Amor Mundi: Against Pity
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.
Against Pity, On the Failings of the French Revolution
Yesterday was Bastille Day, and while some are writing essays defending the French Revolution, it is worth briefly revisiting Hannah Arendt’s criticism of the French Revolution. Rereading Arendt’s work On Revolution offers insight into the collapse between social and political life. In On Revolution Arendt argues that the French Revolution led to terror, while the American Revolution led to the founding of a new republic. One of the reasons the French Revolution failed, was because the leaders and masses were mobilized to political action and violence out of a sense of moral certitude, motivated by the perversion of compassion into pity.
“Pity maybe the perversion of compassion, but its alternative is solidarity. It is out of pity that men are ‘attracted toward les hommes faibles’, but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppresses and exploited.”
Solidarity aroused by compassion remains committed to plurality and ideas, as opposed to the sentiment of pity which appeals to a universalizing love of men. In this sense pity is a powerful political sentiment because it has the ability to appeal to a multitude, collapsing all into one. In this spirit, it is not discerning. Pity does not look upon the fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure, rather, it can only exist in the presence of misfortune.
The French Revolution put pity at the heart of its political crusade, and justified its violence in the name of the people. The cause of pity is the glorification of the suffering of others. Pity rests upon the existence of a misfortunate class, and could not exist without a conception of “the poor,” “the miserable,” or “the suffering.” It is for this that Arendt indicts Robespierre. He aroused the sentiment of pity in the masses by glorifying the poor, in order to justify his own lust for power.
The real danger of pity is that it is a boundless virtue which has no regard for justice or the rule of law. In Arendt’s parsing, the goal of the revolution was not liberation from tyranny, but liberation from necessity, which is not a political cause but a sentimental one. Freedom can never be founded in the sentiments of men, which erase plurality and distinction. For Arendt the political realm is a place where we can appear in public before one another and distinguish ourselves in word and deed. In this way, political fights are based on our ability to make arguments. Whereas political arguments based on sentiment appeal to what is common in men. And a politics that tries to move from this moralizing place, reduces all to one.
This is not an argument against the passions in politics. It is an argument against the publication of sentimental feeling in politics. Arendt writes:
Whatever the passions and the emotions may be, and whatever their true connection with thought and reason, they certainly are located in the human heart. And not only is the human heart a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display. However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes and object of suspicion rather than insight; when the light of the public falls upon it, it appears and even shines, but, unlike deeds and words which are meant to appear, whose very existence hinges on appearance, the motives behind such deeds and words are destroyed in their essence through appearance; when they appear they become ‘mere appearances’ behind which again other, ulterior motives may lurk, such as hypocrisy and deceit. The same sad logic of the human heart, which has almost automatically caused modern ‘motivational research’ to develop into an eerie sort of filing cabinet for human vices, into a veritable science of misanthropy, made Robespierre and his followers, once they had equated virtue with the qualities of the heart, see intrigue and calumny, treachery and hypocrisy everywhere. The fateful mood of suspicion, so glaringly omnipresent through the French Revolution even before a Law of Suspects spelled out its frightful implications, and so conspicuously absent from even the most bitter disagreements between the men of the American Revolution, arose directly out of this misplaced emphasis on the heart as the source of political virtue, on Ie ereur, une ame droite, un earaetere moral.
The French Revolution failed, in part, because it was grounded on a politics of pity. And this led to a tyrannical suspicion, attitude of cynicism, and inability to see the world except from the standpoint of misery.
Arendt’s argument in these pages resonates with the political battles that we are facing today between the right and left. The left today relies upon a pervasive sense of cynicism and suspicion, constantly policing the words and actions of other leftists, creating a sense of internal tyranny, and a mentality of “you are either with us, or you are against us.”
The moralization of politics that has conquered the left is readily apparent in the endless struggles over identity politics. From antifa inspired de-platforming campaigns that argue free speech is fascist, the #Metoo campaign that vilifies men and collapses all acts of sexual aggression, to Scarlett Johansson withdrawing from a film because she received pressure from activist groups about playing a trans character. Each of these political campaigns moves from a claim of suffering, and is more interested in achieving social justice than political freedom.
If we follow Arendt’s reading of pity in On Revolution, it is clear that a politics underpinned by the suffering of others can only lead to violence in the public sphere.
The Billionaire In Your Corner
David Callahan argues that politics has increasingly become a war of the billionaires. Whichever billionaire we root for, Callahan writes, we should worry about the outsized influence the rich are having on American politics.
“In one corner, backing the Republican, are billionaire heavyweights like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. In the other, wearing the blue trunks, are mega-donors such as Tom Steyer and George Soros, as well as one of the richest Americans of all, Michael Bloomberg, who recently confirmed that he’ll spend at least $80m to flip the House of Representatives to the Democrats – in a midterm election that will likely be the most expensive in history.
The rest of us, ordinary citizens without big bank accounts, will certainly play a role in the outcome this November. We cast the votes, after all. But more and more, US politics – along with civic life broadly – often feels like a spectator sport, as a growing array of billionaire super citizens battle it out in the public square.
The outsized clout of the rich is hardly a new story, of course. But this influence game is changing as the dollar signs get bigger and as the wealthy exert influence in more arenas using a more sophisticated array of strategies. The day before news broke about Bloomberg’s vast election giving, for example, the Times reported on the successful efforts of a Koch-backed 501(c)(4) group to kill public transportation initiatives across the country.
That same week, the Walton Family Foundation – which has already helped bankroll a quarter of all US charter schools – announced another $100m in education grants. Around the same time, the billionaire activist Tom Steyer launched a new ad attacking Donald Trump that featured audio of children crying in immigrant detention centers. The ad is part of Steyer’s unprecedented campaign pushing for Trump’s impeachment; he’s spent millions of dollars on the effort, on top of some $200m he’s made in political contributions since 2014.
Depending on your politics, you may either cheer or fear the influence spending of specific top donors. In truth, we should be troubled about all such spending. Thanks to several factors, economic inequality seems to be translating into civic disparities at a faster pace and in ways that touch more parts of US society.”
Du Bois at 150
Justin Jackson looks into the controversy in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts concerning the effort to erect a memorial to W.E.B. Du Bois on the 150th Anniversary of his birth. In a three-part series, Jackson argues for the importance of celebrating Du Bois as a great man who merits public recognition.
“As a recent immigrant to Great Barrington, and as an historian and an American, I’ve been proud to join celebrations acknowledging the 150th birth anniversary of my town’s most accomplished native son, W.E.B. Du Bois. Undoubtedly the greatest African-American intellectual in U.S. history and an activist who pioneered the modern civil rights movement and worked tirelessly for African peoples’ freedom throughout the world, Du Bois is long overdue for public recognition in Great Barrington and the nation.
Du Bois made extraordinary and lasting contributions to academic knowledge across several disciplines, including history and sociology. He fostered African-American arts and culture, wrote prolifically as a journalist, made forays into literature and poetry and, above all, acted as a leader in struggles for racial equality and civil rights.
In recent months, all this has finally been acknowledged in the hometown he loved so much. Banners bearing his image and noting the causes of civil rights, education and economic justice that he championed adorned Main Street’s lampposts. Stirring musical performances and speeches filled halls and churches. Scholarly lectures enlightened the curious. The Mason Library hosted an exhibitof artifacts from his life.
The Commonwealth even embraced the festive mood. In February, the state Legislature passed a resolution, co-signed by Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, marking the sesquicentennial of Du Bois’ birth on Church Street in 1868, only three years after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It seemed like Du Bois had, in a sense, finally come home to the welcoming New England community from which his family — and often paternalist but genuinely encouraging white neighbors, teachers and churchgoers — had ushered him onto the world stage.
Yet like Banquo’s ghost, the controversy surrounding Du Bois — and particularly his political ideology and affiliation at the end of his life — will not go down. Just as a specter whose troubled spirit aches for eternal rest, the legacy of his proverbially last-minute decision in 1961 to apply for membership in the American Communist Party at age 93 is revivified yet again in Great Barrington. Proving that the Cold War continues to haunt American life and politics well into the 21st century long after the rivalries, passions and violence it generated have dissipated, some local residents are protesting the vote of the town library trustees to welcome on the Mason Library front lawn a statue of Du Bois, the funds for which are being raised by private citizens.
What is their grievance? They believe that accepting such a statue and placing it on town property somehow implicates the town in the endorsement of Du Bois’ Communist affiliation.”
Posted on 15 July 2018 | 8:00 am
Illiberal Uses of Free Speech
Writing for Quillete, Daniel Friedman argues in defense of free speech against the tide of the current antifa movement. In his essay, “Free Speech Doesn’t Protect Nazis. It Protects Us From Nazis,” he illustrates how free speech has become the cause celebre of nationalist and right wing politics in the United States, and how this has resulted in leftist turning against free speech as a fundamental principle of liberal democracy.
In other words, narrowing the scope of free speech protections to accommodate limitations on hate speech, or to ban Nazis, or to shut Milo Yiannopoulos up, means reducing the scope of the individual right and expanding the power of the state to to regulate speech. In order to favor expanding the power of the state to regulate speech, you have to trust the state to wield that power judiciously, and not to abuse it or use it vindictively or excessively.
Before you empower government to police speech that is hateful or offensive, or speech that is deemed violent or harmful, then you have to consider the possibility that it will not be your sensibilities that determine which speech is beyond the pale.
While in other countries like Germany limitations on free speech have been put in place to outlaw Nazis, Friedman makes the case that laws constraining free speech could easily be turned against the left that advocates for them. Trading freedom for institutional regulation can not ward against hateful speech, it can only limit our individual rights. When the chips are down, as Arendt writes, states and institutional authorities cannot be counted on to protect the rights of marginalized citizens.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that the remedy for speech used in service of “falsehoods and fallacies” is “more speech.” But even if you’re skeptical that bad speech is exposed in the “marketplace of ideas,” you have to admit that regulations on speech only work if you can trust the regulator. And right now, in the United States, the regulator is Donald J. Trump.
We must favor individual rights over institutional power, even when individuals do bad things with their rights, because institutional power is much more dangerous when it falls into the wrong hands. We protect and tolerate speech we don’t like, so that we can speak without fear that those who don’t like us will use coercive institutional force to silence us. We don’t let Nazis speak for their sake; we let them speak for ours.
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