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Amor Mundi: The Need for Heterodoxy

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 Need for Heterodoxy

Last month a group of student fellows from the Hannah Arendt Center’s Plurality Project attended the first Heterodox Academy Conference in New York City. Reflecting on her experiences at the conference, Isabella Santana argues that professors and students need to work together to make space for difficult conversations:

In order to address the free speech crisis on college campuses today, we need students and professors to work together and listen to one another. Pain felt by students in the classroom — including myself — needs to be addressed. By calling us “snowflakes,” the empty rhetoric that is antithetical to viewpoint diversity and open-mindedness is perpetuated. But those of us students who are fed up with a long history of injustice must also be open to having discussion with those we disagree with. By discussion I do not mean that black and brown students should have to debate members of the KKK, nor should they have to constantly be the individuals fighting the fight against racism. These conversations can be incredibly exhausting, lines can and should be drawn. What I mean by discussion is a willingness to hear, because a willingness to hear will create a willingness to be heard. Without listening to one another, particularly on college campuses, our learning and growth can only go so far. Although there is no clear solution, the first steps to me seem quite apparent: adopting an attitude that embraces viewpoint diversity and thus a willingness to learn.

Paranoid Politics

Blake Smith seeks to shed light on dog-whistling, the common practice where politicians say something that may be inoffensive on the surface but appeals to unconscious hatreds. One well-known recent example is President Trump’s claim during the campaign that Mexicans who were coming to the United States were overwhelmingly criminals. While the President explicitly said in his comments that “some” Mexicans, and also some Mexican immigrants, are good people, the implication that most Mexican immigrants are criminals was seen by many on the left as racism, the suggestion that Mexicans are in some sense disproportionately bad people who have some predisposition to criminality. That the President never said such a thing is thought to be unimportant; as a dog whistle is inaudible to humans but seductive to canines, so too are political dog whistles thought to be subconscious and unstated red meat for racists. Smith turns to Paul Ricoeur and Eve Sedgewick to help understand the dog whistle phenomenon.

—Roger Berkowitz

“In his book Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur asks us to imagine two basic styles of interpretation, or hermeneutics. One focuses on “unmasking” and “demystification,” exposing what a speaker really means, or why they said what they said. This reading is based on an attitude of suspicion, and sees statements as “masks” that conceal the speakers’ agenda. Ricoeur argues that this style of interpretation is that of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, the “masters of suspicion.” The other style of interpretation focuses on the “restoration of meaning.” Instead of asking why a speaker made a statement (in order to do what? in order to conceal what?), the interpreter considers how the statement is addressed to them “in the manner of a message,” and how it encourages them to engage with it to achieve understanding.

In Ricoeur’s analysis, hermeneutics remain confined to the intellectual sphere; but Sedgwick ran with his insights into politics. In her 2002 essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Sedgwick accused the Left of being stuck in Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of suspicion. Academics and activists make a virtue of paranoia, she argued, flaunting their interpretive prowess in detecting the subtlest instances of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Sedgwick, herself writing from the Left, came to the same conclusion as Bonevac: that listening with such intensity for the hidden discourse of one’s opponents was a kind of insanity. But rather than let that diagnosis be the end of her analysis, she took it as her point of departure.

Sedgwick did not directly address the notion of dog-whistling (which was a term only just gaining currency at the time of writing), but her analysis of the suspicious hermeneutic style of left-wing “oppositional theorists” illuminates today’s headlines. She explained that this style of interpretation is grounded in, and perpetuates, a psychological condition that tries to avoid negative surprises by anticipating bad news. What the subject fears—“patriarchy, racism, sex difference”—is always on their mind, and constantly being ‘discovered’ in the world. This may may seem like a successful strategy, Sedgwick warned her friends, but it is a self-defeating one.

Paranoid interpreters imagine themselves to be maintaining a “terrible alertness” that wards off danger. In fact they are unobservant and naive. They seem to find the things that they oppose lurking around every corner; but in practice they are continually surprised and defeated when these forces do manifest themselves. Sedgwick points out that her colleagues and comrades were baffled by the victories of Reagan and Bush. Today, they are just as baffled today by Trump. Listening for reaction everywhere, they never hear it coming.”

Permanent Citizenship

Denaturalization is one of the telltale signs of what Hannah Arendt calls totalitarianism. While it is undoubtedly true that international law permits sovereign nations to control emigration, naturalization, and expulsion, the choice to denaturalize citizens risks artificially creating groups of people who are stateless refugees, shorn of any home or harbor. What is more, the impulse to denaturalize citizens proceeds from the totalitarian desire to expunge difference and dissent from a state. When a political collectivity decides that it would “rather lose its citizens than harbor people with different views,” it has, Arendt writes, begun the road to perdition. She adds: “One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization.”

I bring up Arendt’s reflections on the supreme danger of denationalization because President Trump and many in Washington have begun calling for and enacting large-scale denationalizations. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has created a task force to investigate those who may have lied on their naturalization applications—when fraud is discovered, the cases can be referred to the Justice Department, which could choose to denaturalize citizens. Denaturalization for fraud can, of course, be justified on purely legal grounds. But in Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt showed how the impulse to denaturalize citizens is rooted in a deep and dangerous idea of purity.

Arendt traced the denaturalization movement in 20th century Europe to the period around WWI.

Prior to the Great War, a few countries, including the United States, had the legal right to revoke naturalization when “the naturalized person ceased to maintain a genuine attachment to his adopted country. A person so denaturalized became stateless. During the war, the principal European States found it necessary to amend their laws of nationality so as to take power to cancel naturalizations.” Arendt points to a French war measure in 1915 “which concerned only naturalized citizens of enemy origin who had retained their original nationality.” She added that

“Portugal went much farther in a decree of 1916 which automatically denaturalized all persons born of a German father.  Belgium issued a law in 1922 which canceled naturalization of persons who had committed antinational acts during the war…. In Italy, since 1926, all persons could be denaturalized who were not ‘worthy of Italian citizenship” or a menace to the public order…. Germany, finally, in 1933 followed closely the various Russian nationality decrees since 1921 by stating that all persons ‘residing abroad’ could at will be deprived of German nationality.”

The result of the wave of denaturalizations across Europe and the United States was the emergence of a class of stateless persons. At first, the numbers were small; but Arendt rightly argues that these stateless persons became a precedent for the mass denaturalizations against Germans of Jewish origins in 1933; not only Germany, but Belgium, Greece, and other countries passed laws in the 1930s allowing for mass denaturalizations.

John Ganz invokes Arendt in an essay about President Trump’s efforts at denaturalization. He quotes a letter Arendt wrote to Robert Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago, in which Arendt argues—during the height of McCarthyism—that the U.S. may need a constitutional amendment prohibiting denaturalization.

“It seems absurd, but the fact is that, under the political circumstances of this country, a Constitutional Amendment may be needed to assure American citizens that they cannot be deprived of their citizenship no matter what they do… it should also be made constitutionally impossible to deprive naturalized citizens of their citizenship–which, for various historical reasons, they can no lose more easily in this country than anywhere else–…”

Ganz recognizes that it is “currently extremely difficult to denaturalize an American citizen, and it almost never happens. Even during McCarthyism, when there was the political will and legal machinery to expatriate people, the process was slowed down considerably by procedure and the courts. And in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled in Trop v. Dulles that denaturalization as a penalty for crimes was a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments, with Earl Warren sharing some of Arendt’s sentiments about its horrors: ‘It is a form of punishment more primitive than torture, for it destroys for the individual the political existence that was centuries in development.'” Ganz, citing Arendt, argues we should always be wary of movements to denaturalize U.S. citizens.

—Roger Berkowitz

“Today, the Trump administration is looking to deport people for offenses they committed before they were citizens but did not disclose on their forms. For instance, the Miami Herald reported that the Citizenship and Immigration Services is attempting to denaturalize a Florida woman, Norma Borgogno, who immigrated from Peru, on the grounds that she did not disclose a criminal past on her citizenship application. Ms. Borgogno, a 63-year-old secretary, got involved in a fraud scheme her boss had perpetrated, cooperated with the F.B.I., pleaded guilty and served a year of house arrest and four years of probation. Not exactly Ivan the Terrible.

The number of potential denaturalization cases that are being considered is reportedly in the thousands, so the Trump administration can’t hope to permanently alter the demographics of the country with this unwieldy device.

Maybe it doesn’t have to. It’s possible that the true intent — and the probable consequence — of the Trump policy is that naturalized citizens will not actively participate in political activity for fear that some old mistake on their forms could put their status in jeopardy.

This makes denaturalization policy a tool of political repression:Immigrants might not exercise their rights for fear that they will lose them all, or at least be dragged in front of a court and required to pay expensive lawyers’ fees. Since it is virtually impossible for a natural-born citizen to lose his citizenship, even the small possibility that naturalized citizens can lose theirs makes them, in effect, second-class citizens, unable to freely participate in public life without looming state repression.

When Arendt warned that “totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes” and return disguised in otherwise free countries, things like this and Mr. Anton’s perverse proposals may be the sort of things she had in mind.”

Democratic Habits

Melvin Rogers writing for the Boston Review argues that democracy is a habit we must continuously practice. Drawing from the works of John Dewey, Rogers talks about the need for engaged citizenry in order for democracy to survive. He writes,

“Dewey may seem like an odd resource to recall in our current political climate. For if we stand in what Hannah Arendt once called “dark times,” Dewey’s optimistic faith in democracy—his unflinching belief in the reflective capacity of human beings to secure the good and avert the bad, and in the progressive character of American democracy—may look ill-equipped to address our current crisis.

Yet this faith was always shaped by an important insight regarding democracy that many seem to have ignored. For Dewey, democracy’s survival depends on a set of habits and dispositions—in short, a culture—to sustain it. This informed his activism as well. He helped established some of the most significant organizations in his time: the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the League for Industrial Democracy, and the New York Teachers Union. When Dewey warns us that democratic conditions don’t automatically maintain themselves, and that the mere existence of a constitution does not safeguard democracy, he is dispelling the illusion that the United States is immune to the darkness of twentieth-century totalitarianism.”

Democratic habits are at the center of Arendt’s thinking about politics, including her argument that civil disobedience is a constitutionally protected right of citizenship. Make sure to reserve a seat for Citizenship And Civil Disobedience, the 2018 Hannah Arendt Center Conference. You can see Melvin Rogers speaking at last year’s Hannah Arendt Center Conference here.

Moral Rigor

By Allan Warren

Lee Siegel finds inspiration in James Baldwin’s “moral rigor.” When Baldwin met Elijah Muhammed, he wrote “I felt very close to him and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally and a father.” At the same time, Baldwin knew that “we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.” Siegel adds:

“Baldwin was as committed as any writer has ever been. But the stuff of his commitment was a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications — a labyrinthine clarity that he refused to sacrifice to prescribed attitudes.

Today we still revere Baldwin, but by and large we no longer follow his lead as a thinker. There is little patience now for such a rigorous yet receptive moral and intellectual style; these days we prefer ringing moral indictment, the hallmarks of which are absolute certainty, predetermined ideas and conformity to collective sentiments….

If, in a spirit of free intellectual and imaginative inquiry, you dared to suggest that a man who masturbated in front of a woman he barely knew without her consent might have been acting out, in an attitude of aggressive contempt, his own shame and emasculation — if you tried to understand his actions, without justifying them — you would be shouted down and vilified.

Imagine the outcry if you went further and speculated about why Harvey Weinstein allegedly manipulated some actresses dependent on his power into watching him while he was naked. Could it be that Mr. Weinstein, who reportedly had often been mocked for his appearance, wanted to dehumanize these women as well, while at the same time turning himself into a person who is watched and admired, like a person of beauty?

If even a fraction of the charges against him are true, Mr. Weinstein should be banished to the distant reaches of society. But however justice is finally administered in his case, we should try to grasp what social and psychological forces made him what he is, without the distracting din of moral denunciation forbidding us from doing so.”


At a time when democracy and citizenship activism is growing and is more vibrant in this country than in decades, a new Brennan Center Report on voter suppression shows where the real threat to democracy lies.

“Ahead of upcoming midterm elections, a new Brennan Center investigation has examined data for more than 6,600 jurisdictions that report purge rates to the Election Assistance Commission and calculated purge rates for 49 states. We found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls, and every state in the country can and should do more to protect voters from improper purges.

Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. This growth in the number of removed voters represented an increase of 33 percent — far outstripping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total population (6 percent).

Most disturbingly, our research suggests great cause for concern that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder (which ended federal “preclearance,” a Voting Rights Act provision that was enacted to apply extra scrutiny to jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination) has had a profound and negative impact: For the two election cycles between 2012 and 2016, jurisdictions no longer subject to federal preclearance had purge rates significantly higher than jurisdictions that did not have it in 2013. The Brennan Center calculates that 2 million fewer voters would have been purged over those four years if jurisdictions previously subject to federal preclearance had purged at the same rate as those jurisdictions not subject to that provision in 2013.

In Texas, for example, one of the states previously subject to federal preclearance, approximately 363,000 more voters were erased from the rolls in the first election cycle after Shelby County than in the comparable midterm election cycle immediately preceding it. And Georgia purged twice as many voters — 1.5 million — between the 2012 and 2016 elections as it did between 2008 and 2012.”

Posted on 29 July 2018 | 8:00 am

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