Amor Mundi: The Loneliness of Nuance
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 Loneliness of Nuance
Meghan Daum tells a fascinating story of her political and personal life over the past three years. As her marriage fell apart, Daum fell in love with the Intellectual Dark Web. Over time, however, Daum came to see that the unquestioning fidelity of any love affair was inconsistent with self-thinking. She recognized that her love affair with the Dark Web was driven by loneliness. Her argument mimics that of Hannah Arendt’s argument that the loneliness of modern society is the foundation for ideological and totalitarian thinking.
“Enter my new friends. I found them on YouTube. Actually, I found them first through Bloggingheads.tv, a site where scholars and journalists of all ideological stripes carried on webcam conversations about the issues of the day. I was a particular fan of the monthly dialogue between the economist and professor Glenn Loury and the linguist and literature professor John McWhorter. Calling themselves “the Black Guys on Bloggingheads,” they talked about racial politics with more candor and (ahem) nuance than I’d probably ever heard in my life. They even dared to do what few in the left-leaning chatterati were willing to do: hold the writer Ta-Nahisi Coates up to scrutiny. Often, it wasn’t so much the author himself that they griped about, but the rote, self-congratulatory reverence displayed by Coates’ white fans. This reverence was itself racist, McWhorter pointed out. This implication, if I was reading him correctly, was that Coates was good but not a god. And the need for white people to elevate him to the level of a deity constituted “a kind of soft bigotry which is as nauseating as it is unintended.”This delighted me. I learned a lot from reading Coates. But with this reading often came the nagging sense that I wasn’t supposed to engage with the ideas as much as absorb them unquestioningly. He wasn’t just an author but the unofficial paterfamilias of the wokescenti. (Importantly, it was not Coates making this appeal but the cultural gatekeepers surrounding him.) Privately, McWhorter was making a more eloquent version of a point I’d been trying for months to make anyone who’d listen, which was nobody….It had been, I realized, more than three years since I’d hunkered down for the snowpocalypse in that Brooklyn apartment, watching Bloggingheads and grieving over my imminent divorce. Amid this thought came a devastating epiphany: Over these years, I’d weaned myself off the long conversation of my marriage by switching over to the conversations of Free Speech YouTube. It wasn’t just political loneliness I’d felt-it was the loneliness of a partnership ended, a dialogue converted to an interior monologue. Having lost my human intellectual ally, I’d tried to rig up a new ally – or a whole group of allies – via internet videos.I also wondered this: Maybe my bloodlust for left-on-left warfare wasn’t just a petty indulgence but a substitute for the warfare of my marriage itself. My husband had been at once the best thing about my life and the worst thing. He kept me sane yet drove me crazy. I wasn’t so far gone as to draw a literal comparison between my marriage and my relationship with Free Speech YouTube, but there were ways in which they were mirrors of one another. My Free Speech YouTube friends functioned as intellectual allies, yet they disappointed me as often as they bolstered me. As much I was energized by some of the quieter voices in the movement, like McWhorter, Heying, and even science historian Alice Dreger, who left academia over censorship issues and has been embraced by intellectual dark web types even as she’s eschewed membership, I was growing weary of the self-conscious clubbiness of the whole thing. It’s as if some of them were having the experience of high school geeks who’d suddenly been let into the popular club. They couldn’t quite believe their luck, so they got matching T-shirts and wear them every day.“It seems kind of, um, contradictory to consider us as a group since the point is we are all bad at groupthink,” Dreger wrote on her blog by way of explaining why she chose not to participate in the Times article. “If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think it just makes me a good intellectual.”A good intellectual, maybe. But being a public intellectual – or what passes for such a thing today – requires viewpoints that can be represented by hashtags and squeezed snugly into 900-word op-eds or hot takes. When I began writing an op-ed column in 2005, a hashtag was little more than the pound sign you press for more options on a phone menu. In all the years of that gig, I was well aware that I could have raised my profile considerably by trending more predictably to the left or right. In recent years, I’ve more than once imagined what it would be like to share a stage with my Free Speech YouTube friends. I remember how good it felt to wear those matching college sweatshirts at the pro-choice march in Washington. There’s a part of me that would love to put on a T-shirt and ride off with my friends into the intellectual dark web sunset. (That sunset looks a lot like an in-home podcast studio or an invitation to an “ideas festival.”)But if there’s anything I’ve learned from divorce – the divorce from my husband as well as the divorce from the illusion of ideological kinship with many of my friends – is that the more honest we are about what we think, the more we’re alone with our thoughts. Just as you can’t fight Trumpism with tribalism, you can’t fight tribalism with a tribe. Nor, I’ve come to realize, can I count on nuance in the public discourse to save me from the confusion inside my head. Maybe all I can do – maybe all anyone can do – is try to keep nuance as a private practice, a silent meditation, a personal vow to be renewed at least once every 24-hour news cycle. Maybe all I can do is accept that this story is neither a romance nor a breakup story, but a love story in the truest sense. It’s the story of that rousing, fleeting moment when you hear someone say the thing that makes you feel less alone.”
The Socialist Freedom
Corey Robin argues that the reason for the popularity and (limited) success of candidates who identify as democratic socialists is not a concern with poverty. It is that socialist candidates speak the language of freedom.
“Since the 1970s, American liberals have taken a right turn on the economy. They used to champion workers and unions, high taxes, redistribution, regulation and public services. Now they lionize billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, deregulate wherever possible, steer clear of unions except at election time and at least until recently, fight over how much to cut most people’s taxes.
Liberals, of course, argue that they are merely using market-friendly tools like tax cuts and deregulation to achieve things like equitable growth, expanded health care and social justice – the same ends they always have pursued. For decades, left-leaning voters have gone along with that answer, even if they didn’t like the results, for lack of an alternative.
It took Mr. Sanders to convince them that if tax credits and insurance exchanges are the best liberals have to offer to men and women struggling to make stagnating wages pay for bills that skyrocket and debt that never dissipates, maybe socialism is worth a try.
Socialism means different things to different people. For some, it conjures the Soviet Union and the gulag; for others, Scandinavia and guaranteed income. But neither is the true vision of socialism. What the socialist seeks is freedom.
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse – just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.”
The Limits of Philanthropy
Anand Giridharadas argues that the turn to philanthropy as a way to “change the world” may lead to individual acts of humanity, but it leaves the systems of injustice untouched.
“”Change the world” has long been the cry of the oppressed. But in recent years world-changing has been co-opted by the rich and the powerful.“Change the world. Improve lives. Invent something new,” McKinsey & Company’srecruiting materials say. “Sit back, relax, and change the world,” tweets the World Economic Forum, host of the Davos conference. “Let’s raise the capital that builds the things that change the world,” a Morgan Stanley ad says. Walmart, recruiting a software engineer, seeks an “eagerness to change the world.” Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook says, “The best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company.”At first, you think: Rich people making a difference – so generous! Until you consider that America might not be in the fix it’s in had we not fallen for the kind of change these winners have been selling: fake change.Fake change isn’t evil; it’s milquetoast. It is change the powerful can tolerate. It’s the shoes or socks or tote bag you bought which promised to change the world. It’s that one awesome charter school – not equally funded public schools for all. It is Lean In Circles to empower women – not universal preschool. It is impact investing – not the closing of the carried-interest loophole….A successful society is a progress machine, turning innovations and fortuitous developments into shared advancement. America’s machine is broken. Innovations fly at us, but progress eludes us. A thousand world-changing initiatives won’t change that. Instead, we must reform the basic systems that allow people to live decently – the systems that decide what kind of school children attend, whether politicians listen to donors or citizens, whether or not people can tend to their ailments, whether they are paid enough, and with sufficient reliability, to make plans and raise kids.”
You can watch a video of Roger Berkowitz interviewing Giridharadas about his book “The True American” at the 2014 Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans” here.
Singularity and the Human Condition
Philosophy Today has a special issue on Hannah Arendt. You can find it here (Paywall). It includes an essay by Roger Berkowitz “The Singularity and the Human Condition.” And here is a draft version.
“Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is frequently read as offering a “theory” of what it means to be human. But the bite of Arendt’s book is to think through the transformation of the human condition in the Modern Age. She argues that the rise of a scientific worldview fundamentally alters the earthly and worldly conditions in which human beings live. Since humans are conditioned beings, the change from our pre-modern subjection to fate to our modern human capacity to create a humanly built world threatens a fundamental shift in human being. The transformation Arendt describes is the loss of our human plurality to a technological singularity. She argues, however, that we can choose to hold on to our humanity if we persist in thinking, and thus preserve our human spontaneity and freedom….In a world dominated by the life of the species, the elimination of the need to labor through automation and intelligent machines does not free man to higher pursuits;
it brings him instead face to face with his meaninglessness, his existence as one part of an automatically functioning species. All that is demanded of us humans issheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active deci- sion still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed,’tranquilized,’ functional type of behavior. (322)Against Kurzweil’s celebration of man freed by technology to his true humanity as someone who can create the world and even himself in his own image,Arendt insists there is more to humanity than the technologically enhanced power to actualize our will. Her discussions of labor, work, and action explicate three fundamental faculties of the human condition that she argues would be lost in the transition to a technological humanity divorced from this earth.”
Lessons In Freedom
Mark Santora has a beautiful photo-journalism essay celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Prague Spring. For Santora, “The events that played out 50 years ago in Prague serve as a reminder of the fragility of the systems created to guard against war and tyranny.”
“Could Soviet-style communism be reconciled with the dignity and freedom of the individual?In 1968, the question was put to the test when the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, initiated a project of liberalization that he said would offer “socialism with a human face.”What followed was a rebirth of political and cultural freedom long denied by party leaders loyal to Moscow.The free press flourished, artists and writers spoke their minds, and Mr. Dubcek stunned Moscow by proclaiming that he wanted to create “a free, modern and profoundly humane society.”A season when hope and optimism were in bloom, it became known as the Prague Spring.But nearly as soon as the movement came to life, it was crushed under the treads of Soviet T-54 tanks.”
Less than Virtuous
This week it was revealed that one of the leaders of the #MeToo campaign, Asia Argento, paid off Jimmy Bennett, who accused her sexual impropriety. Reflecting on Argento and Avital Ronell, Laura Kipnis writes that it is nice to be reminded that women “are occasionally less than virtuous too.” Kipnis writes,
“There have actually been plenty of other accused women – if less headline-worthy specimens than this week’s crop. I know this, having been one of them, dragged through secret campus investigations over controversial things I’ve written – twice charged with, and twice cleared of, creating a hostile environment (See my book, Unwanted Advances, if you want the details.) After going public about my case, I spent the next couple of years listening to the confidential stories of other accused sadsacks of every gender and sexual persuasion – professors, students, and more recently those caught on the wrong side of #MeToo.All of which makes it difficult for me to sit comfortably on the #believeallvictims side of the fence. Yes, #MeToo has been necessary and overdue. But, as with campus investigations, a portion of the accusations is also overblown. Having learned what I’ve learned, I am unable to believe that every accuser has no motive other than truth and justice; nor can I take allegations alone as settled facts.”
David Reaboi and Nick Short look into Twitter’s practice of reducing the visibility of tweets by people and groups based on certain behavioral signals that disadvantage conservatives. They argue that trusting large corporations like Twitter with protecting free speech is dangerous.
“Why are conservatives complaining? About a year ago, many of us on the political right saw impressions of our tweets drop precipitously – sometimes in the millions per month – while follower counts were increasing or remaining stagnant. With our visibility on the platform reduced, our ability to grow our Twitter presence has flatlined completely. Because of Twitter’s importance to the political debate in America, this is no trivial matter. Our ability to influence the debate in real-time has been squelched.While it does not outright censor expressions of conservative views, Twitter has admitted to using a complex and opaque Quality Filter algorithm that has the effect of disproportionately restricting the voices of conservatives under the guise of limiting harmful or abusive users. Many Twitter users refer to this throttling as a “shadowban.” Rather than policing content per se – which would open Twitter to credible accusations of explicit viewpoint discrimination – the company focuses on accounts with certain behaviors that would trigger attention.To some extent, this makes sense but, as always, the devil’s in the details. The Quality Filter algorithm consists of nearly 1000 behavioral signals about each user, regardless of whether the user has any actions considered by Twitter to be “abusive.” Many of the behavioral signals we know about are often used against conservatives in deliberate silencing campaigns. For example, far-left activists have long organized mass-blocking campaigns against conservative Twitter users using a tool called Blocktogether. While we don’t mind anyone blocking on their own timeline, a user being put on several popular blocklists counts as a serious Quality Filter strike against his account.Users found to run afoul of this stew of behavioral indicators find their tweets’ visibility severely restricted: Their tweets do not appear in their followers’ timelines. It’s the social media equivalent of speaking to a suddenly empty room.”
The Arendt Center is Hiring
The Hannah Arendt Center (HAC) and the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) seek a full-time communications coordinator to lead a generation of online and print content that engages audience segments and demonstrates impact. The Communication Coordinator will be responsible for writing, editing, and conceptualizing material that communicates the depth and breadth of CCE and HAC’s programs and partnerships. The Coordinator will work closely with the HAC and CCE staff to publicly connect and enhance communication across the Bard network.
Posted on 27 August 2018 | 11:54 am
The Fragility of Persons and the Need for the Imaginary Domain
Taping her Netflix comedy special (“Baby Cobra”) while visibly pregnant, Ali Wong says she tricked her boyfriend into marrying her. She doesn’t want to work, she confides to the audience; she wants to stay home and relax! Claiming she is the kind of feminist who does not want to “lean-in” but instead wants to “lie down,” Ali Wong’s feminist comedy rejects the verticality of the “stand-up” routine and the stated public ambitions of feminist politics. Wong’s claim to want to lie down prompts me to wonder which postures express freedom, and her pregnancy draws my attention to the birthing of feminist freedom. Should feminists stand like the men, lean into the corporate table,
lie down on the daybed? Beginning with beginnings, at scenes of birth, my essay explores postures of birth as a metaphor for birthing feminist freedom.
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