigorate a vocal minority of the electorate. Thinking with Arendt, we have to find a way to remain committed to our political parties, while making them more democratic and less ideological.
Harvard University is being sued for discrimination against Asian Americans in its Affirmative Action programs that are designed to admit more African American and Latino students. And in New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio is seeking to eliminate the tests that determine entry into the city’s top high schools, which will decrease the number of Asian students. Although “Asian-Americans are the poorest immigrant group in the city,” they are not seen as a minority in need of assistance; in fact, it is now seen to be ok to discriminate against them. Suddenly, the question of racialized affirmative action is being challenged again at the most consequential levels. In this context, John McWhorter argues that race-based affirmative action is, in 2018, racism. Even in a society where racism is real and consequent, McWhorter argues that affirmative action should be used to increase the chances of poor students.
“And no, residual racism does not qualify as any kind of mic-drop here. Say that an upper-middle class black student is hobbled from tippy-top performance by the residual racism of 2018 and you are calling her a weakling. You are also leaving a perfectly valuable objection from assorted non-black people working with obstacles such as poverty, illness, family tragedy, and even racism (as some Asians can legitimately claim) as to why they don’t deserve the same special treatment or why this black student does.
Even sadder is that this sense of blackness and school has percolated into too many black Americans’ sense of themselves. On schools like Stuyvesant, a black New Yorker casually tells the New York Times that “the exam is built to exclude blacks because it’s heavy on math and black people can’t do math.” In academia, some black professors have been arguing that fields requiring heavy-duty quantitative analysis are racist in failing to hire or promote black professors whose work eschews numbers, the idea being that non-quantitative analysis constitutes a valuable alternate (“diverse”?) perspective. Again the idea that it is somehow logically impossible for black people to be number-crunchers. A hundred years ago civil rights leaders would unhesitatingly have sought to get black people the skills they needed to break in, not indignantly demand that the powers that be change what they think of standards.
And then, there is the tendency for black teens to associate doing well in school with “acting white.” Often when I refer to this, it elicits indignant claims that the “acting white” idea has been somehow debunked. It has not, and I am unmoved by these objections. The facts are painfully clear in countless books and articles, and detractors are nimbly working around, rather than with, the reality because they find it inconvenient to see a black community problem attributed to something other than white perfidy. If it makes them feel any better, the “acting white” charge began when black kids were alienated by white teachers’ scorn for black students amidst desegregation orders in the 1960s, and is maintained by whites’ tacit assumptions that serious scholastic ability is diagonal to what being black is.
One of the ways I know this is how so many of us are quietly thinking is shown by Candid Moment No. 2, which tragically but usefully illustrates my larger point. The spring after racial preferences had been banned at UC Berkeley in 1998, a student in one of my classes was a black undergraduate who was working in the minority recruitment office spending time with black prospectives. This was the first body of black applicants who had been admitted without racial preferences. She very casually said to me that she and the other people at the office were worried that black students who performed at that high a level wouldn’t be concerned with maintaining a sense of black community at Berkeley.
There it was: She expected me to spontaneously understand that the black nerd probably isn’t “really black.” That statement was unimaginable from a Chinese-American or Jewish student, and neatly explains why even black people are so often comfortable with the idea that they require “welcome” for doing very well rather than excellently. Black students aren’t supposed to be too good in school, was this woman’s message, delivered, I might add, quite calmly. And in fact, some years later I heard, unbidden, from two black students who had entered Berkeley with that class, telling me that they had indeed encountered a cold shoulder from more than a few of the older black students who were suspicious of them for being post-preference admits.
Much can be said about how slavery, Jim Crow, and white racism have conditioned a people to underestimate their own cognitive abilities. However, the nasty truth is that racial preferences, in being maintained so far past their sell-by date, now maintain rather than break with toxic preconceptions we should be long past. To wit, lowering standards for black and Latino applicants is now a retrogressive rather than progressive approach.
Or, racist, at least. I know of no more vivid indication of racism today than the idea that brown people are human history’s first who can only truly compete under ideal conditions. I know of no more vivid hypocrisy on the part of those who style themselves black people’s fellow travelers than to earnestly dismiss claims that black people’s average IQ is lower than other peoples’ while in the same breath nodding vigorously that a humane society must not subject the same people to challenging tests. Moreover, I know of no more tragic indication of a people’s internalization of the oppressor’s racism than a bright black NAACP lawyer arguing with proud indignation that if black people don’t do well on a test it’s society’s job to eliminate the test or make it easier.”
Jim Sleeper argues that too much of the argument for free speech today has come under the sway of the metaphor of the free market. The result is a forgetting of the purpose of the First Amendment, which is, says Sleeper, the protection of the speech of citizens and persons, not of corporations, unions, and other collectivities.
“The conservative campaign’s essential deception begins with a zeal to equate “free markets” with “free speech”—not only in election campaigns but also on campuses, in the news media, and in so-called right-to-work laws that weaken union representation. This deception is one of the factors accelerating swift currents of dispossession and desperate behavior in public life and, riding those currents, the demagoguery that deranges free speech itself and dissolves conservatives’ own professed devotion to “ordered liberty.”
It hasn’t helped that many civil liberties advocates and activists have abetted the conservative movement’s misreadings of the First Amendment’s clear intent. The consequent plague of advertising-driven disinformation makes Trump-enabled “fake news” seem almost weak by comparison. Instead of promoting a free press that helps citizens to redress public grievances, petition elected representatives, or hold officials accountable, the attention-scrambling cacophony of the so-called marketplace of ideas (the metaphor beloved by conservatives) rewards perpetual nerve stimulation, not the reasoned debate and mutual respect that deliberative democracy needs. So long as we mistake a Pavlovian stable of programmed outrage for democratic discourse, impulse-driven consumers will lose their capacity to absorb information and think clearly about their freedoms and obligations as citizens.
Treating corporate speech as de facto free speech intensifies that whirlwind of civic derangement, prompting cries for a strongman to replace a degraded civil society with an authoritarian one. That robs us of the centuries-old hope—shared by both classical liberals and the best exponents of the conservative tradition—that ever-freer speech by ever-freer individuals can help to civilize humanity. With authoritarian rulers and their pseudo-populist mobs suppressing free speech with propaganda in Russia, China, and formerly viable democracies such as Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and other polities, our own self-avowed defenders of “ordered liberty” need to face the equally dangerous consequences of legitimating business-corporate speech, driven solely or mainly for profit, as if it were one of the kinds of public speech that the First Amendment was written to protect.”
Posted on 8 July 2018 | 8:00 am
Erik Robinson reflects on how teaching high school Latin might move beyond the ablative to questions of justice.
“The most promising of my former Latin students recently told me that she regretted that we did not spend more time discussing the social, cultural, and historical legacy of the ancient world. As with all good criticism, this cut deep because I acknowledged the justice of the reproach. She noted that, for all of the time that we spent reading Latin texts, the class had never really spent much time discussing in depth such issues as the brutality of war, the treatment of women, and the experience of slaves.
For all of the lofty sublimity which can potentially be found in Classical literature, there is underlying it a legacy of horror and abuse which is not infrequently discussed in college lecture halls, but can be a source of strain, vexation, and even professional peril in a high school Latin classroom. Classicists often indulge themselves in bouts of self-congratulation about teaching humanities, and take presumptive credit for the supposedly humanizing influence which they have. Yet, as a high school Latin teacher, I confess that I have singularly failed in this (perhaps totally unrealistic) aim.
A typical Latin IV class in America will spend roughly half of the school year reading Julius Caesar, whose Commentaries on the Gallic Wars have long been a fixture of Latin classes. Caesar provides a sure and safe introduction to the lucid Latin laid out in grammar books, but it is otherwise hard to engage students with Caesar’s text on a meaningful level. Caesar gives an impersonal eyewitness account of a war which happened more than 2,000 years ago. For some students this very historical distance seems to mitigate the cruelty of the entire endeavor. In fact, more than a few students have told me that they received the whole work as though it were fictional: “It just doesn’t feel like it even happened.”
The impersonal/objective authorial voice of Caesar contributes to this reception. Consider his note, after defeating the Veneti in Book III of the Gallic Wars, “And so, with the whole senate having been killed, he sold the rest into slavery” (Itaque omni senatu necato reliquos sub corona vendidit). One cold sentence contains in eight words all of the suffering of slaughter and slavery, but it is used today primarily as a convenient spot to review the ablative absolute. This reading cannot have a humanizing effect if we are simply grooming the next generation of cloistered pedants. Caesar’s value as an exemplar of clear and conveniently grammaticized Latin is indisputable; yet, how can we use the horrors which Caesar describes as a tool to inform our common humanity?”
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