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Amor Mundi: The Banality of the Elite

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 Banality of the Elite

Meagan Day watched the Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testimony as so many of us did. What struck her about Kavanaugh was not his anger, not his privilege, and not his masculinity. Instead, Day saw in Kavanaugh the banality of the elite.

“The masters of the universe, it turns out, are losers.

The Brett Kavanaugh hearing was a kaleidoscope of family and God and prestigious clerkships spliced with boofing and ralphing and brewskis. It was a thorough dressing-down. In the end, one was left with the impression of an unremarkable guy who was born on a conveyor belt to power, without much obligation to distinguish himself from his peers. On the contrary, his success was relatively guaranteed on the condition that he didn’t distinguish himself from them, that he simply play nice with the fellas – and not necessarily so nice with women – from prep school to the Ivy League to the White House and beyond.

What struck me most about yesterday’s hearing, cutting through Kavanaugh’s tone-deaf retorts and indignant whinging and his frequent professions of love for beer, is how utterly ordinary he is. This guy is juvenile, arrogant, sexist – and very familiar. It pointed to a larger truth: the people running the show are callous and dangerous, but they’re also astonishingly average. They have no irreplaceable qualities or insights that would oblige us to put up with their bullshit. They would hate for us to realize this….

Kavanaugh is probably guilty of sexual assault. That’s my read, after reviewing the available testimonies and also thirty years of experience with people. But what’s really sticking for me isn’t the exceptional brutality of powerful men – the cruelty of Kavanaugh or his prep-school friends or of the fulminating Republicans who protested his mistreatment yesterday, referring to the investigation of sexual abuse allegations against a Supreme Court nominee as “unfair” and “innuendo.” No, it’s not their monstrosity that stands out. It’s their ordinary pettiness, their desperate desire to impress each other and, when the shit hits the fan, to save face together.”

Day is right. Kavanaugh is not a diabolical monster. As an adult, he is likely not someone who hates or demeans women. There is plenty of evidence that he has been a staunch supporter of professional women. It is important to move past the easy demonization of Kavanaugh and see him as he is.

Assuming that Kavanaugh did sexually assault Ford when he was 17 and she was 15, and assuming that he may not fully remember having done so, his most meaningful sin is not hearing her out and then not owning up to what he may very well have done. First, Kavanaugh denied the real possibility that he might have assaulted Blasey Ford during one of his drunken benders. Second, he ignored for weeks the undeniable fact that he had profoundly scarred a young woman. While the assault was clearly awful for Ford, we cannot simply condemn Kavanaugh for awful behavior committed three decades ago when he was in high school. From the present, however,  it was the dishonest cover-up by the adult Kavanaugh that is worse than the crime of the juvenile. The refusal to confront what he very well may have done reveals a fundamental cowardice.

Kavanaugh’s shallow and superficial effort to preserve his good name at the expense of honesty, empathy, and integrity is what marks his banality. The point is that Kavanaugh’s past is similar to his present. He appears to have had a highly problematic relationship to alcohol and to women. He was a political hack distinguished above all for his loyalty and ideological clarity. His political jobs were highly partisan, depending on cunning and ruthlessness rather than nuance and thoughtfulness. He rose to the top of the Federalist Society’s lists not because he sought to understand legal complexity but because he excelled at marshaling arguments to support ideological dogmas. In his banality, Kavanaugh sadly reflects the governing elites of our time.

In the end, Day rightly sees that Kavanaugh is distinguished by his utter ordinariness. That ordinariness is no excuse for what he has done. It is, rather, a factual observation about someone who having been nominated to the highest legal court in the land reacted to a credible and heartfelt accusation with self-pity and venom.

In reflecting on what she called the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt saw that such banality flows not from a monstrous evil but from a shallow attachment to an ideology that prevents one from thinking clearly.

Arendt posited that what allowed Adolf Eichmann to do and to justify horrific deeds was his unthinking belief in an ideology. I want to be clear: Kavanaugh is not at all a Nazi or a racist and he should not be compared to Eichmann, except in one regard. Across the corridors the power we see people in both parties like Kavanaugh, those who justify what they know is wrong by their ideological commitments.

Arendt saw in Eichmann during his trial very much what Day sees in Kavanaugh during the hearings: a normal person. Arendt reported on the disturbing fact that struck her-and many others, including the Israeli judges-that Eichmann was decidedly average. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were terribly and terrifyingly normal.” The evil of Eichmann’s deeds was indisputable, and Arendt is fully convinced he should be hanged for his crimes. Yet, notwithstanding what he had done, Eichmann’s motivations seemed to her to be grounded in typical bourgeois drives. He was ambitious. He sought the recognition that came from success and the affirmation that flowed from belonging to a movement. He was, she concluded, not a monster, not stupid, but thoughtless. And it was this “absence of thinking-which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think”-that Arendt came to see as the dangerous wellspring of evil in modern times.

When Arendt calls Eichmann thoughtless and banal, she means that the decisive “flaw in Eichmann’s character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” Eichmann was not stupid. He in fact was quite skilled at working within the Nazi administrative hierarchy to enlist resources, develop creative solutions, and convince superiors to aid him in his assigned tasks. His banality was not stupidity. But it does have an element of what Arendt calls “Dumbness.” Here is how she explains Eichmann’s banality and thoughtlessness to the journalist Joachim Fest:

During the war Ernst Jünger comes across some German peasants and the peasant had just seen Russian prisoners coming out of the camps, of course completely starved, and the peasant says to Jünger: “Ja, one can see clearly that these are sub-humans-like cattle: They eat the pigs’ food.” You see, this story has an outrageous dumbness. The man does not see that that is what people do who have been starved, isn’t that true, and everyone does it. This dumbness has something really revolting. Eichmann was very intelligent, but he had this dumbness. And that is what I actually meant by banality. There is no depth-this is not demonic! This is simply an unwillingness to even imagine what is actually up with another-is not it.

Eichmann’s failure to think was a failure of imagination, a failure to see humanity in others, and a failure to see outside his own blinkered worldview. His thoughtlessness made Eichmann blind to the basic human fact of plurality. That is why Arendt’s final judgment of Eichmann is that he must be hanged and expelled from the earth.

Such a failure to think from the perspective of others, such dumbness, is what allowed Eichmann to confide in and seek understanding from his Israeli interrogator, Avner Less. It is also what allowed Eichmann to justify the extermination camps to himself with the cliché that it was war between the races and the self-serving justification that the Jews would have done the same thing to Nazis. It was his incapacity to see from the perspective of others the insanity of his ideological convictions that Arendt called his inability to think. It is this thoughtlessness, Arendt argues, that allowed Eichmann and people like him to carry out one of the greatest crimes in history.

I want to repeat that what Kavanaugh is accused of is not anything like what Eichmann did. Kavanaugh is not an Eichmann. But to watch the hearings is to be struck by Kavanaugh’s utter lack of imagination of the world from the perspective of Blasey Ford and others. True, his daughter did pray for Blasey Ford, and Kavanaugh did say that he wishes her well. But his overriding posture was one of complete self-justification. In spite of testimony to the opposite, he repeated he had never blacked out and never drank to excess. He denied the obvious meanings of words he had used in his yearbook. While at times he was human and vulnerable, most of the time he was wooden and menacingly inhabiting the character of someone who seemed unwilling to admit that his mistakes. When the New York Timesfact-checked his testimony, it found “the image of a skilled lawyer who, when pressed on difficult subjects, sometimes crafted responses that were misleading, disputed or off point.”

The question hanging over the hearings is, what would have happened had Kavanaugh, from the beginning, admitted that while he may not remember assaulting Blasey Ford, he realizes he might have given his juvenile behavior and sought to apologize and make amends. Such an attitude would have shown the kind of thoughtful man of integrity that Kavanaugh wants himself to be but shows himself to be not.

The Kavanaugh hearings seem to be a turning point in our world. Women and men who were victims of sexual assaults are once again expressing their traumas. We are demanding accountability for boorish and illegal crimes. This is a step forward.

But what is not yet happening is that we are not yet demanding that we embrace depth over ordinariness. In a world governed by professional elites who claim the authority to govern based on facility with statistics and doctrine, it is time to realize that those whom Arendt called the “problem solvers” are distinguished, above all, in their preference for calculation over thinking. Might it finally be time to turn away from the elites who continue to assert their right to rule in spite of the overwhelming proof of their superficiality and banality.

-Roger Berkowitz

The New York Review of Books published three essays on gender politics in its recent issue. One was by Ghomeshi, who had been accused of a truly disturbing variety of sexual harassments by 23 different women. Six years later, he has written about his experiences. There was a time when essays by criminals were in vogue for what they revealed about the criminal mind as well as what lessons of remorse. Ghomeshi was actually acquitted, but he admitted in his essay serious shortcomings and owned awful behavior. At the same time, he insisted that much of what he was accused of in the world of social media was wrong or unfair or both. He offered an account of his experiences, at times painfully self-justificatory, and at times illuminating.

For the act of publishing his essay and then defending that judgment in public, the editor of the New York Review of Books Ian Buruma was forced to resign. According to Buruma, Rea S. Hederman,  the publisher of the distinguished journal, was worried about the potential loss of advertising by academic presses. Such is the cowardice of our times.

People are scared, not because they have done things that are criminal, but that if they utter the wrong opinion or tweet the wrong tweet, they will be ostracized, fired, and ruined. We are, Sullivan argues, living through a moment of social terror in which the punishment is not the guillotine, but branding via hashtags.

-Roger Berkowitz

Masculine Discontents

The lessons to draw from the testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford are contested. Rightly, most of the focus is on the way women are actively claiming their public voice around questions of sexuality. Another theme concerns the state of masculinity today. Some saw in Kavanaugh’s rage, his sense of betrayal, his shock at having something he wants desperately slip from his grasp, an expression of male privilege and toxic masculinity. For others, Kavanaugh stood his ground, refused to be cowed by unproven accusations, and defended himself like a man in an age where few men have such courage. In thinking about the contested terrain of masculinity, Arlie Hochschild offers a map to the “discontents of male identity.”

“A recent book not mentioned by Carlson, The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It, by Warren Farrell and John Gray, gives another set of such statistics. In high school, boys receive 70 percent of Ds and Fs, are more likely than girls to be suspended, and are less likely to graduate or be chosen as class valedictorian (70 percent of whom are girls). Other research shows that boys are less likely to enjoy school or think grades are important.1

Carlson complained that the media have been silent about these problems. He blamed this on public figures who he thinks focus too much on women: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the faculties of “liberal” university-based gender studies programs. (Carlson’s series ran during Women’s History Month.) In support of this view, he consulted the provocative and popular University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who insisted that any talk of “equity, diversity, inclusivity” should be considered “indoctrination” and reason to withdraw a boy from any school with a curriculum in which such words appear. Manhood, both Carlson and Peterson have suggested, is something that liberals disparage and conservatives protect.

Carlson omitted to say that, as of 2016, women earn 80.5 cents to every dollar a man earns for year-round full-time work (a gap that increases as level of education rises), and that two thirds of minimum-wage workers are women. Men’s college enrollment is still on the rise-that is, relative to female BA-holders, males have declined since 1970, but relative to their male counterparts in 1970, a higher proportion of men hold BAs today. Carlson also largely ignored differences in class and race that exacerbate those of gender. As the MIT labor economist David Autor and his coauthors found in a study of Florida brother-sister pairs, the gender gap in school performance is wider among the poor than the rich. Boys born to mothers with lower education and income got lower grades, relative to their sisters, than boys born to more highly educated and affluent mothers.

Still, we can’t dismiss such statistics as a hyperbolic reaction to feminism. In the last three decades, the lives of men have undergone what Autor and coauthor Melanie Wasserman have called a “tectonic shift.” Compared to women, a shrinking proportion of men are earning BAs, even though more jobs than ever require a college degree, including many entry-level positions that used to require only a high school diploma. Among men between twenty-five and thirty-four, 30 percent now have a BA or more, while 38 percent of women in that age range do.”

An Enemy of the People

David Margolick recalls Jerry Dhonau who died recently. Dhonau made a small bit of history when he and other journalists formed a cordon to protect 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford from a racist mob near Little Rock Central High School on the morning of Sept. 4, 1957. Dhonau had been remembered in an obituary in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. But the paper left out an important part of the story-that for what he had done, Dhonau was harassed and threatened as “an enemy of the people.”

“That was when Mr. Dhonau and a small group of reporters and cameramen – Mr. Fine, Ray Moseley of The Gazette, Paul Welch of Life and a couple of others – formed an informal cordon around Ms. Eckford. A photograph of them, far less famous than the one of Ms. Eckford negotiating the mob a few minutes earlier (both taken by Will Counts of The Arkansas Democrat), captured the scene.

In it, Mr. Dhonau, a lanky young man in a suit, stands near the bench, writing in his notebook. He and Mr. Fine, wearing a bow tie, were hardly intimidating. Still, they were two points in the makeshift line that, for whatever reason, none of Ms. Eckford’s tormentors dared cross.

Afterward, Mr. Dhonau reproached himself for what he had done. “The only time I lost my objectivity,” he said. Gene Foreman, another former Gazette colleague and later the editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, thinks he was being too hard on himself. “His was a passive act, as opposed to Fine’s active intervention,” said Mr. Foreman, author of a textbook on journalistic ethics.

To some that day, Mr. Dhonau and his ilk were very much “enemies of the people.” Members of the mob tried toppling the telephone booths from which he and other reporters were transmitting what they had just seen to the rest of the world.

That night, Mr. Dhonau received angry, anonymous phone calls. And twice the F.B.I. awakened him – not to ask him what had happened that day, but to find out whether the Times reporter had indeed egged on the crowd, as some locals had claimed.”

The Public Good

The Financial firm Standard & Poor’s has published a study “warning that growing public retirement debt is likely going to continue to eat up public funds that would otherwise go to providing services to taxpayers.”  The report concludes: “As we expect these costs to continue to rise in the near term, we likewise expect to see growing pressure on other priority services such as public safety and public works, absent revenue growth from tax hikes or the identification of new revenue streams.” Cole Lauterbach reports that “Growing pension costs could even make it more difficult for cities to come up with money for infrastructure projects, such as road improvements.”

Along with social security, pensions have become a vital part of the safety net that allows retired persons to live a secure life in their old age. The rise of private and public pension plans in the 20th century was a huge factor behind the growth in the middle class. The recent turn away from defined-income pensions plans that pay out a set yearly amount and the turn toward defined-contribution plans that pay-in a certain amount and pay-out only what is available has been a huge hit to middle class retirees. In the private sector, the question of how best to structure pensions and provide for retirement is important. But in the public sector, questions over pensions go to the very heart of our democratic politics.

On the one hand, democracies value public workers greatly. These persons work for us, the citizens, and provide public services. It is only right to reward these workers. Since they often earn less in salary than their private sector colleagues, these teachers, firefighters, and police persons are frequently granted generous pensions.

The problem Cole Lauterbach raises, however, is that as pension obligations grow, cities, towns, and states are being confronted with a choice. Should they choose to maintain those pensions which are often underfunded by current contributions, they must either raise taxes or cut services. At a time when raising taxes is nearly impossible, the increasing pension deficits for public employees threatens to hollow out public services in our country.

-Roger Berkowitz

Quote of the Week

Read the full article here.

Here on Earth, or the Erotics of Learning

     When I was first asked to participate in this conference, the event was called “Hannah Arendt and The Crisis of Education.” Shortly afterward, as the concept developed, the name was changed to “Can Education Save Politics?” After that it was called “What Is an Educated Citizen?” Later it became “Failing Fast: The Crisis of Education” and now, finally (since it is under way), its name is “Failing Fast: The Educated Citizen in Crisis.” Since I am not qualified to discuss the subsequent titles, I will, with your permission, say a few words about Hannah Arendt and her essay “The Crisis in Education.”
     First I owe you an explanation as to why I find myself ill equipped to address the other titles. They all, more or less, call for educational reform aimed at improving citizenship, and in this country specifically, the recent history of educational reform has been pretty dismal. In her essay on education, Arendt discusses in some detail the general failure of experiments in modern or progressive education and pragmatic pedagogy to introduce children into a common world, that is, a world that lies between plural individuals, relating them to each other and keeping them distinct from each other. As children, their first steps into this world are supervised and secured by their parents and teachers; later, as educated adults, they will be equally responsible with their peers for the durability and continuity of their common world. To Arendt, this is where education leads, and we may recall that the word educationderives ultimately from the Latin verb educere, which means to lead, as does the word for bringing up, educa¯re. Similarly, pedagogy, the art of teaching, derives from the Greek paed-agein, meaning to lead the young. It is of some interest, I believe, that what we think of as “teaching” derives from Greek and Latin verbs meaning “to lead.”
From an essay published in The Journal of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Volume III. Read the complete essay here.

Video Feature

From the archives of our Virtual Reading Group, Roger Berkowitz discusses an important essay from the collection Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt

Introduction to

Posted on 30 September 2018 | 11:15 am

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