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Amor Mundi: Power and Civil Disobedience

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.

Power and Civil Disobedience


David Antonini wrote an entry on Hannah Arendt for the website 1000 Word Philosophy. Antonini focuses on how Arendt’s idea of power connects to Civil Disobedience. His analysis is important as we prepare for the 11th annual Arendt Center Conference, Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.

“How does Arendt argue we preserve the public space?

The answer lies in how Arendt rethinks the concept of power. As a political concept, we often associate power with rulers, governments, and politicians. Rulers or politicians have or hold power, as if power is something to be possessed. We often hear the phrase that politicians are not concerned about their constituents but about “staying in power.”

Arendt, however, considers legitimate power as something that exists between citizens as they engage in political action together, whereas power wielded by rulers through the use of terror and violence is illegitimate. She argues that  “power springs up between men when they act together and vanishes the moment they disperse.” So, when a group of human beings decides to act for a specific political purpose, power exists between them as they collaborate together to achieve a political aim: we might say that it is power that “holds them together” as a group and not just a collection of disparate individuals.

For Arendt, an exemplary moment of power preserving the public space is the act of civil disobedience, especially the various movements during the turbulent decades of the mid twentieth-century in the United States, on which Arendt wrote. When citizens gather together to protest an unjust law, power exists between them. The public action to protest unjust laws is a manifestation of the public space discussed above. To think of power as Arendt does means that those engaged in civil disobedience are attempting to reclaim the public space of debate. Through enacting unjust laws, government has abused the legitimacy it has been entrusted with:  through civil disobedience, citizens try to reclaim that legitimacy.

Reclaiming the public space of debate is an effective mechanism for citizens when they believe a government has lost its legitimacy. Robust public debate in many forms ensures that it is not merely the ruling regime that defines the parameters of public debate, especially if they attempt to drown out dissent as, for example, in the delegitimization of the media or press. Public debate competes with political leaders’ attempts to substitute fabricated truths in order to maintain power.

In sum, the public space is preserved through power that “springs up” among citizens when they gather together. Public space refers to the activity of shared debate among plural human beings; this space and activity are maintained as long as opportunities exist for the gathering of citizens.”

The Prejudice Against Politics


In The New Yorker, Masha Gessen thinks through the implications of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement that “The governor of New York is not a job about politics.” He said: “It’s not about advocacy-it’s about doing. It’s about management.”

Cuomo’s statement went unchallenged by the moderator and his opponent Cynthia Nixon. Gessen argues that this exchange reveals a dangerous rejection of politics in favor of technocracy.

“This view is shared by a great many Americans-it may indeed be the dominant view of government and politics. Roger Berkowitz, the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center, at Bard College, traces this understanding to a speech by John Kennedy, in 1962, in which the President declared that major ideological divides in American society had been bridged and that only technical issues remained. “Today, these old, sweeping issues very largely have disappeared,” he said. “The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals–to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.”

Kennedy was wrong historically, failing to anticipate the magnitude of the issues that would arise with the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the social movements of the coming decades. What’s worse, however, was that he was also wrong politically. In proclaiming the dawning of an era of technocrats, the era of competence and the search for the right solution, Kennedy was, in effect, declaring the end of politics.

Politics is the process of creating and re-creating society. It does not consist of-it may not even include-the process of finding the person best qualified to offer the right solution. In fact, democratic politics will not produce the right solution, and may not produce a solution at all. Any decision achieved democratically will be both imperfect and incomplete, because it will reflect a plurality of views, interests, and needs. This is the beauty of democracy: its work is never done, and there is always the promise of a different, better future.”

The Struggle for Recognition

Louis Menand, writing for the New Yorker, digs into the history of political recognition. Tracing Hegel’s influence on Alexandre Kojève, Alan Bloom, and Francis Fukuyama, he explores Fukuyama’s claim that the desire for recognition among identity groups poses a threat to liberalism today. Shunning plurality, the struggle for recognition, which emerges out of the Hegelian tradition of western political philosophy, has given form to contemporary identity politics. Menand argues that ultimately it is this meta-historical framework that blinds Fukuyama to the ends of history. He writes,

“Fukuyama acknowledges that identity politics has done some good, and he says that people on the right exaggerate the prevalence of political correctness and the effects of affirmative action. He also thinks that people on the left have become obsessed with cultural and identitarian politics, and have abandoned social policy. But he has surprisingly few policy suggestions himself.

He has no interest in the solution that liberals typically adopt to accommodate diversity: pluralism and multiculturalism. Taylor, for example, has championed the right of the Québécois to pass laws preserving a French-language culture in their province. Fukuyama concedes that people need a sense of national identity, whether ethnic or creedal, but otherwise he remains an assimilationist and a universalist. He wants to iron out differences, not protect them. He suggests measures like a mandatory national-service requirement and a more meaningful path to citizenship for immigrants.”

When Science Offends

Colleen Flaherty reports on a decision by Brown University to delete a news release on its website linking to a peer-reviewed study published by one of its professors. The study by Professor Lisa Littman was descriptive and based on interviews with parents of teens who identified as transgender. Littman emphasized that the study was partial and limited. What she found, however, led her to hypothesize that amongst peer groups, “friends and online sources could spread certain beliefs” and lead teens to become transgender-identified. In response to criticism, Brown removed the article from its website and published an open-letter distancing themselves from Littman’s research.

“Brown University and PLOS ONE have distanced themselves from a controversial, peer-reviewed published study on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” or gender identity issues that present not early and over a lifetime but quickly, in teenagers and young adults. The study, which has been criticized by transgender activists and allies as promoting the idea that being trans is a fad, and as relying on an unsound methodology, was based on anonymous survey responses from about 250 parents of (primarily female) teens and young adults who’d abruptly expressed gender dysphoria.

A descriptive study, it found that many of those young adults had changed their names and pronouns and had support in changing their hair and dress upon coming out. But the study also raised questions about whether social factors, rather than biological ones, influenced the young adults’ trans identities. It found that many young adults had requested and been offered medical interventions at the time of coming out, with possible lasting implications for their fertility and health, and that most doctors who evaluated these young adults didn’t ask questions about mental health, trauma or other possible reasons for sudden gender dysphoria.

  A Brown news release about the study posted last week quoted its author, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor of the practice of behavioral and social sciences at the university, as saying, “This kind of descriptive study is important because it defines a group and raises questions for more research. One of the main conclusions is that more research needs to be done.” But Brown removed the story from its website this week, replacing it with an open letter from Bess H. Marcus, dean of public health, saying, “In light of questions raised about research design and data collection related to the study on ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria,’ the university determined that removing the article from news distribution is the most responsible course of action.””

When Social Science Fails


Hannah Devlin reports on a collaborative project to replicate major social-scientific findings from the past decade. The results are not confidence inspiring. In this regard, it is worth recalling Hannah Arendt’s many critiques of social science. Arendt worried that social science treated human beings as predictable and rule-bound creatures, thus diminishing human freedom. To suggest that since some percentage of people acted a certain way at one point such action was ‘normal’ is to present those others as scientifically predictable deviations. Those who act differently are not individuals, they are statistically irrelevant irregularities. Thus freedom is replaced with behavior and spontaneity is simply statistical regularity. Of course, the study Devlin reports on does not aim to be critical of social science, but only to improve it.

“Some of the most high profile findings in social sciences of the past decade do not stand up to replication, a major investigation has found.

The project, which aimed to repeat 21 experiments that had been published in Science or Nature – science’s two preeminent journals – found that only 13 of the original findings could be reproduced.

The research, which follows similar efforts in psychology and biomedical science, raises fresh concerns over the reliability of the scientific literature. However, the project’s leaders say their results do not reflect a “crisis” in the social sciences….

Findings that failed to replicate included a study suggesting that viewing a picture of Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker led to people reporting weaker religious beliefs (a possible explanation being that analytical thought, as represented by the sculpture, counteracted religious beliefs). The finding that the physical act of washing your hands leads to less muddled thinking (a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance) also failed the replication test.

“That doesn’t mean it’s unreplicable, no study is definitive,” said Nosek. “Science is really a process of uncertainty reduction.””

Unburying The Past

In post-war Spain, the “pact of forgetting” held that the country should move on with democracy and suppress any coming-to-terms with the war crimes and horrors of the fascist rule of Francisco Franco, “who ruled Spain with an iron fist from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975.” According to Omar Encarnacion, that decades-long pact is fraying. As groups representing the victims of fascism and others insisting on honoring historical memory demand truth and reconciliation, Spain is just beginning to address its historical traumas.

“Franco’s resting place, El Valle de los Caídos (or the Valley of the Fallen), on the outskirts of Madrid, is Spain’s grandest public monument, completed in 1959 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the end of the civil war. It features the world’s tallest memorial cross and an underground basilica consecrated by Pope John XXIII in 1960, which is one of the largest in all Christendom. A grand esplanade offers a view of the majestic Sierra de Guadarrama mountains.

Franco’s mausoleum is located in the basilica’s main crypt. The small community of Benedictine monks that has made El Valle its home offers daily prayers for Franco’s soul. Sunday mass includes a boys’ choir singing Gregorian chants. Every November 20, on the anniversary of his death, hundreds of Franco sympathizers make a pilgrimage to the monument to pay tribute to “El Caudillo” and the legacy of his Falangist regime.

But if Spain’s new Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has his way, El Valle will soon receive a radical makeover. In June, Sánchez announced his intention to move Franco’s remains from El Valle and transform the site from a shrine to Francoism to a “memorial for the victims of fascism.” Explaining his decision, Sánchez insisted: “Something that is unimaginable in Germany and Italy, countries that also suffered fascist dictatorships, should also be unimaginable in our country.”…

Even to broach the topics of reparations, apologies, and commemorations was deemed a violation of the pact to forget. The only reason that justified discussion of the civil war was to stress the need not to talk about it. In 1986, on the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war, the only official act marking the occasion was a statement by Prime Minister Felipe González that noted: “the civil war’s fratricidal character made it unsuitable for commemoration.” It added: “the civil war is history and no longer part of the reality of the country.” The fact that this statement came from the first left-wing head of government since the Republican era added to its significance.

The voluntary vow of silence could only hold for so long, however. In the early 2000s, groups such as the Association of Ex-prisoners of Franco and the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory began agitating for change, arguing that Spanish democracy no longer needed to be protected by political amnesia. These groups were emboldened by Spain’s ill-fated attempt to prosecute the Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet on crimes against humanity, which had the unintentional effect of reminding the public about the unfinished business of the Spanish transition. The pressure to revisit the past culminated in the 2007 Law of Historical Memory. Among other things, this landmark legislation, enacted by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Socialist administration, declared the Franco regime “illegitimate” and offered reparations to victims of atrocities during the civil war and under the ensuing dictatorship.

But this law drew the line at altering monuments of “historical significance,” such as El Valle. That decision reflected the attitude of the public at the time, when a majority opposed tinkering with the Franco memorial in any major way. This hesitation was a reflection of Spaniards’ considerable lingering ambivalence about Franco. In 2008, the last time the Spanish government polled the nation on public attitudes toward Franco, 58 percent felt that Franco had done “good and bad things.” But polls now suggest that most Spaniards believe Franco should not be honored at El Valle.”

Stripping Citizenship

American citizens are being stripped of and denied their passports. According to an article in The Washington Post, passport denials under Trump’s Administration are skyrocketing. “The Trump administration is accusing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies, and it is undertaking a widespread crackdown.”

“In some cases, passport applicants with official U.S. birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. In others, they are stuck in Mexico, their passports suddenly revoked when they tried to reenter the United States. As the Trump administration attempts to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, the government’s treatment of passport applicants in South Texas shows how U.S. citizens are increasingly being swept up by immigration enforcement agencies.”

The Safety Net


Thomas Chatterton Williams, who will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center’s 11th Annual Conference Citizenship and Civil Disobedienceconsiders a number of recent arguments questioning the obsession with safety in contemporary culture.

“Lukianoff and Haidt offer a variety of compelling explanations for the rise of the “safetyism” culture that so dominates elite colleges and, increasingly, much journalistic discourse along the lines of The Nation’s editorial note. One of the most intriguing ideas they present is the Australian psychologist Nick Haslam’s notion of “concept creep.” Haslam found that since the 1980s key concepts in clinical and social psychology, including abuse, bullying, trauma and prejudice, have expanded both “downward” and “outward” to apply to less severe circumstances and to take in novel phenomena. “By the early 2000s,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “the concept of ‘trauma’ within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything ‘experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful.'”

Where Egginton sees a threat to democracy in a polity insufficiently and unequally educated in the liberal tradition, Lukianoff and Haidt notice something unprecedented and a lot more frightening: a generation, including its most privileged and educated members – especially these members – that has been politically and socially “stunted” by a false and deepening belief in its own fragility. This is a generation engaged in a meritocratic “arms race” of epic proportions, that has racked up the most hours of homework (and screen time) in history but also the fewest ever of something so simple as unsupervised outdoor play. If that sounds trivial, it shouldn’t. “When adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, along with other social skills central to the making of good citizens capable of healthy compromise. Worse, the consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door – accessible from both the left and the right – to various forms of authoritarianism.”

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 5 September 2018 | 3:30 pm

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