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Amor Mundi: The Lesser Evil

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 Lesser Evil

An anonymous senior official in the Donald Trump administration has caused quite a kerfuffle. He or she has instigated a hunt for the source by the President and the press. Pundits either praise the anonymous figure for courage or condemn them for cowardice. Putting these mysteries and platitudes to the side, the anonymous oped hit upon one singular truth.

“The root of the problem is the president’s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”

The mob standards at the root of the Trump presidency are a great threat to the republic, which, for all its myriad failings, has always been inspired by ideals. While the United States too often falls short of being a city on the hill, the imagination of itself to be the land of equality and freedom lies at the root of most of its greatest accomplishments.

The oped calls attention to the “cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories” that drive the current President to reckless and damaging decisions. We are told to rest assured, that many in the administration are actively confounding the President and working assiduously to smooth out his rough edges. And the writer is to some degree right: thus far, President Trump has ceased to give in to autocratic impulses that clearly swirl in his breast.

The problem with the argument in the oped is that as the writer gives lip service to standards of morality, they justify their continued service in an administration that they believe to be morally bankrupt. Such a choice is founded upon the argument that collaboration by well-intentioned individuals is a lesser evil than resigning. Hannah Arendt considered the argument from the lesser evil when writing about the collaboration and cooperation of ordinary Germans with the Nazi regime. It should be clear that we are not now under a dictatorship, but an elected President limited by the separation of powers and a federalist dispersal of power. But the basic argument–that acceptance of lesser evils is a necessary evil–is a dangerous one. As Arendt reminds us:  “those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil.”

-Roger Berkowitz

Sacrificing Friends: When the Mob Wins I

“Ben Frisch opened his Feb. 14 pre-calculus class at Friends Seminary the same way that he opened all his classes over the course of his 34 years at the private Quaker school in Manhattan: with an invitation to his students to share anything that was on their minds, followed by the gentle ringing of a chime and a long moment of silence. He then introduced the day’s lesson, involving the calculating of angles of depression and elevation. Frisch straightened out his right arm to demonstrate. He lowered it down and then raised it up. Glancing at his arm, now fully extended and pointing slightly upward, Frisch realized something: He was inadvertently pantomiming the Nazi salute. Frisch is a practicing Quaker, but his father was Jewish, and two of his great-grandmothers were killed at Auschwitz. Mortified, he searched for some way to defuse the awkwardness of the moment. And then he said it: “Heil Hitler!”….

Even before Frisch’s termination, there was a feeling among some in the Friends community – parents, teachers and especially alumni – that in its race to keep pace with a changing city, the school was losing touch with the Quaker ethos that had long distinguished it. Perhaps inevitably, the fight over Frisch’s termination became a proxy battle in this larger war: Frisch was the only Quaker teacher in the high school. What is more, the manner in which the school fired him bore little resemblance to the Quaker decision-making process, which calls for the participation of the entire community in open dialogue. “What has made Friends a special school is the Quaker values, and that’s what has been broken in this process,” says Jacques Lilly, a longtime Friends parent. “What do you have if you don’t have those? You’ve got a nice, second-tier, expensive New York City private school. Why don’t you send your kids to Brearley instead?”

DAYS AFTER THE “Heil Hitler” incident, the administration gathered Friends’ 279 high schoolers in the meetinghouse to inform them that Frisch had been suspended. It was the first time that some students had heard about the incident, and a number were vocal about their view that it didn’t merit disciplinary action. “It got ugly pretty quickly,” recalls Abraham Levin, who was a senior at the time. One student pointed out that Lauder had uttered insensitive things, too: Just a few months earlier, while talking about the school’s fund-raising efforts, he said that all-girls schools typically have an easier time building their endowments, because men die younger and leave their money to their wives. (Lauder says that he was describing a phenomenon that was well known within the private-school community but that he should have been more careful in explaining it.) A few days later, Levin and a couple of his classmates taped a petition to Lauder’s door signed by 187 students, urging the school not to terminate Frisch. “We are petitioning because we are afraid the controversy surrounding Ben’s mistake will result in his firing, and we believe this would be an immense loss for our community that would only increase the upset within the student body and faculty,” it read. “We understand that there are likely others with more influence who are pushing you in the opposite direction, but we hope this petition will encourage you to consider our perspective.”

Word of the firing spread quickly over spring break, and when classes resumed in late March the school erupted in protest. Students were angry that they had no voice in the process and that the school had not shared with them any details of the other “equally troubling incidents” that informed its decision. They staged a sit-in that spilled out of Lauder’s office and into the hallway outside and walked out of meetings for worship carrying protest signs: “Free Ben Frisch,” “Make Friends Quaker Again,” “Bo Chi Minh.” Students wore “Bring Back Ben” buttons around campus and reflected on the case in classroom essays, applying the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi to Frisch’s situation and comparing the fight on his behalf to the Dakota Pipeline protest at Standing Rock. In a commencement address, the senior Benjamin Levine offered a thinly veiled critique of the administration: “It’s so much easier and simpler to decide someone is racist or ignorant or naïve – or anti-Semitic – than to engage in the messy work of trying to communicate and understand when conflicts arise.”

De-Published: When the Mob Wins II

The mathematician Theodore Hill describes how his paper has twice been accepted for publication by mathematics journals and then, once published, been de-published because of political criticism

“In my 40 years of publishing research papers I had never heard of the rejection of an already-accepted paper. And so I emailed Professor Senechal. She replied that she had received no criticisms on scientific grounds and that her decision to rescind was entirely about the reaction she feared our paper would elicit. By way of further explanation, Senechal even compared our paper to the Confederate statues that had recently been removed from the courthouse lawn in Lexington, Kentucky. In the interests of setting our arguments in a more responsible context, she proposed instead that Sergei and I participate in a ‘Round Table’ discussion of our hypothesis argument, the proceedings of which the Intelligence would publish in lieu of our paper. Her decision, we learned, enjoyed the approval of Springer, one of the world’s leading publishers of scientific books and journals. An editorial director of Springer Mathematics later apologized to me twice, in person, but did nothing to reverse the decision or to support us at the time.”

Putting Pressure on an Argument

David Remnick, an editor of The New Yorker, invited Steve Bannon to be interviewed at The New Yorker Ideas Festival. Within hours, Twitter offered its verdict and numerous celebrities threatened to pull out of the event if Bannon were included. Leave aside the fact that celebrities offer little to a festival of ideas. Remnick backtracked and disinvited Bannon. He then published a letter explaining his actions.

Remnick’s letter is an eloquent defense of the importance of interviewing figures like Bannon: “This isn’t a First Amendment question; it’s a question of putting pressure on a set of arguments and prejudices that have influenced our politics and a President still in office.” And yet, after making the argument for including Bannon in the festival of ideas, Remnick abruptly reverses himself and says he has changed his mind. “I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns.” Well-meaning readers and staff members have prevailed, but Remnick never explains why. You can read his letter here.

-Roger Berkowitz

Let Them Say "They"

John McWhorter has trouble referring to individuals in the plural “they.” But McWhorter, a linguist, argues that the plural use of they has a long and storied history in English. He thus concludes that the use of “they” to refer in a non-gendered way to singular persons is a justifiable and meaningful linguistic solution to a social dilemma.

“Quite a few of us, in fact, harbor a distinctly unnatural resistance to a related usage of they, which was until recently the one for which it usually made news. Tell each student they can hand in their paper at the front office. We are told that this sentence is incorrect because they can only refer to the plural. The proper user of English is to either use he to refer to both genders, to toggle self-consciously between he and she, or, in writing, to use little (and unpronounceable) monstrosities like he/she.

Adjusting ourselves to the supposed naturalness of these backdoor fixes, we tend to miss that English speakers have been using they in the singular since English was anything we’d recognize as English. Back in Middle English, the Sir Amadace tale includes, “Each man in their degree.” The Bard has Antipholus of Syracuse in Comedy of Errors chirp, “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As I were their well-acquainted friend.” Thackeray has Rosalind toss off in Vanity Fair, “A person can’t help their birth.” Whence the idea that all of these people were butchering the language?

It was the schoolteacher and writer Anne Fisher whose English primer of 1745 began the notion that it’s somehow bad to use they in the plural and that hestands for both men and women. Grammarians of Fisher’s day tended to believe that real languages should pattern themselves after Latin and Ancient Greek, in which the words for they happened not to have experienced such developments.

But grammarians then knew less about how much language varies worldwide, and also operated under a quaint sense that the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome were inherently superior to the European ones that emerged later. The simple fact is that they in English has always operated differently from they in Latin, and trying the narrow the gap between the two makes no more sense than deciding that English’s definite articles need to operate like the ones in Arabic or Hebrew.As such, the objection “‘They’ is plural,” as if cast in stone on a Roman edifice, doesn’t go through unless Anne Fisher is granted some godly status, which few would be inclined to do despite her tart brilliance. Nevertheless, if the past is any guide, many will insist on making the effort not to use the relatively novel form of the singular they-at least in print, and maybe even in speech-despite how naturally other uses of the singular they tends to fall out of our mouths, just as it fell out of the mouths of medievals, Elizabethans, and Victorians. We are no strangers to using they in ways that require a bit of forethought and practice-so why not one more?

The Destructive Power of Lies

Stanislaw Aronson survived the War Ghetto. Now, ninety-three years old, he is warning us about the “destructive power of lies.

“Third, do not underestimate the destructive power of lies. When the war broke out in 1939, my family fled east and settled for a couple of years in Soviet-occupied Lwów (now Lviv in western Ukraine). The city was full of refugees, and rumours were swirling about mass deportations to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. To calm the situation, a Soviet official gave a speech declaring that the rumours were false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be arrested. Two days later, the deportations to the gulags began, with thousands sent to their deaths.

Those people and millions of others, including my immediate family, were killed by lies. My country and much of the continent was destroyed by lies. And now lies threaten not only the memory of those times, but also the achievements that have been made since. Today’s generation doesn’t have the luxury of being able to argue that it was never warned or did not understand the consequences of where lies will take you.

Confronting lies sometimes means confronting difficult truths about one’s self and one’s own country. It is much easier to forgive yourself and condemn another, than the other way round; but this is something that everyone must do. I have made my peace with modern Germany, and hope that all Europeans can do the same.

Finally, do not ever imagine that your world cannot collapse, as ours did. This may seem the most obvious lesson to be passed down, but only because it is the most important. One moment I was enjoying an idyllic adolescence in my home city of Lodz, and the next we were on the run. I would only return to my empty home five years later, no longer a carefree boy but a Holocaust survivor and Home Army veteran living in fear of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. I ended up moving to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, fighting in a war of independence for a Jewish homeland I didn’t even know I had.”

A Testament to Neglect  

Ed Yong meditates on the tragic fire in Rio de Janeiro that destroyed the entirety of the Brazilian National Museum.

“In 1784, a Brazilian boy who was looking for a lost cow found a gigantic meteorite instead. The 11,600-pound rock was so cumbersome to transport that it took people almost a century to get it to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, where it has since been on proud display. And having once survived the heat of falling through the atmosphere, the Bendegó meteorite also seems to have survived the fire that tore through the museum on Sunday evening, destroying an as-yet-unquantified proportion of its 20 million specimens.

Looking at pictures of the meteorite, as it stands intact on its pedestal amid the surrounding wreckage, I’m reminded of the final lines of Ozymandias: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/ The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Just as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem was about the consequences of hubris, the museum’s ruins could be seen as a testament to neglect. The burned building was the largest natural-history museum in Latin America, but it had never been completely renovated in its 200-year history. It had long suffered from obvious infrastructure problems including leaks, termite infestations, and-crucially-no working sprinkler system. Recognizing these problems in the 1990s, museum staff began planning to move the collection into a different site, but without stable funding, those plans proceeded in fits and starts.

Over the past five years, the museum faced severe cuts and didn’t even receive its full allotted funds from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. It was recently forced to crowdfund money to repair the termite-damaged base of one of its grandest mounted dinosaurs. “For many years, we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, the museum’s deputy director, has said.”

Conversion Camps

Unparalleled surveillance, mass detentions, and brainwashings–all directed at members of a religious minority. What is going on in China is hard to sugar coat. Uighur Muslims are being arrested for being Muslim, put into camps, and forced to assimilate into more Chinese ways of being. AS Chris Buckley reports, “The goal is to remove any devotion to Islam.”

“After a succession of violent antigovernment attacks reached a peak in 2014, the Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping, sharply escalated the crackdown, orchestrating an unforgiving drive to turn ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities into loyal citizens and supporters of the party.

“Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, intense struggle against separatism and painful intervention to treat this,” Mr. Xi told officials, according to reports in the state news media last year.

In addition to the mass detentions, the authorities have intensified the use of informers and expanded police surveillance, even installing cameras in some people’s homes. Human rights activists and experts say the campaign has traumatized Uighur society, leaving behind fractured communities and families.

“Penetration of everyday life is almost really total now,” said Michael Clarke, an expert on Xinjiang at Australian National University in Canberra. “You have ethnic identity, Uighur identity in particular, being singled out as this kind of pathology.””

Posted on 11 September 2018 | 2:02 pm

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