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Amor Mundi: Know Your Lane

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.

Know Your Lane

The Nation in July published a short poem “How-To” by Anders Carlson-Wee. The poem will not be remembered as a great work of art, but it is easy to see why it appealed to the editors at The Nation. As Carlson-Wee explained, he “intended for this poem to address the invisibility of the homelessness.” Speaking from the position of a black homeless person, the poem offers advice for beggars on how-to tug at the heartstrings of petit-bourgeois marks.

“If you’re young say younger. Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.”

Carlson-Wee, who it must be said is white, seems to have had his heart in the right place, showing his sympathy with the homeless and his contempt for those who offer charity in order to boost their self-esteem. Or at least that is what he and the editors at The Nation thought. Until the gates of the twitter verse opened loosed a tsunami of moral condemnation, as Jennifer Schuessler reports in The New York Times:

“But after a firestorm of criticism on social media over a white poet’s attempt at black vernacular, as well as a line in which the speaker makes reference to being “crippled,” the magazine said it had made a “serious mistake” in publishing it. “We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” the magazine’s poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter last week, which was posted above the poem on the magazine’s website a day later, along with an editor’s note calling the poem’s language “disparaging and ableist.” “When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which member of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization,” they wrote. But “we can no longer read the poem in that way.” Mr. Carlson-Wee also posted his own apology. “Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me, and I am profoundly regretful,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook and Twitter.”

Carlson-Wee’s offense was that he imitated black dialect. One of the critics leading the assault was Roxanne Gay who wielded her weapons via Twitter, hardly the medium for thoughtful criticism.

“You will note that I, a black person, do not use AAVE [African American Vernacular English, rsb] in my writing because I was never exposed to it. I would fuck it up if I even tried. Know your lane. This isn’t complicated.”

It is one thing to say that Carlson-Wee’s poem is bad and suffers from poor use of African American vernacular. But Gay raises the stakes. No one can write in black vernacular who doesn’t speak it naturally. That certainly includes white writers: “The worst thing about white writers trying to use AAVE in their work is that they do it without recognizing the syntactical rules or that there are syntacticalrules. Instead they racist all over the page.”But it also includes black writers who don’t speak speak AAVE. Similarly, Gay argues that men shouldn’t write women characters. The demand to “know your lane” is the mantra of arguments against cultural appropriation. And while Gay suggests that even she cannot use AAVE either, it is white people who use AAVE alone who are racist.

“The reality is that when most white writers use AAVE they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy. And using AAVE badly is lazy so I am entirely comfortable suggesting that writers stay in their lane when it comes to dialect. The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and.”

There is a difference between criticizing a poem and policing who is allowed to imagine a fictional reality that offers insight about our real world. The charge that a poet is racist because he is white and failed to fully succeed in his efforts to express the true language of a homeless black person-as well as the demand that poetry editors prostrate themselves to prove they are not racist simply because they published a poem that others don’t like-is evidence of the confusion of our moment around race.

It may very well be-indeed it is certain-that Carlson-Wee and the editors at The Nation harbor prejudices. To hold prejudgments is necessarily human. It is the work of politics to overcome unjust prejudices; thus, the effort to raise people’s consciousness about their prejudices is a political necessity. But the demand that certain opinions expressed by certain races and sexes are to be banned and condemned as racist, that is to turn a self-proclaimed cultural clique into a censorious force. And it is to make ever-more-difficult the anti-racist effort to dissolve the petrified prejudices of the past and the present. It may be that what we need today is fewer people who know their lanes and more of us willing to imagine ourselves traveling new roads.

-Roger Berkowitz


Imagining The Real

Laurent Binet has written a philosophical thriller featuring sex scenes with Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler and the murders of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Louis Althussier’s wife. Wyatt Mason does not think much of Binet’s novel. Instead of wringing one’s hands at the impossibility of imagining the complexity of the real world, we should, Mason argues, embrace the challenge of imagining the real through good writing.

“I wish to confess to my exhaustion with this anxiety, an anxiety that a great many writers in various languages have lately been expressing over the part that reality should play in our conception of fiction, the degree to which they feel self-conscious before its imaginative foundations. How rich the real world is, and how down at the heels the novel form is, so calcified is it in its conventions, etc. In such expressions of anxiety, Philip Roth will typically be dragged forward to testify, with lines quoted from a talk he gave at Stanford in 1960 called “Writing American Fiction.”You know the line: “Actuality is continually outdoing our talents.”How true it still is! Only worse! says the sad novelist today feeling incapable before reality and before the novel’s suffocating history, failing to note that Roth, following that speech, produced twenty-six novels, each of which exhibits a different tone, and form, and substance. Anxiety over the real, Roth was arguing, is the goad to the imagination, not the easy neutering of it. A novel can be anything, if one believes in novels. I appreciate that there is reason to despair in such belief, in much belief. It is very hard, isn’t it, to believe that a long, serious attempt at investigating imaginary human beings would be needed in a world where real human beings in and outside our country are being treated with unprecedented cruelty, and when the president of the United States acts like precisely the kind of human being whom hitherto one could barely imagine. The only useful thing about The Seventh Function of Language is the idea that one would need some magical means to persuade through language, some secret spell. Useful, because perfectly ridiculous. The spell, we know, exists: it is 140 characters long, and it can make anyone believe anything. Language, it is turning out, doesn’t need to do much to make someone believe what it says. Sometimes, the spell can be a novel, one that gets translated into forty languages and is fundamentally terrible, terrible because it doesn’t believe in novels. Rather, it believes that novels should be great again, but has no idea what that means.”

Disrupting Whiteness

Ryan Wong asks how visual attempts to disrupt whiteness do and do not succeed.

“The scholar Sara Ahmed opens her essay “A phenomenology of whiteness” with a series of questions on the project of examining whiteness: “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness? … Could whiteness studies produce an attachment to whiteness by holding it in place as an object?” In other words, how do we talk about whiteness without solidifying, even strengthening it?… Here, Ahmed’s conclusion is useful. She writes: “If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.” That is, she encourages us to keep critique and possibility open while wrangling with the “ongoing and unfinished history” of racism. Whiteness is so embedded into our political, social, and artistic lives, it might not be clear what the most effective forms of dismantling it are. Whiteness, if we don’t know it already, is a slippery, shifting set of markers, actions, and institutions. If, during the Obama years, whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness, it is having a resurgence today as open pride, supremacy, and terrorism – as the Institute’s online statement puts it, “the volume on whiteness has been turned up.” Amid the noise, this exhibition, and hopefully others like it to come, might be a place to start listening.”

Thank You!

The Hannah Arendt Center’s Summer Membership drive was our most successful ever. One Forty Seven new members joined the Arendt Center, a new record for our Summer Membership drive. To all those who have endured emails and tweets these last 10 days, it is over. We are grateful for your support. Thank you!

Punching Down

Sarah Jeong, newly appointed to The New York Times editorial board, is being accused of being racist-against white people. Andrew Sullivan argues that it is obvious, at least, that she has tweeted racist comments.

“From one perspective – that commonly held by people outside the confines of the political left – she obviously is. A series of tweets from 2013 to 2015 reveal a vicious hatred of an entire group of people based only on their skin color. If that sounds harsh, let’s review a few, shall we? “White men are bullshit,” is one. A succinct vent, at least. But notice she’s not in any way attacking specific white men for some particular failing, just all white men for, well, existing. Or this series of ruminations: “have you ever tried to figure out all the things that white people are allowed to do that aren’t cultural appropriation. there’s literally nothing. like skiing, maybe, and also golf. white people aren’t even allowed to have polo. did you know that. like don’t you just feel bad? why can’t we give white people a break. lacrosse isn’t for white people either. it must be so boring to be white.” Or this: “basically i’m just imagining waking up white every morning with a terrible existential dread that i have no culture.” I can’t say I’m offended by this – it’s even mildly amusing, if a little bonkers. (Has she read, say, any Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson?) But it does reveal a worldview in which white people – all of them – are cultural parasites and contemptibly dull. A little more disturbing is what you might call “eliminationist” rhetoric – language that wishes an entire race could be wiped off the face of the earth: “#cancelwhitepeople.” Or: “White people have stopped breeding. you’ll all go extinct soon. that was my plan all along.” One simple rule I have about describing groups of human beings is that I try not to use a term that equates them with animals. Jeong apparently has no problem doing so. Speaking of animals, here’s another gem: “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.” Or you could describe an entire race as subhuman: “Are white people genetically disposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.” And then there’s this simple expression of the pleasure that comes with hatred: “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.” I love that completely meretricious “old” to demean them still further. And that actual feeling: joy at cruelty! Another indicator that these statements might be racist comes from replacing the word “white” with any other racial group. #cancelblackpeople probably wouldn’t fly at the New York Times, would it? Or imagine someone tweeting that Jews were only “fit to live underground like groveling goblins” or that she enjoyed “being cruel to old Latina women,” and then being welcomed and celebrated by a liberal newsroom. Not exactly in the cards. But the alternative view – that of today’s political left – is that Jeong definitionally cannot be racist, because she’s both a woman and a racial minority. Racism against whites, in this neo-Marxist view, just “isn’t a thing” – just as misandry literally cannot exist at all. And this is because, in this paradigm, racism has nothing to do with a person’s willingness to prejudge people by the color of their skin, or to make broad, ugly generalizations about whole groups of people, based on hoary stereotypes. Rather, racism is entirely institutional and systemic, a function of power, and therefore it can only be expressed by the powerful – i.e., primarily white, straight men. For a nonwhite female, like Sarah Jeong, it is simply impossible. In the religion of social constructionism, Jeong, by virtue of being an Asian woman, is one of the elect, incapable of the sin of racism or group prejudice. All she is doing is resisting whiteness”

Civil Disobedience

In a rigorous inquiry into the impact of mockery in politics, Bonnie Honig ends with a reflection on the inspirational power of surprising politics acts.

“Instead, let’s be inspired by women like asylum activist Elin Ersson. In a Facebook video that went viral last week, Ersson refuses to be seated so the airplane she is on can take off. Why? Because there is a man on the plane being deported from Sweden to Afghanistan and his life is at stake. Standing alone in the aisle, she says, “I am not going to sit down until this person is off the plane.” The pilot has the right to refuse, too, she says, as the crew tries to persuade her into compliance. Meanwhile, a fellow passenger notes the deportation is perfectly legal: “Your country has rules.” She does not dispute it: “I’m trying to change my country’s rules,” she replies. She knows she cannot do it alone: “As long as a person is standing up and if more people are standing up, then the pilot cannot take off.” After she explains the situation to a fellow passenger, he explains it to some others and there is a smattering of applause. “We are with you,” he says. And then, Ersson says, “the football team at the back is actually standing up. I want to salute them for standing up.” She tears up. The mood of the cabin shifts a bit in her favor. Perhaps for this reason, a male passenger decides right then to take matters into his own hands. Can’t she see she is frightening the children? he asks, as he lunges for her phone. He wants the situation returned to normal, where young women are compliant and men like him are in charge. But this time his aggression only tilts the mood further in her direction. The crew returns her phone and sends him back to his seat. Soon she is told the deportee is being taken off the plane. Only after confirming the truth of that does she exit. This is what Hannah Arendt calls action in concert. Someone has to start it. Others have to join. It requires courage and good fortune. For a full 5-10 minutes, Ersson is in this by herself. It is really not clear which way things will go. The inconvenienced passengers could turn on her. Her reddening face betrays the difficulty of the situation. She tears up, first from the stress, and then with apparent gratitude when she finds that some of the passengers actually support her. Not all of them, but enough to tip the balance. That’s all we need.

Honig is right to point to the Arendtian overtones of Ersson’s act of civil disobedience. Unchallenged is Ersson’s explanation to her fellow passengers that the Afghani being deported, that he would be killed if returned to Afghanistan. It is never made clear how this is known. Still, Ersson’s moral clarity and incredible courage is the kind of courageous individual action that can inspire others to join in collective civil disobedience. And such collective acts of political dissent is what Hannah Arendt means by Civil Disobedience. It is also the starting point of the Hannah Arendt Center’s upcoming conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.”Registration for the Conference is open now.

-Roger Berkowitz

The Arendt Center is Hiring

We are pleased to welcome a new member of the Hannah Arendt Center Team. Roger Normand has joined the Arendt Center as the Director of our new Polis Forum, promoting the liberal arts, free speech, and critical thinking in a democratic society.

In addition, we are hiring a new PartTime Media Coordinator. You can read the job description here.

Posted on 6 August 2018 | 10:38 am

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