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Amor Mundi: Anti-Semitism

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.


ARCHIV – 28.02.2018, Russland, Moskau: Wladimir Putin (r), Präsident von Russland, begrüßt Sebastian Kurz, Bundeskanzler von Österreich, bei einem Treffen im Kreml. (zu dpa “Putin zum Arbeitsbesuch in Wien: Heikle Themen und alte Meisterwerke ” vom 04.06.2018) Foto: Grigory Dukor/POOL REUTERS/AP/dpa +++ dpa-Bildfunk +++

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was published in 1951, reversed the then conventional wisdom about the emergence of fascist and totalitarian regimes. While many saw fascism and totalitarianism as the historical apotheosis of the nation, Arendt argued that fascism and totalitarianism emerged in the middle of the 20th century as the nation-state system began to collapse. Put simply, totalitarianism is not the triumph of the nation-state, totalitarianism is what emerges when the nation-state system falls apart.

In the first part of Origins, which offers a historical analysis of anti-Semitism, Arendt writes that anti-Semitism too is an outgrowth of the decline of the nation-state: “modern anti-Semitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balance of powers crashed.” Nationalism is not the same thing as the nation-state, and while nationalism in certain authoritarian leaning countries has fed the ideology of anti-Semitism across Europe, the liberal notion of the nation-state since the postwar period has been understood to serve as a guarantor of rights and freedoms, to ward against calamitous ideologies.

I was thinking about these passages this week as I followed the news, which seemed littered with accounts of anti-Semitism across the world. Arendt’s account of anti-Semitism has always been contentious, but it is also reflective and perspicuous. It is not surprising that at this moment in time, as the world falls to illiberalism, we are witnessing a rise in hatred.

Read the rest of this piece on Medium.

Kill List

Matt Taibbi writing for Rolling Stone shares the harrowing story of Bilal Abdul Kareem who found himself on America’s infamous “Kill List,” technically titled the “Disposition Matrix.” Conceived during President Obama’s administration, the list appears to sort people into targeting from capture, interrogation, or assignation by drone. Officials come together on what have been deemed “Terror Tuesdays” to discusses who is on the list. When Donald Trump was running for office he promised to increase the number of bombings in the Middle East, saying: “You have to take out their families.” He is fulfilling his promise. Taibbi writes:

We kill suspects whose names we know, and whose names we don’t; we kill the guilty and the not guilty; we kill men, but also women and children; we kill by day and by night; we fire missiles at confirmed visual targets, but also at cellphone numbers we hope belong to targets.

When he first heard he was on this list, Kareem was aghast. This was no situation like the siege of Aleppo, where a quick joke might turn the crowd. How could anyone reverse the decision of a deadly bureaucracy so secret and inaccessible that even if it had an off switch, few in the civilian world would know where to find it? How could he talk his way out of this one?

Kareem appealed for help to Clive Stafford Smith, an Anglo-American attorney he’d met in his travels, who’d founded a London-based human rights organization called Reprieve.

Kareem has filed a complaint asking the U.S. government to take him off their Kill List, and to challenge the evidence against him. His case has serious implication for the integrity of American democracy:

It’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the most important lawsuits to ever cross the desk of a federal judge. The core of the Bill of Rights is in play, and a wrong result could formalize a slide into authoritarianism that began long ago, but accelerated after 9/11. Since that day, we have given presidents enormous power – to make war, to torture, to detain indefinitely – and our entire legal system has been transformed on a variety of fronts, placing huge questions about illegal searches, warrantless arrest, indefinite detention, torture and other matters behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, outside the reach of courts.

And yet, nobody is paying attention. While America obsesses over Russia, Stormy Daniels and Kim Jong-Un, almost no one is covering Kareem’s trial. His race-against-time effort to escape the American killing machine is too surreal, even in the Trump era. But it’s also a potentially devastating last-straw moment in the history of America’s recent dystopian slide, with the executive branch asking for the ultimate in dictatorial powers: the right to kill even its own citizens without having to explain itself.

Black or White?

Thomas Chatterton Williams reviews a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London on Michael Jackson, which culls together the work of 48 artists. At the center of the exhibit is Jackson’s ever-transforming appearance in the world. Williams writes:

“In this post-post-racial, post-Obama era of resurgent populism and Balkanized identity politics, it really does feel as though it matters — and matters more than anything else — whether you’re black or white. It does make for a particularly fascinating moment to re-evaluate Jackson’s image as a fundamentally “black” but simultaneously racially transcendent figure, or a monstrous desecration, depending on your perspective. Indeed, there is a push and pull between these running through the exhibition and the catalog that accompanies it.

In the catalog, the critic Margo Jefferson calls Jackson “a postmodern trickster god,” noting “what visceral emotion he stirred (and continues to stir) in us!” She anticipates, in the next pages, the novelist and essayist Zadie Smith’s castigating contribution. Ms. Smith writes of her mother’s initial preoccupation with the singer: “I think the Jacksons represented the possibility that black might be beautiful, that you might be adored in your blackness — worshiped, even.” But, she adds, “By the time I became aware of Michael — around 1980 or so — my mother was finished with him, for reasons she never articulated, but which became clear soon enough. For me, he very soon became a traumatic figure, shrouded in shame.”

Chatterton Williams will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.”


A Liberalism of Fear

Jacob Levy revisits the liberal political theory of Judith Shklar and argues that Shklar’s insistence that liberalism embraces political freedom rather than technocratic security offers lessons for politics today.

“Shklar’s writings on nationalism, migration, and refuge, informed by her own teenage experience as a Jewish refugee from wartime Europe, offer a clear indictment of the current politics of xenophobia. Her study of U.S. citizenship speaks directly to current debates about disenfranchisement and voter suppression. Her masterpiece, Ordinary Vices, has become essential reading amid rampant accusations of partisan hypocrisy and demands for political purity. And her most famous essay, “The Liberalism of Fear,” with its bracing vision of a political order that reconciles resignation with idealism, gives perhaps the clearest insight into her broader project — and, indirectly, the West’s present populist crisis. In that essay, published in 1989, Shklar suggests a unique way forward from liberalism’s current impasse — one that involves, in a sense, first stepping back.

“The Liberalism of Fear” is fundamentally an essay about the boundaries of liberalism. Over the course of the mid- to late 20th century, liberalism became encumbered by considerable cultural baggage in Western politics. It had come to be associated with the progressive technocracy of a self-appointed best and brightest and the judicial enforcement of substantive policy outcomes; it was a school of thought that both claimed to represent the people and seemed to avoid the messy practice of democratic politics. In part for that reason, some thinkers on both the right and the left came to use it as an epithet, shorthand for a halfhearted and weak-kneed lack of conviction. Think of Robert Frost’s joke that a liberal is someone who won’t take his or her own side in an argument or — in the immediate past as Shklar was writing her essay — George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign disdaining liberalism as culturally elitist and effete.

In her essay, Shklar tries to recenter liberalism by insisting it is essentially a political, not a philosophical or legal, doctrine. Liberalism is concerned with freedom, but the substance of freedom is to be determined by the individuals seeking it for themselves, not the philosopher divining its nature from her office. By placing limits on liberalism, Shklar also wanted to give it more force, in the service of protecting people from undue power — state power, above all. She thought the philosophical and juridical liberalism of rights and justice associated with Immanuel Kant and Rawls, as well as the aspirational liberalism of self-development found in John Stuart Mill’s work, ultimately went astray because it distracted from the most urgent political task associated with freedom: restraining state violence.”


When George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, it was originally rejected by numerous publishers who were afraid to publish it because of fear of controversy or protest. Orwell penned a preface “The Freedom of the Press” that was, eventually, not published with the book and was lost for decades. Josh Jones turns back to George Orwell’s original preface to Animal Farm to argue that the great danger to freedom of the press today is not government regulation, but self-censorship by the press.

“As is far too often the case these days, the questions we grapple with now are the same that vexed George Orwell over fifty years ago in his many literary confrontations with totalitarianism in its varying forms. Orwell faced what he construed as a kind of censorship when he finished his satirical novel Animal Farm. The manuscript was rejected by four publishers, Orwell noted, in a preface intended to accompany the book called “The Freedom of the Press.” The preface was “not included in the first edition of the work,” the British Library points out, “and it remained undiscovered until 1971.”

“Only one of these” publishers “had any ideological motive,” writes Orwell. “Two had been publishing anti-Russian books for years, and the other had no noticeable political colour. One publisher actually started by accepting the book, but after making preliminary arrangements he decided to consult the Ministry of Information, who appear to have warned him, or at any rate strongly advised him, against publishing it.” While Orwell finds this development troubling, “the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech,” he writes, was not government censorship.

If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

The “discomfort” of intellectual honesty, Orwell writes, meant that even during wartime, with the Ministry of Information’s often ham-fisted attempts at press censorship, “the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.””

The Press and the Resistance

Michael Massing acknowledges that the press is under pressure to stand up to attacks by the President. But Massing worries that by setting themselves up as part of “the Resistance” against Trump, the press is tarnishing its reputation and furthering our political dysfunction. What distinguishes Massing’s essay from others is his careful and specific documenting of examples where the major press organs have shown bias against President Trump, the very charge of #fakenews that Trump and his supporters make repeatedly.

“Yet even as news organizations perform this valuable function, they have shown some serious weaknesses, including bias, insularity, groupthink, and condescension, which have provided ammunition to Trump and his supporters as they seek to discredit the press. More important, the news media have kept their audiences poorly informed about some important realities in the country. With Trump causing ever more havoc—from initiating trade wars and instituting travel bans to interning migrants and insulting our allies—and with the fruits of the Mueller investigation beginning to appear, this might seem an inopportune time to challenge the media’s performance. But unless some corrective action is taken, the same shock and dismay that coursed through newsrooms in November 2016 could occur again in 2020.

Prior to Trump’s election, the press was frequently criticized for its embrace of “he said/she said” journalism and the false sense of balance it imparted. Thankfully, this approach has been jettisoned in the Trump era, freeing journalists to forcefully call out the president’s falsifications and misrepresentations. But has the balance perhaps tipped too far in the opposite direction? A news organization like the Times derives its reputation by delivering the news “without fear or favor,” but sometimes there seems to be too much favor.

In reporting on Trump, for example, the paper often uses such tendentious words as “swagger,” “brag,” “boast,” “tirade,” “rant,” and—a particular Times favorite—“bluster.” A President Who Peddles Bluster Quietly Revives His Banter, ran a July 15, 2017, headline. Amid Bluster, White House Ponders Next Step, declared another on September 23, 2017. An article in May 2018 about Trump’s speech to the graduating class of the Naval Academy was headlined: Navy Officers Saluted With Bluster and Big Numbers. According to the article itself, Trump spent much of the address touting his efforts to increase the military budget and expand the armed forces. The headline would have been more professional—and informative—had it stuck to that fact, as the online headline actually did.

But the bias runs deeper than just headlines. On June 23, the Times ran a story contrasting the policies of the NBA and the NFL for dealing with player protests during the national anthem. To explain the NBA’s more lenient stance, the Timescited the greater star power of basketball players. According to the article, after the president withdrew an invitation to the champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House because the team’s record-setting point guard, Stephen Curry, said he didn’t want to go, Trump “was met head on by basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James, who called him a bum. Other prominent players spoke out, too. The president slinked away, the way a bully does when faced with unexpected resistance.” Does such opinionizing belong in a news article?

Around the same time, the paper ran a story headlined Italy’s Economy Was Humming Nicely. Then Came Trump. According to the story, the Italian economy had been seeing brisk growth until Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, putting at risk some large Italian contracts, and imposed tariffs that could make steel more expensive, further endangering growth. But the Italian economy had been stagnant for years due to political paralysis, a massive national debt, and a banking sector hobbled by bad loans; though it has finally begun to rebound, major structural problems remain. While the Times article did mention the paralysis, it held Trump mostly responsible, something few Italian economists would do.”

Posted on 22 July 2018 | 8:00 am

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